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Raise a Bilingual Kid

Introducing a Second Language
children talking

Aimee Herring

Right now, you may be more focused on getting your baby to utter her first words, never mind what language she says them in. Or if you're teaching your toddler the alphabet, throwing in the ABCs in Chinese probably isn't on the agenda. But the perfect time to introduce your child to a foreign language is actually just when she's learning her first one. "A young child's brain is wired to pick up language naturally," says Nancy Rhodes, director of foreign-language education at the Center for Applied Linguistics, in Washington, D.C. "Between birth and puberty, children can learn multiple languages and echo accents easily."

Not only will a child generally learn a language faster and retain it better than an adult will, but being bilingual actually builds brainpower. Studies have found that knowing another language can improve children's English verbal skills, problem-solving abilities, and test scores. "Learning early on that an object can be described in more than one way (house, maison, casa), promotes flexibility in thinking and overall creativity," says Karen MacGilvray, director of education at Language Stars, a children's language program based in Chicago. "Parents are realizing how important it is to raise their children as global citizens. Inspiring enthusiasm for a second language is the best head start you can give your child."

Vamos! (Let's Go!)
children talking

Aimee Herring

The best way to introduce a child to a foreign language is through immersion -- no English translation. If you're lucky enough to be a bilingual family, seize this opportunity to expose your kid to your native tongue. But you can also sign him up for language classes where babies as young as 6 months sing songs and play games. Or you might hire a babysitter who's fluent in another tongue. Don't worry about confusing a pre-talker by introducing foreign words at the same time as she's learning to speak her primary language. "There doesn't seem to be any limit to the number of sounds a human mind can store at a young age," explains Francois Thibaut, director of The Language Workshop for Children, in New York City. "Children have an innate ability to tell one language from another."

Make Learning a Fiesta

Costly classes and Japanese au pairs aren't an option for many families, but simply sprinkling foreign words into everyday conversation is a great start. "Your child may not become fluent, but anything that piques his curiosity is beneficial," says MacGilvray. Try these tactics to get your toddler or preschooler excited about language.

Watch and Learn: Educational DVDs and computer programs are a good resource. Your kid will pick up some words and become familiar with the unique sounds of that language. Little Pim DVDs are available in four languages. $18 to $60, littlepim.com.

Bingo: Teach your child numbers, colors, and animals by playing a bilingual version of this classic. French and Spanish Bingo, $15, eeboo.com.

Dance Party! Kids really tune in to music, so download some children's songs from other countries to your iPod. "Your child may not understand them, but just hearing a different language will help her recognize sounds and phrases later in life," says Rhodes. We love Sesame Street Playground: Songs and Videos from Around the World. $15, putumayo.com.

Word Wise: Teach yourself a few simple words and use them during daily rituals or errands. At the grocery store, ask your kids, "Do we need manzanas [apples]?" At bedtime, say "bonne nuit" when you tuck them in.

Global Storytime: Check out your local library for popular children's books in other languages. There are also new titles that sprinkle non-English words into their stories. Two to try: At the Beach, by Huy Voun Lee ($8), about a mother who teaches her son Chinese characters by drawing them in the sand, and Everybody Bonjours! by Leslie Kimmelman ($20), a tres cute intro to a few basic French words.

Parlez-Vous Paparazzi?

These celebrity mothers are reportedly raising little linguists.

  • Despite her Mexican heritage, Jessica Alba wasn't fluent in Spanish -- but she's making sure that her daughter, Honor, will be.
  • Angelina Jolie, who has a home in the South of France, says that French is a second language in her melting-pot household.
  • Good looks aren't the only thing Heidi Klum has passed down to her kids -- Leni, Henry, and Johan are also picking up her native German.
  • Jamie Presley listened to lots of Spanish music while pregnant with her son, Dezi, and wants him to hablar espanol as he grows up.

Three Words in Six Languages Untitled Document
  HELLO HUG FRIEND
ARABIC
Marhaba!
(mar-HAb-a)
toa’anek
(too-a-AH-nek)
sadeek
(sa-deek)
FRENCH
Bonjour!
(bohn-ZHoor)
câlin
(ka-LAn)
ami/amie
(ah-mee)
GERMAN
Hallo!
(HA-low)
umarmung
(oom-Arm-oong)
Freund/Freundin
(froind/Froind-en)
ITALIAN
Buongiorno! Ciao!
(bwon-Jor-no
chaow)
abbraccio
(ah-brA-chee-oh)
amico/a
(ah-mee-koh/-kah)

MANDARIN CHINESE

nĭ hăo
(nee-how)
yōng bào
(yong bAoW)
péng yŏu
(pung Yo)
SPANISH
¡Hola!
(oH-lah)
abrazo
(ah-brA-soh)
amigo/a
(ah-mee-go/-ga)

Translations courtesy of Language Starts.

Originally published in the April 2009 issue of Parents magazine.