Teaching kids to speak - in two languages

When four-year-old Sundaram Mishra asks to hear an Indian gana, his father, Upendra, beams and pops a cassette of Indian songs into the car stereo.

Upendra Mishra and his wife had no trouble deciding to raise Sundaram and their daughter, Malvika, to speak Hindi and English. But like thousands of other parents in the United States, the Mishras often wrestle with how best to achieve their goal.

"There are many reasons I want them to be bilingual. I was born in India and I speak Hindi. I want our children to continue that tradition," says Upendra Mishra, a resident of Weston, Mass. "My family only speaks Hindi. And learning a different language is a big asset in their future development."

Many parents who don't share a native language hope to pass their respective traditions on to children. Educators are generally supportive of the effort, citing family and even professional benefits. But they warn of challenges. Children may face teasing or isolation from peers, making them more reluctant to use a parent's native language. And parents must be alert to ensure that their children master English.

Mishra says that while his children understand Hindi, they are still reluctant to speak the language, despite his and his wife's relentless efforts.

Perseverance is a key issue. "If parents wish their child to be bilingual, they must constantly work the second language into the child's everyday life," says Kathleen McClure, a graduate of Columbia Teacher's College in New York who wrote a dissertation about a child being raised to speak English and Italian.

Parents can achieve this in several ways. One parent can speak English with the child, while the other speaks the foreign language. Both parents can speak the foreign tongue with the expectation that the child will learn English in school and elsewhere. The parents can also speak English with the child while a grandparent, sitter, or au pair speaks the foreign language. This last method is considered the least successful, say many educators.

"If I had to recommend anything, I would say speak to the child in the language you are most comfortable," says JoAnne Kleifgen, professor of linguistics and education at Columbia University Teachers College. "The best thing should be native input."

But Ms. Kleifgen says parents who speak little English should not teach their children English. Instead, the children should learn English in school. "A problem many immigrant parents face when they arrive here is they want their child to be bilingual but they don't speak English so well," Kleifgen says. "However, they're told to practice English with their children and their children are getting mistaken input."

Educators don't agree when to introduce the second language. Some recommend starting at birth. Others say that can put a child at a disadvantage with both languages for a short time, and recommend waiting until two and half or three years old to introduce the second language.

"Research shows children can be raised hearing two languages from birth," says Kleifgen. "It may take them a bit of time to sort them out [the two languages] but in the long run they buy two languages."

Children acquire language in stages. Coos and babbles, the language of babies, comes first. Then around 10 months old, babies begin to say one word; soon after, the baby can say two words. Once the two-word stage is reached, the child's language ability explodes. The child puts together more than two words but only uses nouns, verbs, and adjectives, not speaking in complete sentences.

Da-Lai Wu, whose teenage children speak Chinese and English, spoke solely Chinese with his children when they were younger. His wife spoke only English.

"When he was little, if my son spoke to me in English I would ignore him, the second time I would tell him, tell me in Chinese," Mr. Wu says.

Wu says his son experienced no delay in learning two languages, despite his teacher's predictions. "He began making sentences around 18-months old in English and Chinese," Wu says. "My daughter was not speaking really until about two years old. My son would understand, so she'd get what she wanted."

Wu, who didn't read Chinese books or play Chinese music to his children, stands by his "teacher" method. Most educators, however, suggest that rather than teach the second language, parents immerse the child in the foreign tongue - play games, read books, sing songs, listen to tapes, watch videos with it, and visit friends and places where language spoken.

This all serves to attach a greater significance to the second language. "Children must be given a positive reason to speak the foreign language, such as knowing they will be able to speak with friends and family," McClure says. "It's not an easy thing to say I'm going to speak another language to my child. You need to immerse the child. You need to give more exposure to the language, hearing it, having to use it."

Immersion has so far worked for the Mishras. "We had to create some special interest for them to speak Hindi," says Mr. Mishra. "We read them Indian stories in Hindi. Some were Indian stories in English but all the names, places, and people are in Hindi since certain words can't be translated into English. They'd get more and more curious about what a word means and want to learn."

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