There are several reasons why my 5½-year-old, despite living in Israel and despite only having one parent whose speaks English at a mother tongue level, speaks, reads, and writes English as fluently as she does.
I suggest that parents should assume that all children are capable of absorbing languages like little sponges. Nevertheless, let’s assume for a moment that your child never learns to speak, read, or write in your native language. In such a case, your child must still -at minimum- be able to understand your speech if you remain stubbornly consistent about speaking to them in exclusively one language. That is a gift.
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While I’ve touched upon our approach to communicating with our daughter in our respective native tongues (mine: English, my wife’s: Russian), speaking has been only one of several critical components to our strategy.
First of all, multilingual children must have age-appropriate books on their shelves of all the languages of their homes. Reading is crucial to linguistic development. With almost no exaggeration, I would say that not a day goes without at least one of us reading a book to our daughter. (I literally just took a break from writing this post to read ‘Walter the Baker’ to her.)
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I must give my mother her much due credit.
The reason my mama deserves credit is that she is very thoughtful about pedagogy, and she has gifted our baby all sorts of puzzles and children’s games that have made learning English fun. From her earliest days, our 5½-year-old was surrounded by alphabet jigsaw puzzles, word-spelling memory games, alphabet dice, etc., etc.
Now, I don’t personally have any experience with children’s games in languages other than those of our home, but my wife found Russian alphabet jigsaw puzzles and other Russian spelling games, as well as a terrific website for Russian children’s books. I would imagine that such things are available in most countries – you just have to seek them out, and the Internet makes that so much easier than it once was.
The proof is in the pudding – our daughter knew both the Russian and English alphabets by heart (both the names of the letters, their sounds, and their shapes) before she was 2½ years-old, and she learned the Hebrew alphabet by the time she was three (Hebrew has never been our priority in the home).
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By the time she was four, she was asking to use our computers and telephones to send messages to her grandmothers. At first I was worried that this would make drafting letters by hand unappealing to her, but that was not the case.
My wife taught her to form Russian letters at around the same as when she began learning to write in Hebrew at preschool. Seeing this, I encouraged her to try her hand at English, and soon she was copying sentences from her Russian and English children’s books at home.
Then, during the initial COVID-19 lockdown, she and I played a game (at the encouragement of my Mama, I think) in which we would take turns writing snippets of stories that we would make up, folding over the papers strip by strip, such that only the most recently written lines could be seen. Finally, we would unfold the papers and read the silly stories aloud to one another, giggling.
Today she and I are going to her friend’s 4th birthday party, and our little girl is now comfortably writing out the words of the birthday card with minimal assistance in English. If we were to be attending a Russian language birthday party, she could do the same.
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I’ve mentioned our strategy of watching Disney movies with our daughter, but now I want to touch upon something else: YouTube.
The Internet is such a resource. Looking back at my own childhood, I am certain that if I’d had access to Russian videos on the Internet, my Russian would be better than it is today. I do speak the language comfortably, but I make grammatical mistakes, and my vocabulary could use quite a bit of buffing. My daughter, on the other hand, has easy access to videos in all of her spoken languages, and when she comes across unfamiliar words and concepts she knows that her parents will be more than happy to explain them to her.
Of course, it’s important to vet the videos that our children watch, but there are so many wonderful children’s educational channels, videos, and songs on YouTube – they’re not hard to find. Even cartoons like Peppa Pig, Ben & Holly’s Little Kingdom, Masha and the Bear (originally in Russian), Pororo the Little Penguin, Maya the Bee, etc., etc. are educational in terms of developing a child’s vocabulary. These feed children’s imaginations, and I have found that our daughter is particularly curious to learn new words if they play into her fantasies.
Also, storybooks and videos reinforce each other. Our child is always more excited to read stories that are based upon videos that she’s seen, and vice-versa. Also, she likes comparing her books to corresponding videos – what are the differences in the storylines, for example? What do different versions of the same story emphasize?
Of course, parents shouldn’t aim to zombify their children in front of computer screens, but there do come moments when children reach a point of exhaustion and are unable to focus on more demanding activities such as drawing, reading, puzzle solving, etc. We have found that with careful supervision, watching videos has made a very positive contribution to our child’s development.
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In short, resources are available to us in a way that they never were when I was a child. If your children’s development is a priority, it shouldn’t be difficult to fill their lives with all sorts of educational games, books, videos, etc. Children’s activities lend themselves readily to learning and development if they are introduced and conducted thoughtfully and with intentionality.