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Home Family Parenting Advice The benefit of speaking a foreign language at home — Good Parenting

The benefit of speaking a foreign language at home — Good Parenting

Dear Dr. Debbie,

My 3-year-old daughter will be starting preschool in the fall. My first language is French, so although my husband is from the U.S., French has been our primary language at home. Some neighbors are saying we should switch to English so she will better understand her teachers and classmates. Isn’t it true that keeping a firm foundation in French as our at-home language would better help her in the long run? Also, her younger brother deserves that same chance to have French around him at home in these early years, and we’re already contemplating a third child.

Une mère française

Don’t miss last week’s column Do kids suffer when Mom works? — Good Parenting

Dear Maman,

The best years for language learning are from before birth to age 3. Your family’s experience with French as the at-home language, especially for the early life of every child, will indeed assure that their mother tongue has a permanent place in their brains (and hearts!). With English sure to pervade their experiences outside the home — in the neighborhood, at school, at stores, doctor’s offices, etc., they will be learning through the immersion experience soon enough.

Research suggests that initial language acquisition is in place during gestation. The neurological system for perceiving sound is put together by the first few weeks of pregnancy and evidence of fetuses turning their heads toward sound from the outside world can be seen by 24 weeks of gestation. In fact it has become popular to take advantage of pre-birth hearing to intentionally present not only language but music to children in the womb.

On the issue of language, a researcher observed infants in the first days of life making cries according to the respective French or German vocal patterns of each family’s particular language. The French inflection rises — in speech and in the infants’ cries — while the German inflection falls. The French baby has heard, “Intéressant, n’est-ce pas?” and cries using the same vocal melody to ask, “How about some food, maman?”

I had a personal observation of an infant who was apparently unaccustomed to English. He had an American father, and a mother who was speaking German to an older brother. As I usually do, I started talking to the baby in the stroller. He looked everywhere but at my face. I joked to the father, “Do I have to speak German for this baby to look at me?” and from across the room, the mother answered (in a rich German accent), “Well I only speak German to him at home.” So drawing upon two years of high school German, I started with, “Gut morgen, mein kind. Wie geht’s?” And he locked his eyes on mine. As long as I kept up with German phrases he kept his gaze focused on me. Obviously this language was the only one he recognized as human communication.

Having had about a dozen children in my preschool classes over the years who came from families who did not speak English at home (including a few with American Sign Language as the primary means of communication), I can assure you that within very short order, your daughter will be picking up words and phrases to make her needs known to teachers and peers. She may also be instructive to her teachers if they are not already at least conversant in French. I credit a 3-year-old named Claudia with patiently guiding me through my first Spanish lessons. If I asked if she wanted more milk she waited for me to repeat “leche” and “poquito” and congratulated me on my careful pronunciation. After a couple of months she was completely fluent in classroom English, switching effortlessly into Spanish when Mami or Papi picked her up at the end of the day.

You are giving your children an intellectual and social advantage by sticking to your native language at home. Not only will they be able to communicate with more people around the world (and maybe in their own community), they will become natural translators, able to switch back and forth between two languages in a three-way conversation, bridging language barriers for others.

Also the acquisition of yet more languages will be far easier for them than for children who have only had to communicate in one language during their early years. Studies on bilingualism show greater advantages, both short-term and long-term, in many areas of intellectual skills, including understanding basic structures of language, as well as problem solving, attention control and task switching. And think of the increased employment value of a multi-language speaker!

Keeping your family language going for your children’s sake is a “bonne ideé.”

Dr. Debbie

Deborah Wood is a child development specialist in Annapolis. She holds a doctorate in Human Development from the University of Maryland at College Park and is founding director of the Chesapeake Children’s Museum. Long time fans and new readers can find many of her “Understanding Children” columns archived on the Chesapeake Family Magazine website. You can find her online at drdebbiewood.com.

What do you think? Leave your thoughts in the comments or submit a question to Dr. Debbie at Betsy@jecoannapolis.com

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