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Growing up Multilingual

Chances are a child will never grow up and say, “I really regret that my parents made me learn a second language.” In fact, they will probably thank you for encouraging them to learn multiple languages at a time in their life when it was easiest for them to do it. According to recent research and language experts, the earlier a new language is introduced to a child, the easier it is for that child to attain native-like language proficiency.


“The rule of thumb is the earlier the better,” said Tracey Tokuhama-Espinosa, author of the book, Raising Multilingual Children. “We know that children who are brought up bilingual from birth do not have accents and actually treat both their languages as ‘first’ languages, which has a lot of benefits.”


Economic, social, and educational benefits are just a few of the reasons given as to why children should learn more than their first language. And the families who are teaching their children multiple languages are passionate about the choice they have made to raise a multilingual family.


Expert advice from a multilingual mother


“When we made the decision to raise our children multilingually it was based primarily on giving them opportunities,” says Tokuhama-Espinosa, a professor of Education and Neuropsychology at the Universidad San Francisco de Quito in Ecuador. “Languages open doors to cultures, jobs and intellectual insights.” Tokuhama-Espinosa is a mother of three children who were raised in English, Spanish, German and French. Her book examines how children learn foreign languages, how the best results are reached, and gives encouragement and methodology for parents and teachers who are working to raise multilingual children.


The benefits to extended working memory in speaking multiple languages is another reason Tokuhama-Espinosa gives for teaching a child a first, second, or third language. “Working memory” is the memory system that relates to a present task and coordinates the recall of memory that is necessary to finish the task.


Tokuhama-Espinosa also says families should consider the benefits that come from the connection between learning a language and an increased global understanding. “Around the world second, third and even fourth languages are the norm in education,” says Tokuhama-Espinosa. “Unfortunately, in the U.S. we have been slower to get on the bandwagon.”


Writing and raising bilingually


Celina Penovi, mother of four and an Argentine poet and storyteller, has taken her own enthusiasm for raising a bilingual family and turned it into books that parents can use to help their children embrace both Spanish and English. Penovi, shown with her family at left, published three Spanish/English children’s storybooks that she hopes parents will use to interact with their children to learn both languages through the colorful illustrations, bilingual rhyming verse, and activities that are designed to engage families in thoughtful learning (kidspoemas.com).


Penovi has actively worked to teach her children Spanish in addition to English. Spanish is spoken at home, and they are enrolled in a Spanish immersion school to help maintain their language skills. Even if parents are not native speakers of the language they would like to introduce, Penovi encourages them to teach their child a second language.


Plunge right in


“Do not hesitate whatsoever because you don’t know a second language,” said Penovi. “Just because you did not have the opportunity, does not mean your child should not have the opportunity. Many immersion classes will offer classes for parents. Or let your child be your teacher and bond with them over it.”


Penovi offers several suggestions from her own experience for parents who are considering a multilingual family, including looking for an immersion program and community support where kids can go and be surrounded by other kids that speak the language. She also suggests befriending someone that speaks the language and setting an informal time to speak together, like dinner. Traveling to countries where the language is spoken and hosting an exchange student who is a native speaker are other ways parents can work to incorporate a second language into their child’s life.


“I live in a community where many people are aware of the importance of different languages,” said Penovi. “By speaking more than one language, children become more rounded thinkers.”

How can you learn multiple languages locally? Read on here.