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How to expose your child to a second language at an early age

Canada has a great multicultural environment. And that means there is a variety of second languages your children have the opportunity to learn.

Skills for life
French class

It is often easier for humans to learn language skills at a younger age, so get your kids started early.

Why a second language?

Studies have shown that bilingual children have advantages over unilingual children in areas such as metalinguistic awareness, creativity and the ability to control linguistic processing. It’s important to note, however, that these advantages were noticed in children who had advanced proficiency in two languages. Meaning, learning how to count to 10 in Spanish from Dora the Explorer won’t yield that much benefit. If you want your children to reap all the rewards of knowing two languages, you’ll need to work at getting them familiar with both. Kendall King and Alison Mackey, professors of linguistics at Georgetown University, bring their insights to the table in their book The Bilingual Edge: Why, When and How to Teach Your Child a Second Language. The book offers some great advice on how you can get your little ones excelling at their language skills.

Just talk

According to King and Mackey, “Children learn language through daily contacts, emotional bonds, and everyday interactions with their caregivers.” Just speaking with your children in a second language can help them latch on to patterns and meanings over time. And as they start to grasp certain aspects of that language, you will naturally begin to increase the difficulty, and advanced learning can take place. The words they hear organically in their day-to-day lives are what stick with them the most, so simply creating a bilingual atmosphere at home is especially helpful. This is easy to do if you speak the language yourself, but if you don’t, there’s no reason to give up. Consider hiring a babysitter or nanny who speaks the language, and ask him or her to speak the majority of the time with your child in that language. Or if you have a friend or family member who speaks it, ask them to interact with your child in the other language the next time they’re over. And of course, enrolling your child in a bilingual daycare or school system when the time comes will ensure he or she spends most of the day working on that second language.

Have fun

Here’s a question for you: When learning the majority of your first language skills, did you sit down and repeat verb conjugations to yourself? Not likely. Your first language was taught through everyday life. Just witnessing a child’s eyes light up when he or she repeats something correctly is indication enough that learning a language is fun and uncomplicated for little ones. And it’s completely possible to have that joy stretch over into second language learning. You don’t have to carve out a huge chunk of your day and dedicate it to language skills. Just by pointing to an item, saying it in the other language and then applauding your child when they repeat it correctly is effective. You can also grab some beginner children’s books in the selected language. Even if your comfort level with the language is minimal, you’ll enjoy reading some basic board books out loud with your child. Another idea is to learn a song or two in the second language and practice it with your little one. Fill your day with fun conversation, encouragement and congratulations, and your child will be learning and having fun all along the way.

Target learning to your child

The learning process is different for every family as well as the children involved. You may not speak a word of the second language you’re hoping to teach your child, or it may actually be your first language and you’re struggling to make sure your child learns both languages efficiently. Balancing a first and second language can be tricky at times, so don’t hesitate to read The Bilingual Edge to get a better sense of what will work best for you and your child.

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