Your native language or the language the school of your dream teaches? Should you speak in one language or a few of them all at once?
Oddly enough, this topic should be of no significance to most people in most places on earth. But for Hongkongers, it is a constant struggle.
I have been asked countless times by anxious new parents on what language(s) should they talk to their child. Under the grand vision of the “bi-literacy and tri-lingualism” policy in Hong Kong, no one, or at least not from the government level, has quite figured out how to make sure our children come out from the education system to be proficient in all English, Cantonese and Putonghua.
As in all other matters relating to education, we parents have to figure it out ourselves.
Some choose the main language based on whether they prefer their child to study in local or international school. Some simply have no clue and are afraid to make the wrong decision, so they just speak multiple languages all at once.
You may have heard “expert” advice on how to implement bilingualism or multilingualism. The most popular one is one parent speaks in one language so the child will not get confused and she will learn to change channel naturally with different parents/caretakers.
It is not uncommon for us to see parents speaking different languages at the same time despite they may not be a fluent speaker in the chosen languages. The result could be disastrous. You may refer to the recent report below (in Chinese, extracted from HKET dated 2015-08-19). To sum up, the report claimed that there are cases where the children were unable to communicate in any languages commensurate with their age due to poor or insufficient exposure to the languages. For example, saying “Drink ju ju la” (meaning drink the juice) certainly isn’t going to help the child speak better English.
What should you do instead?
Despite all the noises out there, from my own trial and error and continuous reviews on the same subject, I suggest you to choose ONE language to talk to your child based on ONE crucial factor –
Talk to your child solely in your native language, the language you are most comfortable with and fluent in.
Talk to your child in the language you think your child needs the most AND you are fluent enough to freely express yourself. In this case, you need a lot of supporting materials like children’s books.
Why do I say so?
Picture this, let’s assume as parents you and your partner will speak a total of 10 million words to your child in the first three years. If you decide to split your roles and each of you will speak a different language, although your child will still be exposed to 10 millions words, 5 million for each language, the breadth and depth you can go into for any single language will be no where near to those who have one home language only.
The importance of giving your child a solid and strong first language proficiency should never be neglected. First, all top schools are looking for children who have high fluency level in the main language they teach. Also, most learnings are based on words. We teach our child by communicating in words, we read with them in words, we teach them how to think and analyze by illustrating the scenarios in words. Language opens up our mind and gives us the means to express our feelings. It is pivotal for our children to have a strong first language for them to develop and learn in a deeper level.
When should you introduce the 2nd or 3rd language?
If you are keen on introducing second or third language to your child early, you should arrange separate learning sessions for her right away. There is no such thing as starting too early. In fact, studies have shown that children by 12 months are more receptive to different languages (click here for the TED talk by Dr. Patricia Kuhl). The key though is to make sure the teachers are genuine native speakers and they are experienced and passionate in teaching young children. Do observe in a trial class and check on the interactions between you child and the teacher. You will be able to tell whether the teaching style fits your child or not. Be very selective on the quality of the teachers as a good teacher does make all the differences.
To give your child extra time on learning the non-first language, I recommend you select funny books with CD and play the CD while you flip the pages with your child. A good funny book will capture the child’s attention and make her fall in love with reading it.
If possible, it is always desirable to let your child learn any given language by immersing in the language environment. I had once taken my children to Taipei to learn Putonghua for a month. In and out of the classroom, they saw Chinese characters all over the places and heard people converse exclusively in Putonghua. Pretty soon, they had no choice but to speak in Putonghua in order to communicate with anyone. And once they had started talking, magic followed. Not only that they have become more interested in reading and writing Chinese, it is the subtle confidence they gained that makes learning Chinese and Putonghua not a pain anymore. I attributed this change of attitude to the mind shift after they have broken the barrier of self-doubt and fear of speaking in the language that they are not fluent in. This experience has proved to be invaluable.
So, use your own mother tongue to speak to your child and supplement with quality lessons in other languages. If possible, immerse your child in the language environment where she has no choice but to speak in that language for the sake of communication – not just the teacher, but everyone else.
To be fluent and proficient in one language takes enormous amount of time and effort, not to say two to three languages. As parents, all we need to do is to look for the best teachers, apart from yourself as the main teacher of the native language, be ready to spend a lot of time with your child in the long process of revision and practice, keep feeding them the books or books with CD that will interest them, be supportive when your child faces setback and be persistent until our goal is achieved.
Also published on Medium.