Mom’s experience: teaching my kids 4 languages

Thanks to Teresa for sharing her personal method for teaching her 3 year old son 4 different languages!

My son knows 4 languages and is almost 3.5 years old. He tests at a 5-year+ level in English and Spanish, he is at his age-level with ASL (American Sign Language), and I estimate he is at a two-year-old level with Mandarin Chinese. I understand that the most important years with languages is 0-3 and then 3-6. So I have made languages a priority for us.

I wanted to share some of what I have done and experienced with you. I am from South Texas in the US where Spanish and English are used
interchangeably. The lands were originally only Spanish-speaking and changed officially in the 1920’s to English. When my son was born, I wanted to make sure that he was ambi-lingual. Because you are asking when to introduce languages, I assume you are from the US because
many, if not most, other countries, or regions within, teach 2 or more languages to children naturally and simultaneously.

My recommendation is pick a language and then pick the level of competency first before you start.

PICK YOUR LANGUAGES FIRST

Before starting this venture, you need to know your target languages and why. Presumably the national languages of your home country and/or homeland if you are living abroad is one of them. If there is a language that your relatives will speak to your child, then that should also be a language. I would strongly suggest that you start with those languages that you can expose your child to with native speakers. All the videos and cd’s won’t teach your child a foreign language. HUMAN INTERACTION is necessary! I definitely would not teach a foreign language to a child if you have no roots, connections, or urgency with the language.

I started signing with my child early on. When I was pregnant, I stumbled across a Baby Signing book at the library and it made sense to me. Signing is said to teach advanced communication skills, allow a child to express needs, and reduce tantrums or discipline troubles. Some groups are even claiming that their kids test above others all through school to college and on SATs.

I also spoke to him in Spanish almost exclusively his first 2 years, mostly because all the sayings and songs that I knew were in Spanish. However, because I now live in the DC area, many communications that he heard were also in English. The first language that he could “speak” was sign language.

Keep in mind that all this time, my in-laws were sending me very strong signals that I was handicapping my son by not first teaching him English. A director at a Spanish mother/child program told me that my child would not speak with words because we signed together and that I should stop signing. Then I was having advice from others telling me that I should be very strict about where and when I spoke a language, such as in the house versus outside, on certain days, only one person speaking one language, etc, which is now the popular approach. Supposedly, iF I didn’t follow these strict artificial rules, then my child would likely be confused. Fortunately for me, I had done my research and had experiences of learning two languages simultaneously.

My language approach to teaching is this: teach or use the language that is the most FUN, FUN, FUN at that moment or that is most
appropriate at that moment. I switch between languages all the time. If we are in an English public environment like a public park or store, I speak Spanish because my son will immediately know that I am speaking to him even if I am far away. If I am in a Spanish public environment, I also usually speak Spanish. If I am socially with an English-only speaker, then I use English. I use Mandarin when I am serious, and he is avoiding my signs, Spanish or English. He knows that if I am telling him something in Mandarin, he is pretty close to a time-out. At home I switch languages and I often/sometimes introduce a different language and say, “Let’s speak …. now.” My son discriminates between people and speaks the language he thinks they will best understand.

My sense is that if your child has a cognitive language problem, it will be that way whether you teach them one language or many languages
simultaneously. I don’t believe that speaking languages interchangeably causes cognitive language problems. And if you do suspect your child has a problem, get them help immediately, don’t wait or take chances, get them tested.

I was raised in an environment where people speak English and Spanish interchangeably. Sometimes every other word in a sentence is changed. Why, because some words are much better than others in expressing meaning and emotion. I use the most concise word regardless of its language, assuming the listener is also multi-lingual. For every language you learn, you really pick up two languages!–:the combo of
that new language and your old language.

When we are eating, I do insist that we sign because I don’t want my child choking. Also, I don’t want to stop eating to speak to my
child. We sign even if we are in restaurants. Meals are so much more pleasant and quicker. Eating can be very boring and signing makes it
fun. When it is early morning and my son is waking, he signs and I sign. I also try to sign when I notice it is within an hour of bedtime, or when I want him to simmer down or be quiet vocally. Signing has a way of just totally changing tempo and mood.

