Monday, April 4, 2011

Bilingualism And Ana and Matt's Children: 1

Every year or two, it seems, society rediscovers the benefits of teaching young children to speak two or more languages. Fifty years ago, it was commonly thought that doing this would confuse toddlers horribly--despite the abundant evidence of happy, unconfused bilingual children all around the doubters, and all over the world. Many still think exposing toddlers to two (or more) languages is a bad idea.

But the conventional wisdom, if that's what it is, is wrong. There is plenty of scholarly documentation to indicate bilingual children are better off than monolingual children in many ways, including and especially in brain development and flexibility. Countless parents and children have realized this themselves, on their own.

Presently, the Méndez family lives in New Mexico, where bilingualism is probably more common than not, and there's little controversy about the advantages of raising bilingual children. The state Ana first landed in, Texas, is considerably behind New Mexico in that regard, though improving slowly. Any Spanish teacher in one of Texas' many community colleges is familiar with Hispanic students trying to learn Spanish as adults, after their parents made sure to raise them speaking only the dominant language, English.

A similar situation holds for other Texans of ethnic heritage: Czech Texans, German Texans, Polish Texans, Swedish Texans, and many others. They have lost their ancestral language, even though the ability to speak it would not hamper their functioning in an English-speaking society. Instruction in Czech, to give just one example, is offered in high schools and under continuing education programs in the central part of the state. Nearly all the students are second, third, or fourth generation children of immigrants who abandoned their first language at some point. Now, their children want to reconnect. It is possible to hear Czech spoken now in stores and on the streets of central Texas towns: La Grange, Praha (yes, Praha), Moravia (yes, Moravia, Texas), Schulenberg, Shiner, German in Fredericksburg, and so forth.

In addition to the benefits of bilingualism to the individual, the benefits to society are also worth mentioning. Just ask the same Spanish professor mentioned above: who is studying Spanish nowadays? Answer: business people, medical personnel, law enforcement people, all sorts of people. It's a practical, marketable skill. Check the increasing number of students now studying Mandarin Chinese and Arabic. A multilingual populace is an obvious national asset.

But back to toddlers. No one really "teaches" babies a language. They learn language on their own, over just a few years. It's almost a miracle: they acquire whatever languages are spoken around them, painlessly and perfectly. Adults seldom learn a second language perfectly, but children become native speakers.

The record for a child learning languages, as far as Ana's editor is aware, is nine, by a child of British diplomats in India. His parents, his grandparents, his teacher, his nanny spoke different languages, and he learned them all--without having headaches or nightmares. He retained only several into adulthood, but later he remembered that at the time, he thought it was simply necessary to speak differently to different people. His parents took him shopping when he was four, to act as interpreter. It was no problem!

So how do monolingual parents raise bilingual children? That's a good question. It can be done. We will address that in another post very soon.

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