How to Raise a Polyglot

I’m a linguist. I love languages and they are very important to me. I also love the cultures associated with the many languages of our world, which make it rich and beautiful. The fact that languages are dying concerns me. According to Unesco’s Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger, 576 languages are currently listed as critically endangered, with thousands more categorized as endangered or threatened (Moseley, C., 2010). It is currently believed that there are between 6000 and 7000 languages currently spoken on our planet, and that between 50–90% of those will have become extinct by the year 2100 (Austin,et al., 2011). Wow.

These disconcerting figures are part of the reason why I have been actively teaching my own child to become a polyglot- a speaker of “many tongues” or multiple languages- to help preserve the languages and cultures of his ancestors and other parts of the world. In this article I will discuss tips and techniques I’ve developed for teaching children multiple languages, which I have incorporated with my own emerging tetralingual (4-language) son. Note: the following techniques could be used with any individual of any age but language acquisition will be easier with younger children through adolescence.

1.  Start Early

All brains are “plastic.” But children’s brains are enormously powerful super absorbent sponges capable of soaking in an immeasurable amount of information in much shorter lengths of time almost as if through osmosis. By “plastic” I’m referring to plasticity, or neuroplasticity, which describes how experiences reorganize neural pathways in the brain. When we learn new things or memorize new information we create long lasting functional changes in the brain, a.k.a. neuroplasticity.

By the time an infant becomes a toddler (2 -3 years old), the number of synapses is approximately 15,000 synapses per neuron, which is about twice that of the average adult brain (Gopnick, et al., 1999). As we age, old and weak neural connections that are not used are deleted through two main methods of severing the undesired connections, apoptosis “cell death” and synaptic pruning (cutting back weak/unused nerve cell parts), which first occur shortly after toddlerhood among other points throughout one’s life.

Experience determines which connections will be strengthened and which will be pruned or eliminated which is why exposing young children to languages at an early age is important; connections that have been activated most frequently are preserved so activating the brain’s language centers at a young age will not only make it easier to learn languages but will strengthen those language skills as well if they are being used more frequently.

2.  Lay a Foundation

It is possible to learn many languages and to learn them well at the same time. I like to introduce them in tiered phases, which I will discuss shortly. The most important consideration before introducing multiple languages is whether or not your child has been developing speech and language typically and demonstrates good understanding and use of vocabulary for his age (See A1 Speech Therapy’s Communication Guide for reference). You do NOT want to introduce a foreign language yet to a child who is language delayed in their primary language. Language is built with parts of speech. You need to lay a good solid foundation first, which begins with nouns, verbs, and prepositions.

Now what do you do if you want to teach your child, who is around 18 months old, another language and he still does not use words? You could do what I did- use the Hanen method, It Takes Two To Talk (ITTT)- to encourage those words to come in. In the case of my son, his first language was Armenian. And although I did see vocabulary emerging in typical hierarchical order, it still was not emerging as fast as I wanted. I knew there were several factors involved: 1) Boys typically started talking later than girls, 2) Each parent spoke a different dialect of Armenian with him (Eastern versus Western) and 3) Armenian not only has a wider phonetic inventory of complicated sounds that do not exist in many other languages including English, but even the simplest words that children would know or use are usually incredibly multisyllabic. Take for example, “zoo” in English versus “gentanabenagan bardez” in Armenian.

After using the Hanen ITTT method for less than a month with my son when he was a little over 12 months of age, he had a huge vocabulary burst and I felt he had a strong enough foundation to introduce language# 2: French…

3. Learn a Language

There are three methods of introducing languages that I like to use, which I will term 1) bombardment (immediate – direct), 2) immersion (immediate or gradual – indirect), and 3) tiers (gradual – direct).

I view language bombardment and immersion as related “cousins” – leaving similar impressions of commonality but having different personalities. Bombardment is more direct and occurs when one actively speaks a specific language to another and usually requires some focused effort.  Immersion requires less effort from others and learning can be taught more passively without a dedicated “teacher.”

Language bombardment teaches languages immediately and often simultaneously and is more suited for families who have members who regularly speak more than one language fluently with the child, e.g., mother speaks Japanese fluently with son, father speaks English fluently with son.  With language immersion, learning can take place gradually or immediately depending on an individual’s exposure and level of interaction with his/her community and is suitable for anyone who lives in a community that speaks another language other than their primary language.

