Digging into Dual Language
Orange County, like many metropolitan areas in the United States, is becoming a true melting pot of culture and language. Almost half of all OC residents over age five speak a language other than English at home (Children & Families Commission of Orange County, 2015). In this increasingly diverse society, youngsters have a growing potential to excel when it comes to being dual language learners—but many parents have questions about the subject. Whether it is Spanish, Vietnamese, Farsi, Korean or another language, MOMS Orange County’s educators are often asked by parents of infants and toddlers, “am I doing my baby a disservice by speaking to him in my native language only? When is the right time to introduce English?”
Here are 5 important tips to keep in mind to help your child excel in English – as well as your home language:
- Start early. The brain of a baby is an amazing thing—studies have shown that babies can tell the difference between about 800 sounds. This means even at this early stage, infants can learn any language they are exposed to. Over time, babies recognize which sounds they are hearing the most, and by their first birthday, monolingual infants can start to lose their ability to hear the differences between foreign language sounds. Research also shows that during the infant-toddler years, the brain has extensive capacity to separate each language and the appropriate context—such as saying “water” to one grandma and “agua” to the other grandma.
- Sing, talk, play. No matter what language you speak, it is essential to fill your home with words. From day one, babies learn best through interactions, and their language skills grow through simple things like looking and listening. Sing to your baby, talk to your baby, and read to your baby each and every day. At MOMS Orange County, we even encourage our families to sing, talk and read to their babies before they are born.
- Maintain a bilingual household. From birth to third grade, these years are the critical timeframe for developing mastery of the sounds, structure, and functions of language. Research on children who learn English after their home language has been established – usually around age three – has shown that most young children are capable of adding a second language during the PreK – 3rd grade years. So this is an ideal time to expose children to the long-term cognitive, cultural and economic benefits of two languages (and there are many!).
- The benefits are big. Research has conclusively shown that learning two or more languages is associated with many academic, social, cultural, and economic benefits. The advantages of having a dual language learner are huge—including cognitive flexibility and multicultural awareness. Bilingual adults and children show improved executive functioning, where they are able to switch between tasks and even solve problems more easily. Bilinguals have also been found to have increased metalinguistic skills, and it is even thought to protect against cognitive decline with aging and the onset of Alzheimer’s disease.
- Language acquisition is complex. Keep in mind there are endless factors that influence how children learn English, including the socioeconomic circumstances of the family, the age of the child and their exposure to English, fluency in the home language, and the values and customs of the family.
So, enjoy your little one as they explore and eventually master two (or more!) languages in a diverse, and ever-changing society. Surround them with rich language experiences, both in English and in your home language. With support from educators, neighbors, and friends in your community, this adventure will pave the path for opportunities you may not have even dreamed of for your child. And someday, they’ll say “merci,” “gracias” or “xièxiè.”
Pamela Pimentel, RN, CEO of MOMS Orange County, has spent 40 years helping at-risk mothers have healthy babies through providing access to prenatal care, health screenings, infant development screenings, health education and referral services through monthly home visits and group classes. www.momsorangecounty.org