My default oral language with my child is Spanish. I really don’t think I need to speak English to him at all because we live in the US and he will absorb it naturally. Also, US schools can teach English but are absolutely HORRIBLE at teaching other languages to young children (with some immersion program exceptions). So if you know a non-English language fluently or semi-fluently, and it has some relevance, please use that language almost exclusively with your child!! What a gift you are giving them, and at the perfect time!

I chose Mandarin after extensive research on the PRESTIGE languages of the world (use, commerce, etc) and those that will open the most doors to your child when he is ready to graduate from high school, college, or grad school. There are many universities and other United Nations-type groups that rank the languages. I first considered French only because there is a ton of teaching materials and teachers, but after I did the research it appears that French is quickly mattering much much less on the international scale and has already fallen off the top ten Prestige languages of many experts.

The other languages I liked were Russian and Arabic. At that time, the US Government was saying that it really needed US citizens that
spoke Mandarin and Arabic for security reasons. So I looked at Mandarin. It was on everyone’s top 10. And it looks that by the time my son hits high school, many public schools will be offering it.

Next, since I spoke no Mandarin, I needed to find out if there were humans who did. I found out that in our area, many parents hire nannies that speak Mandarin or other dialects of Chinese, specifically to teach their child the language. One of the libraries in our neighboring county was offering Chinese story hours. I tried that and from there I got connected into what was being offered to toddlers and infants. Chinese has been taught in Chinese Schools across the US since the late 1800’s. The various Chinese communities thought that the language and culture was so important that it created weekend schools. One was operating close by to me and I never knew it!

Then I came across all the research on music. All children are born with perfect or absolute pitch, but will loose it as a young child if it is not nurtured. Surprisingly, those people who speak a tonal language are the most likely to retain their perfect pitch and have a very strong advantage in learning and enjoying music. That pretty much nailed down that Chinese was perfect for us. All of a sudden, it was an urgent language for us. By knowing Mandarin, my child will have an advantage in college admissions and scholarships, an advantage in the workplace, and an advantage in music, or so I believe.

SO NOW YOU PICKED YOUR LANGUAGES, WHAT LEVEL OF COMPETENCY DO YOU SEEK?

If I remember correctly, there are different levels of competency.
They are in level of ease:
Listening (usually cds or tv)
Listening with Understanding (Human interaction begins here.)
Reading (via Doman)
Speaking
Writing
Thinking
Dreaming (This is my personal addition. I ask my son what language he dreams in and it varies.)

For us, I decided that I wanted to have the highest competency in Spanish and English, up to writing in Mandarin, and just signing in ASL to where he can communicate with a deaf child of his own age and other adults, which he does now. What level do you want your child to be at?

WHAT IS YOUR COMMITMENT?

Now you have identified your languages. And you have identified the intended competency level. Now you need to understand the commitments. I believe the research shows that a young child needs 5-7 years to really be quite competent at a language. And even if you
are fluent and a professional teacher, you need human reinforcement from outside.

If you live in the US, like I do, there are limited resources for non-English languages and most of them are very expensive. However, if you are creative and resourceful, you can do it on the cheap. For example, when I need a babysitter, I hire another family’s Chinese nanny and specifically instruct her that she is to speak exclusively Chinese, bring Chinese story books, and read these and other books I get from the library to my son. He is playing with his own toys and he learns words that are appropriate for his age in a natural way.

When we could get Chinese news on our PBS-type station, I told him that he could watch it. What a treat it was for him since he watches virtually NO tv. And I read the subtitles to myself the first few times to make sure it was appropriate. The news is from some official
Communist China TV agency that makes it appear that there is nothing bad that ever happens in China. Huge chunks of news are spent on what old people and kids are doing, dancing, arts, festivals — all happy, happy joy news that is appropriate for a 3 year old. (We don’t have
cable or disk TV’s, but I would imagine you can get age-appropriate programs — or maybe not.) I really don’t know if watching the Chinese
news helped much — other than listening, not necessarily understanding.

