Raising a Bilingual on a Budget

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In a recent study from Concordia University, researchers asked five- and six-year-old monolingual and bilingual children questions like whether ducks raised by dogs would act like ducks or like dogs.  More bilingual than monolingual kids said the ducks would act like dogs – which, to the researchers, indicates that bilingual children are more open-minded than their monolingual peers.

It’s good news for me, since my son is growing up in a bilingual home.  But I think it’s important to remember (as the university’s announcement (quietly) says), that these traits aren’t exclusive to bilingual children.  There are all sorts of kids who think all sorts of ways; being bilingual isn’t a prerequisite for open-mindedness and creativity.

That said, there are a lot of benefits of being bilingual or multilingual.  But what if your family doesn’t speak more than one language?  Or what if you can’t afford language lessons or a bilingual school for your kids?  It doesn’t mean you can’t give them the gift of fluency in a foreign language at an early age.  Here are some ways to encourage bilingualism or multilingualism in your child, even if you have a monolingual home or small budget:

1. Find or set up a language exchange group.  One of the best ways to really learn a foreign language is to actually talk to and interact with native speakers.  For kids, this could translate to playgroups.  Check with your school or daycare center to see if they know of a bilingual or multilingual playgroup in the area, or do an online search.  And if you don’t find one, you can try to set one up yourself (here’s some good advice to help you get started).  Post flyers in places like those aforementioned daycare centers and schools (if allowed), as well as your local library, town hall, etc. Or go online: sites like meetup.com let you create and organize any kind of group you can think of.  Of course, however you find your group, always be safe – be sure to meet in a public place, and never leave your kid(s) alone with someone you don’t trust.

2. Check your address book.  You may have a friend, acquaintance, or even distant relative who speaks a foreign language.  Get in touch with them to see if they know of any families from their culture who’d be interested in doing a language exchange.  Or, if you’re close with the person and you think they might be interested, see if they’d like to come over and watch or play with your kid(s) — while speaking their native language – on a regular basis.

3. Use media, but don’t count on it.  Studies have shown that TV shows alone can’t teach kids under 3 to speak a language – even their native one: babies and toddlers need interaction to acquire language skills. For older kids, though, TV shows, movies, games, music, picture books, and other media could be a great way to reinforce and strengthen language skills, especially if you’re doing one of the other things on this list or your kids are learning a foreign language in school.  And adding this fun context could make your children excited and more willing to learn and use their new language.

Don’t feel overwhelmed or intimidated: becoming fluent in a foreign language is rarely, if ever, easy, no matter what resources you have.  But it is a possibility for anyone.

By Alysa Salzberg

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