Yesterday we introduced a fantastic resource for teaching kids a second language. Today, opera singer Juliana Rambaldi, who was recently featured in our Language in the Workplace series, shares her perspective as a polyglot in her professional life and as an American parent living abroad on raising kids in a bilingual environment.
by Juliana Rombaldi
If I were queen of the world, every kid would be raised with two languages in the home. One parent would speak each language exclusively, and children would be raised to be bilingual. A third language would be introduced sometime around the 3rd grade, in an immersive setting.
Why would I require this? Because understanding different languages helps us to fully understand other cultures. Without an understanding of another culture’s language, we can’t grasp the essence of its people. Respect increases when we understand each other better, and I believe the world would be a more peaceful place if more people spoke multiple languages.
It’s also good on a personal level, as recent studies* have shown that learning another language helps mental functioning. Children who speak two languages show more self-control, and filter out conflicting cues more easily, giving them greater cognitive flexibility. Children fluent in, or learning, another language are better at monitoring unfamiliar environments, and they more easily read people and understand different perspectives. People working in a foreign language make better financial and/ or business decisions, taking calculated risks more readily, and not letting myopic thinking make them fear possible losses. They say it even delays dementia.
Ironically, I would be kicked out of my own realm, since, in our household, we have only one dominant language: English. Off with their heads!
Ever since I became a parent, I’ve been on a mission to teach our kids a second language. I learned German at the age of 8 when I spent the better part of a school year in public school in Vienna, Austria. That experience changed my world-view, and I subsequently had an easier time picking up French and Italian. I wanted our kids to experience some of the same benefits.
Unfortunately, American society doesn’t place as much value on learning languages as I do. Teaching kids their second language in junior high school for a mere few hours a week, as we do in the States, isn’t sufficient. To me, our attitude in the US speaks to a complete misunderstanding of what it is to truly learn another language (not just to ask “donde está el baño”). It highlights just how isolated we are in the world, and the lackadaisical attitude we have toward teaching and learning languages.
My husband and I chose a specific private school in the States for our kids partially because the school offers French lessons from preschool through 8th grade with a native French teacher. It isn’t an immersion setting, and they start out slowly, so I didn’t get my hopes up too high. However, after 6 and 8 years respectively in the school, I was stunned at how little French they knew. Both of them are excellent students, but they couldn’t carry on a simple conversation in French.
This past year, we lucked into an amazing opportunity to move to France. Because of their schooling to that point, the kids had an ear for French and a good accent, even though they couldn’t respond if someone asked them a simple question. If you have a decent accent, but you can’t really speak, it can only get you into trouble when the natives assume you know what you’re doing.
The kids were starting 4th and 6th grades. We could have put them into schools with plenty of instruction in English, and they would have been more comfortable in the short-term. However, I’m sure it doesn’t surprise you that we chose the all-or-nothing route and put them into French schools. Sure, they were at sea for a while, but we told them we didn’t care about grades this year, it’s all about learning the language. And, by the way, their grades are fine.
I expected the 9-year-old to pick up the language like a sponge, and the 11-year-old to suffer more. However, the youngest didn’t immediately grasp the importance of learning French, and he made it a point to find the kids who could speak English, which delayed his learning, at least in the beginning. The oldest attacked the language with ferocity. He understood better, at his age, how important learning the language was to his future, and was willing to work and struggle through it. It shows how much motivation matters.
The funny thing is, they don’t want to speak French at home. They feel that home is their sanctuary from this new world, and they want to relax and “turn off” for a while at the end of the school day. I do help them interpret their homework assignments when they need it, but I notice they don’t need my help as much these days.
We’ve been here for seven months now, and the 9-year-old has caught up. Both are speaking well, and communicating most of what they want to. I wouldn’t say they’re totally fluent yet, but by this time next year, they will be. We’re currently vacationing in Italy, and the kids notice similarities between Italian and French. They understand much of what they see and hear. The youngest is particularly interested in dialects, and is forming fascinating links between the languages.
My advice to parents is to start a foreign language as early and with as much immersion as possible. It doesn’t matter which language you start with — simply developing the muscle of learning a language will help them learn others more easily in the future.
Sure, sometimes the kids say that things would be easier if we were in the US where they know the language, but I tell them that someday they’ll thank me. If nothing else, they’ll have something to tell their therapists.
Cognitive control for language switching in bilinguals: A quantitative meta-analysis of functional neuroimaging studies – Luk, Green, Abutalebi, Grady; 11/2011
Thinking in a Foreign Tongue Reduces Decision Biases – Boaz Keysar, Psychological Science, 07/2011
Delaying the onset of Alzheimer disease – Bilingualism as a form of cognitive reserve, Craik, Bialystok, Freedman – 06/2010