Q. My 2-year-old son has been a chatterbox for about a year. Recently, he started watching a variety of bilingual cartoons and DVDs. Should I be worried that learning a different language will get in the way of him perfecting his English?
A. The fact that your child is watching TV and DVDs in languages other than English will do little to deter him from learning English. For parents who hope to raise a bilingual child, the time to introduce the second language is from birth -- but not through the use of TV and DVDs.
A research study at the University of Washington conducted by Patricia Kuhl, Feng-Ming Tsao, and Huei-Mei Liu demonstrated that when babies played with a native Mandarin speaker, the babies held onto the sounds of Mandarin. When other babies only listened to Mandarin on audio tapes or watched DVDs, they didn't hold onto the capacity for learning Mandarin.
Children are born able to learn to pronounce the sounds in all languages. That ability drops out of sight between 6 and 12 months of age. Therefore, if a child is raised in a bilingual home, the best time to introduce that language and the sounds or phonemes that go along with it is from the beginning of the child's life. A child will hold onto the ability to pronounce that perfect French "R" if he hears it when in the cradle.
A bilingual child can learn quite easily to speak English to some playmates and Japanese to others. Take Jamie as an example. Jamie's mom is half Caucasian and half Japanese; his father is Caucasian. His mother spoke to him at first in English, and later through the use of a puppet, in Japanese; his father always spoke to him in English, and his maternal Grandma in Japanese. He attends a Japanese preschool/childcare two days a week.
When starting preschool, he was reluctant to speak at all. While eager to play with the other children and participate in the activities provided by the teacher, he didn't seem to understand all the Japanese language that surrounded him and was timid to speak freely.
The bottom line: If there is more than one language in a home, parents can go ahead and use both freely. If you want your child to be bilingual and there is only one language in your home, introduce your child when young to people who will talk to your child in that language, as DVDs, TV, and audiotapes won't substitute for real, live people. The younger a child is exposed to a second language, the easier and more natural learning that second language becomes.
Jan Faull, MEd, is a veteran parent educator and the author of two parenting books, Mommy, I Have to Go Potty and Unplugging Power Struggles. She writes a biweekly parenting advice column for HealthyKids.com, and a weekly parenting advice column in the Seattle Times newspaper. Jan Faull is the mother of three grown children and lives in the Seattle area.
Originally published on HealthyKids.com, February 2005.