Learning languages in tiers introduces languages more gradually yet directly and is suitable for families where one or more members may not be fluent in another language.  When introducing a new language in tiers, you should wait until your child demonstrates understanding of the vocabulary words about 80% of the time and can use the words for his age level about 50% of the time independently before introducing another new language.

In our household we use bombardment with our son in Eastern Armenian and Western Armenian dialects, which are spoken fluently by us (the parents), paired with tiered language training in French and Russian.  And although we do not speak English directly with my son he has picked up quite a bit of English indirectly through immersion – from toys, videos, and hearing me speak in English with others in the community and hearing others speak in English with him.  That’s the power of immersion – it requires little teaching effort but makes a dramatic learning impact.

4. Live with Language

After introducing your desired languages, you need to use them so you don’t lose them. There are many ways you could go about this:

a. Maintain your language skills. As the parent, you will be your child’s main “teacher.” Watch foreign films in your spare time, read books/magazines, and play games to keep your foreign language skills sharp. One of my favorite apps for learning and maintaining select foreign languages for adults is Duolingo, a beautifully crafted, fun and free language gaming app, which allows you to keep your language skills tuned in less than 5 minutes a day.

b.  Talk as you play. Act as a translator when playing games. Talk as you normally would in your primary language and then say the same statement in another introduced language, e.g., say, “throw the ball,” followed by “lance le ballon.”

c.  Read books, watch videos, and sing songs with your child. Check Amazon.com for acquiring books in other languages.  Try to search for “dual-language” print books which offer text in two languages (usually English paired with another language). There are some good language learning video options available as well.  One of my favorite foreign language series teaching videos and apps for children is Little Pim, which uses a combination of animation with recordings of live children and people to introduce basic vocabulary words and sentences in well-organized categories. There’s also BBC’s Muzzy program available in several languages with new updated animation for a select few languages, which not only teaches vocabulary but provides some dialogue in stories.  Dinolingo also offers language learning videos and sets; using a combination of disjointed animation and live people, it is available in many languages and focuses more on basic vocabulary at the word level with a few phrases.  Check your local library to see if you can stream some of the above-mentioned learning videos for free with your library membership.

d. Check your local library and community for foreign language happenings and participate in them. Some may offer story time in foreign languages.

e.  To facilitate language acquisition, maintenance and literacy skills, label everything! Don’t have a dictionary? That’s okay, use free resources like Google Translate.

In my home, I label my son’s toys whenever possible. I like to use color-coded painter’s tape on toys stored in plastic bins to represent one of four languages: Armenian, Russian, French, English.

tetralingual box

I prefer to Capitalize the first letters of the words to facilitate recognition of both upper and lowercase letters.  I also have a chalkboard label affixed in the middle of toy boxes so we can write related words-like action words (verbs) or write the plural forms of the words.  I also like to use the chalkboard label area for drawing associated or related words or concepts. When your child wants to play with a particular toy you can sound out the letters of a word (in his primary language only at first until the subsequent languages get stronger) and then blend the sounds to say the name of the toy desired.

Just as with learning languages orally, you need to lay a good foundation using one orthographic system (writing system) first before proceeding to the other ones. Once your child is demonstrating 50% oral proficiency independently in a language for their age level you can introduce written words to promote literacy.

These are just some ideas on how to incorporate language learning into your daily lives. I hope that you will find some of these language learning tips useful and will be inspired to try to learn a new language.  Until next time!  À plus tard!  До свидания!  Ց’տեսություն: 🙂

Bibliography:

Moseley, Christopher, ed. (2010). Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger, 3rd edition. Paris: UNESCO Publishing.

Austin, Peter K; Sallabank, Julia (2011). “Introduction”. In Austin, Peter K; Sallabank, Julia. Cambridge Handbook of Endangered Languages. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 978-0-521-88215-6.

Gopnic, A., Meltzoff, A., Kuhl, P. (1999). The Scientist in the Crib: What Early Learning Tells Us About the Mind, New York, NY: HarperCollins Publishers.