Next, look for classes, and evaluate for quality. I observed many Spanish classes and decided that they were for entertainment only or really poor quality. My son knew more Spanish than 90percent of the other children and his accent was better than many teachers. As a matter of fact, if you do not speak the language, get someone who does to help observe classes with you. You wouldn’t knowingly have your child learn English from an US hillbilly or a native Frenchman with poor grammar, pronunciation, and vocabulary – so don’t expose your child to the equivalent in their target language. There are so few good classes for little children because there is a huge demand with so little supply of foreign languages. If you can’t find a class, maybe you pass on that language if no other human can teach it to your child.

As to Mandarin, I found out that many Asians are also teaching Chinese and don’t speak it well because they actually natively speak Cantonese or Tagalog(?) or another Asian language, don’t know how to write the simplified characters, and don’t know pin yin or accent marks. However, because most Americans are clueless, the “teachers” can fake it. If you want more on how to test for Mandarin quality classes, let me know.

If your child is over 2, then consider some of the interactive language programs. People at the Doman institute swore by Rosetta Stone for young kids. I have free access to Spanish and Mandarin through my library and my son can play if he has been particularly well-behaved that day. Do you have access or can you afford it?

If you are not going to commit to providing the resources for an extended period of time for your child, you may want to reconsider teaching a foreign language. Perhaps all the time you would spend preparing cards and teaching them and all the other opportunity costs aren’t worth it. Maybe, instead of a half-way approach, you might be much better off just goofing off and playing with your child, or getting more sleep, or stressing less about teaching another language.

HOW TO TEACH WITH DOMAN CARDS

If you have selected your languages, chosen a competency level, and are willing to make the commitment, then use DOMAN cards to supplement the human interaction with the language that your child will be having.

I hate to waste money or resources, so after I bought all the card stock, I put English on one side and Spanish on the other upside down. The English side is in RED and everything on the Spanish side is in Blue. So my cards are one side BIG RED LETTERS “toothbrush” in the center. TINY RED upsidedown “el cepillo de dientes” in the lower left hand corned.

NOW FLIP THE CARD OVER ON ITS TOP, repeat TOP.
BIG BLUE LETTERS “cepillo de dientes” in the center. (I didn’t have enough room for “el”) In tiny blue letters upside down in the lower
left corner “toothbrush” Now when I was teaching religiously with cards, I would say in a really upbeat way TOOTHBRUSH, and then flip the card over and say “CEPILLO DE DIENTES”. It took less than a second. Then sometimes I would do only Spanish or English. Remember to mixed the order all the time. Is it the best way to teach two languages to be read simultaneously? I don’t know. I do know that many mothers have taught older children Spanish and English simultaneously through phonics and have been successful. Their kids didn’t confuse the languages.

Now Mandarin is a whole different story, but you will be happy to know that many Chinese babies have been taught Characters with flash cards for eons. Doman didn’t invent the program. Every word in Mandarin is spelled with a character or combination of characters. There is no
alphabet! I use the 11×11 math cards for Mandarin. My son’s teachers or the babysitter will prepare the cards. For those, one side has the
Character and the other side has the pin yin at top with the tones so that I can pronounce it, the translation, and the character again so
that I can eventually pick it up too! (Also, the babysitter only reads characters and not pin yin.) The only problem I have encountered with the babysitter is that she takes the cards and says the character, once, twice, three, etc times and then tries to get him to repeat it. It has taken a lot of work to get her to do it rapidly the Doman way. At one point, I just would ask her to prepare cards for me and not use them with my son. I have gotten more sophisticated and Word now draws the characters for me that I print out and cement glue to one side.

Now when my son asks me in any language what a word means, I immediately sign to him the word. So ji(1), pollo, and chicken all use the same sign. Sometimes I play games where I have the cards out and I sign and he selects. Or the reverse, he signs and I select. If you haven’t picked ASL as one of your languages, I strongly recommend it. Signing has made teaching other languages so much easier and interesting.

Is it too late to teach my child? How do I teach my baby? How do I teach a language I don’t know?

I will break up the children into 2 groups. First) 0-2 years old, and Second)2-6. I will comment on the 0-2 year old here. (If anyone
wants to know about the other group, let me know and I can write another email concerning that group.)

