Concerns About Teaching Two Languages
The biggest concern most parents have is that learning a foreign language will compromise or interfere with the child's English skills. However, according to Kathleen Marcos of the ERIC Clearinghouse on Languages and Linguistics, "Experimental studies have shown that no long-term delay in native English language development occurs in children participating in second language classes, even in full immersion programs. In fact, children enrolled in foreign language programs statistically score higher on standardized tests conducted in English."
The other common concern is that the child may develop a functional ability to communicate in both languages without achieving fluency in either one. It has been demonstrated, however, that balanced exposure to both languages can help children achieve fluency in each one. In fact, as cited above, learning a foreign language can enhance children's performance on standardized English language testing.
Methods for Teaching Two Languages
Child development experts believe that there is a "critical period" for language acquisition—in other words, if children are to achieve true fluency in a second language, teaching should begin around the age of one. Certain brain changes accompanying puberty are believed to make it more difficult to master foreign languages.
The best method for teaching your child a second language depends on the degree of fluency you're interested in. For expatriate or bicultural families where mastering two languages is absolutely necessary, an immersion program might be the answer. Says Marcos, "Immersion programs allow children to spend part or all of the school days learning in a second language. In full (total) immersion programs, which are available in a limited number of schools, children learn all of their subjects in the second language. Partial immersion programs operate on the same principle, but only a portion of the curriculum is presented in the second language. Children enrolled in immersion programs work toward full proficiency in the second language and usually reach a higher level of competence than those participating in other language programs."
If your goal is just to give your child a head-start by teaching a second language at a young age, your best bet is making it seem like a game. There are tons of great videos, books, CDs, and computer games that teach second languages, but the results will be most effective if you and your child practice the language together. When setting the table for dinner, have your child name each item in the second language. Go to the zoo and call all the animals by name in the second language. The more fun it seems, the more likely your child will be to want to learn the language, and the key to real learning is consistency. Try to play at least one game, read one book, or watch one video each day to do some language learning.
Bilingual Family Resources
Not surprisingly, the Internet abounds with resources for bilingual and would-be bilingual children and families. Some good ones to check out are: