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Bilingual parents: Talking to your child in your native language makes it easier for them to learn English

Published: Saturday, July 26 2014 7:20 a.m. MDT

Cindy Brewer reads a Spanish-language book to Logan, 10, left; Amina, 17 months; and Nick, 7, at their Provo home. The Brewers are raising their children to be multilingual, speaking to them in German and Spanish as well as English.

Jason Olson / Deseret News

Parents who worry that speaking their native language at home will disrupt their child's ability to learn English have nothing to fear.

The editors of a new social policy report from the Society for Research in Child Development point out that in the United States, and other English-speaking countries, immigrant parents respond to the negative stereotypes of multilingual kids by speaking to their children what little English they know rather than communicating fully in their mother tongue.

"As a result, many parents coming to the U.S. and the U.K. from other countries inadvertently and tragically rob their children of vital language-learning skills," wrote Allyssa McCabe, one of the researchers, in Princeton University's Child and Family Blog.

Researchers from Griffith University examined the effect on Australian children of becoming literate in a minority language, and concluded that bilinguilism provides many advantages. They found that children who continue to learn another language after going to school and being immersed in English often show signs of having a better working memory, an enhanced ability to learn and improved concentration and attention.

From a practical perspective, speaking only English at home prevents children from communicating effectively with their parents, according to an article in Multilingual Living magazine.

"I’ve said this before, but I reiterate that children must be able to function/communicate effectively in their homes before they can function/communicate out in the community, so the native language cannot be stripped away, even for children with language delays," the article continues.

The Social Policy Report emphasizes that building a strong language foundation is more important than gaining proficiency only in the majority language. Parents who don't speak English aren't able to discuss topics in-depth with their children if the children only know the majority language, and the children miss out on opportunities to stretch their language comprehension and vocabulary.

"Parents who talk at length with their children regarding past experiences have children who excel in narrating, and this may in turn influence many other levels of language (e.g., vocabulary)," the report says.

One of the main concerns of parents who aren't native English speakers is that their children will experience a language delay, according to an article by The Hanen Centre, a Canadian nonprofit group that helps parents who have children with speech problems. However, while children who learn a second language usually experience a brief "silent period" as they adjust to the new language, they do not fall behind their monolingual peers in terms of language development.

"Bilingual children may say their first words slightly later than monolingual children, but still within the normal age range (between 8-15 months). And when bilingual children start to produce short sentences, they develop grammar along the same patterns and timelines as children learning one language," the article continues.

The research shows that learning the principles of a language and encouraging communication are important regardless of what language is being spoken. According to an article on PBS.com, children will use the foundations they've been taught in their parents' language to understand complex principles in English. Learning their native tongue alongside English will also help them appreciate both sides of their multicultural identity.

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Email: ehales@deseretnews.com

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