Great News for Parents Raising Bilingual Children
Raising my children to be bilingual is of great importance to me since we all know how essential language is for understanding and embracing culture. Therefore, I am convinced that if my children learn Spanish they’ll get what being Dominican is, where they come from and assume their role as Latinos in the United States with pride and first-hand knowledge. That alone is a good enough reason to do it.
Well, turns out scientists have found other important reasons to start talking to our children in two languages; brain flexibility is one of them. Really? Yes, really, by talking to our babies as early as in the womb in two different languages we are preparing them to learn and solve problems differently, studies show.
I had the opportunity of interviewing professor Barbara T. Conboy, Ph.D. from the University of Redlands, who is part of a group of scientists conducting research on the advantages of bilingualism and how babies’ brains process and acquire language. The study is part of a larger longitudinal project that includes researchers at the Institute for Learning & Brain Sciences at the University of Washington and the University of Texas at San Antonio.
They observed babies from 6 to 12 months of age and checked the way they discriminate language by watching their brain waves. At 6 to 9 months they found that bilingual children could not tell the tested sounds apart from one another. However, by 10 to 12 months of age they observed neural discrimination and improvement in phonetics for both languages as the age increased.
Results of this study also suggest that the responses of the brain in bilingual children differ from those of monolingual children, and this leads to a more flexible brain that can have a different approach to learning in other areas besides language. “We are looking to see how bilingualism relates to other aspects of learning; for example, other research has shown that bilingual children show some advantages over monolingual children on switching tasks,” explained Dr. Conboy.
In a nutshell, acquisition of more than one language starting as early as in the womb can make our children’s brains more adaptable and help them to learn differently. Stimulation of babies’ brains is simple, as we only need to talk to them and engage them in both languages.
“Early exposure to language does make a difference; parents should talk in the language they feel more comfortable in and think of the social and professional advantages that bilingualism will bring to their children,” Dr. Conboy added.
These findings are definitely encouraging for me as a parent raising bilingual children since they show there is so much more at stake than cultural relevance and language acquisition.
The When’s & How’s of Bilingual Parenting
As excited as I am to learn about this, I know that it takes hard work to teach our children our native language while living in the US; sometimes it might even feel overwhelming. I am experiencing now how it seems that English is embedded at birth, since my toddler who lives in a home where she hears Spanish 90 percent of the time already knows more English words than those she masters in the language of Cervantes.
Also, depending where in the United States you live, the fear of social awkwardness many times makes parents address their children in English to avoid seeming rude or at the very least impolite. However, since the evidence of the multiple benefits of being bilingual responds to the why we should do it, I want to answer the when and how. That’s simple: always and naturally.
If you get used to addressing your children in Spanish all the time it’s going to become second nature. Instead of trying to choose the “right” language for the right moment, it will come as the first choice if you train yourself to do it always. And that will take you effortlessly to it being natural.
This approach not only will make this communication choice a natural process for you, but for your children as well. They’ll grow with the understanding that Spanish is their “mother tongue”, literally. It will be the language of preference to talk to you and what they are going link to family life and good times.
It’s hard, we all know that; however, anything that has value requires certain amount of effort. Science, we now know, proves that the advantages are much greater than the work involved. Do it because of culture, family, professional advantage or to raise a child with a different kind of intelligence; you have many good reasons to choose from, but please do it for your children. They will be siempre agradecidos to you for that gift.