IS IT TOO LATE TO TEACH MY CHILD?

If your child is under two, they are at a perfect age to introduce them to different spoken languages and even American Sign Language.

HOW DO I TEACH MY BABY?

Talk, talk, talk, talk, talk. (Or sign away.) Get other people who speak the target language to speak and talk, talk, talk, talk, talk. I firmly believe that a child will speak the language of whoever is giving them food. So, if you can, make your mealtime with your child in your target language(s).

If you can’t speak the language, let’s stop here and answer:

HOW DO I TEACH A LANGUAGE I DON’T KNOW?

This is where things get fun. Remember, you don’t have to be an expert, you just need to know enough to get your child started. Think of it like this, most good musicians don’t start taking lessons from experts. They take lessons as children from okay musicians who make their classes fun, enjoyable and rewarding. These kids then graduate to better teachers. Your job is to be the first teacher who makes the
language interesting and fun.

How much of the language do you need to know? Well, remember the joke about the the lumberjacks being chased by the bear? You don’t need to run faster than the bear, just faster than the other lumberjacks. In our situation, you need to be steps or paces ahead of your child.

Where to start if you really don’t know a language? It’s time to buy some of the idiot or dummy books. I really like “Chinese for Dummies” and there really isn’t anything else interesting in Mandarin that I have found. (Let me know if you have found a fun Mandarin book.) For Spanish, some people swear by the “Complete Idiot’s Guide to Learning SPanish.” Whatever you use, make sure you like it. If you don’t like it, then it becomes a chore and you get grumpy, which your child will almost immediately pick up on. Also, make sure the language you pick
is one that you like. Don’t pick a language that you hate or have had qualms with. Your babies will notice that also. (Please go back to
my earlier email about picking your target languages.)

If your book has a cd then listen to it while your child can see you repeating words. Do a little bit everyday. Go to your library and check out language tapes. LISTEN to LANGUAGE TAPES IN THE CAR or when you have a minute. As a matter of fact, my son was listening to me do langauge tapes in the car when I was trying to get a start in Mandarin. I am told he has a good accent. Hmmm, I wonder if a baby listening to his mother practicing a language does anything for the baby? (I do remember that he just would mellow out and be non-cranky when I started repeating Mandarin sentences.) I checked out all the tapes I could whenever they were available. Sometimes only the super advanced tapes were available, so I practiced them. On those, I just repeated without even trying to understand what I was saying. I also checked out the tapes to teach English to native Mandarin speakers.

Sometimes that was easier for me to understand than the other way around! Be creative and use whatever your library has available. If
you have the time and money, maybe you can find a FUN class in your target langauge. (Another mother took a Chinese class offered by our
county that was so dreadfully boring and technical. She hated it. And the guy who taught it wasn’t even a native speaker!)

I caught just a bit of a program on PBS when they were having their fundraiser. It seemed really good and made sense to me. I didn’t see
it all the way through and if someone has it, may I please borrow it? Okay, I just googled it and here is the link about it.

Okay, so you have your idiot’s book and have started a language tape. Now, go to the library and get a kid’s picture dictionary. Start
reading this with your child as soon as you feel comfortable. (The picture dictionary will make you feel really smart!) You can also get a board book in your target language from the library and start reading it. If you are uncertain about some of the words, check the book out, go home, and look for the word in a bilingual dictionary or online. DO NOT GO ONLINE WITH YOUR CHILD AROUND. (I will write more about computers and videos and babies and toddlers.)

Okay, now that you feel comfortable reading a board book, try to include your target language with your Doman reading session. (I went
into detail in an earlier message.)

WORD TO LEARN FIRST for SPEAKING

Now you are feeling good and you want to go solo and just speak to your child in everyday conversations. Learn the words of those things that your baby likes (names, toys, animals) and food words. Try substituting these words into your conversations with your child. (Okay, so they aren’t really conversations since your baby doesn’t talk yet, but you get the picture.)

If normally you start off in the morning by saying, “It’s time to eat breakfast.” This changes over time/weeks with:
“It’s time a comer breakfast.”
“It’s time a comer desayuno.”
“It’s tiempo a comer desayuno.”
“Ya es tiempo a comer desayuno.”

