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Raising a Bilingual Child

Raising a Bilingual Child

I was raised in an environment where my family spoke predominately English and Peranakan Patois, which is similar to the Malay language but not quite. You see, us Peranakans are Straits Born Chinese who had somehow misplaced the ability to speak our mother tongue but picked up the kampong language instead. As we are considered Chinese by ethnicity, we are required to take Mandarin as our second language. For many of us, the story is the same – it was the frayed end of the cane, dodging flying assessment books and the revolving door of Chinese tuition teachers. Only a handful of us made it out of the system being effectively bilingual. Many of us barely passed, and even if we did, it was a test of our memory and not our language proficiency. The rest of us celebrated the big red F on the report card as part of our birthright. I even wrote an article about the pain and suffering I grappled with through the years.
There were times in my adult life where I wished I were effectively bilingual. That led me to wonder how life would have been different if I grew up in a different environment. I took a poll amongst my bilingual friends and this was what I discovered:
  1. Start early. Babies learn to recognize speech patterns before they can learn to speak. The earlier you introduce a second language, the easier it will be for the child to pick up its unique sounds and the different phonetic pronunciations. Listening to music, or learning a few words in a second language will help your child appreciate it now and learning to speak it later.
  2. Converse in the language. The best way for a child to learn to understand a new language is for him to hear people speaking it. If he's exposed to conversations, he'll begin to pick up the sounds and the natural accent. Joyce, now 32 and a mother of a 2 year old boy, adopts her parent’s way of nurturing a bilingual environment for her kid. She speaks to child only in Mandarin while her husband, speaks to the child only in English. For families like mine who can only speak one language proficiently, Joyce suggested tuning in to the radio station and stream songs sung in the second language of choice.
  3. Teach a word at a time. If you don't want to do formal lessons, you can introduce bilingual basics by pointing out to your child that objects can have two names -- one in each language. "When my 2-year-old son, Constantinos, sees a spider, he'll say 'spider' to me in English and then say it in Greek to my husband," says Cassandra Attard, of Nottingham, New Hampshire. "He knows they mean the same thing." As your child learns new words, tell him what they're called in a second language too.
  4. Have reasonable expectations. Of course, a child won't learn to speak another language fluently from hearing words, watching videos, or singing songs. But simply being exposed to a language will help her understand phrases when she hears them. So even though you probably won't be having a French conversation with your child very soon, if you say "bonne nuit" every night at bedtime, she'll figure out what you mean.

Written by Eugene Tay, founder of Brain & Butter and Monsters Under the Bed.

When Eugene was a young boy, he wanted to be an astronaut. When that didn't take off, he decided that he was going to be like Indiana Jones and explore the world as an archaeologist. Eventually, he figured out how he can do both. That's when he became a writer.

Co-Written by Grace Chai, mother of a newborn baby boy. Grace is a new mom and currently undergoing intensive On-The-Job Training for her new role. Between pumping milk, changing diapers and taking selfies with her baby, Grace manages stress by writing about her motherhood experience for ParentTown.

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