Or if you are personally good with languages, just go bilingual on your baby on day one and say things in English and your target langauge. Or just speak in your target language.

Teach the language with real things. Use a real banana and not a picture of it. (That might come later when your child is speaking the language with ease.) Use real food items that your baby eats to teach words. Say the words while your baby is tasting a food or touching a
toy. Avoid things that are not tangible or can be touched or seen by your baby, with some happy exceptions like “love” and “adore”. (Your
child will know what that means.)

Have fun. And you will not be perfect. Try your best. Your pronunciation will not be good at first. It might even be real bad. But, laugh about it. Don’t show frustration. Don’t be frustrated. (If you are and this is stressful, rethink whether you want to do this. Maybe your child can just wait till later and take a high-quality class.)

Back to making mistakes. So what? For the longest time, I called my son’s Chinese teacher a mouse instead of teacher. Lao shu instead of
lao shi, which sounded the same to me at that time. Of course I was horrified when I figured it out because I would tell my son things like, “Say xie xie to your lao shu,” when class ended in front of the teacher. Now, my son and I laugh about it together. And you aren’t going to have the perfect accent or tone, just do your best and have fun. Within a year or two, take pride and be in awe when your child corrects YOU! I take it as a sign that I did a good job.

SUPPLEMENTING AND REINFORCING THE LANGUAGE

I talked a little bit about reading books to your child. That is wonderful and a great time to share. Have your child with you on your lap and give lots of kisses and hugs at the same time. When you feel comfortable, change your voice for different characters to make it interesting.

With the 0-2 year olds, I also recommend going to your library and checking out high-quality classical Spanish or target language music (no pop music here), operas, and musicals. Things that your child can hear in the car. I shy away from Kiddie cd’s because so many of them are poor quality in terms of musical ability and vocabulary. I would NOT PLAY ANY VIDEOS or TV shows or COMPUTER programs for any child under 2. There is sufficient research to show that this kind of exposure to children under 2 is likely responsible for many kinds of medical and behavioral problems.

I believe there are many class action suits being started against companies and people who make or market under 2 videos, electronic, and computer programs. Yes, I just googled one of the lawsuits against makers of video and computer programs for children under 2 and it says “the American Academy of Pediatrics recommendation that children younger than 2 be discouraged from watching television. The academy, in a policy statement issued in 1999, said: “Although certain television programs may be promoted to this age group, research on early brain development shows that babies and toddlers have a critical need for direct interactions with parents and other significant care givers . . . for healthy brain growth and the development of appropriate social, emotional, and cognitive skills.” Here’s a website of one of the groups that I haven’t read but seems to be representative of the trend to protect babies and toddlers from electronic visuals.

I think I remember that parents of ADD and ADHD kids who sat their babies in front of TV’s and computers have already or are going to
file lawsuits against makers of video and electonic programs for babies and toddlers. There are just too many risks by having your baby
or toddler sit in front of a computer screen, tv, or video player. The prudent thing for children under 2 (and some parents will say under 6) is just avoid TV, VIDEOS, COMPUTER programs, and ELECTRONIC SCREEN toys. Really, if you have to use these things to teach a language to babies and toddlers, you are pretty desperate and possibly haven’t thought about the long-term langauge commitment. And, is it really worth using a pretty poor teaching tool for a baby and toddler when you might be risking your child’s cognitive development, sleep patterns, eating patterns, behaviour, sociability and health? I really don’t think it is worth it. I want you to give the best to your child so that your child can be the best. Please, please, avoid the TV, VIDEOS, COMPUTER programs, and ELECTRONIC screens.

Oh course, maybe 50 years from now we might find that all this alarm was wrong. But for now, I don’t want any guilt on my conscience of a child being exposed to harm because I encouraged someone to teach languages to their baby, toddler, young child and joy in their life. Please just avoid the TV, Videos, Computer programs, and electronic screens and be very clear that I am against them for babies, toddlers, and under 2’s.

I hope sharing this has helped you.

Sorry if this has typos or seems discombobulated at times. It is really late and I have to sneak time for myself whenever I can.

Hope this helps you! Teresa