My child celebrated his 6th birthday 4 months ago, marking my six years of effort to raise him as a bilingual of Indonesian and English language. The road is still long, and I’m not an expert in language, let alone children language development. What I’ve been doing to ensure I achieve my goal is studying some literature followed my numerous improvisations to adjust to characters and surroundings because I would like to do it without giving any pressures to my child. Here is how I started and what I have personally observed through a series of events.
At first I was brought to doubts by concerns that introducing two languages to children would lead to confusion, speech delay, and even worse, disorders in language acquisition. However, there aren’t any scientific evidences that prove bilingualism could disadvantage children. The concerns appeared because of a misunderstood behavior when a child mixes words of two different languages in a sentence. It is known as code-mixing, which is part of the bilingual process, and is considered as something totally normal. This is a good starting point that grew the confidence in me to give it a go.
There are a lot of reasons why I wanted to raise a bilingual child. Numerous advantages have been discussed by experts, but the following are some of the most motivating for me. Firstly, bilingual children are able to focus on something and they are not easily distracted, an ability which is called selective attention. Secondly, they are more creative, good at planning, and at solving complex problem by using analytical reasoning. Thirdly, they have better social understanding, making it easier for them to understand others’ perspectives, thoughts, desires and intentions. Another one is that they can think more flexibly and are able to understand abstract things better than their monolingual counterparts. In short, the words focused, creative, good planner, problem solver, sensible and flexible sound like …well they sound like great! So why not?
To go further, I tried to dig more about bilingualism. There are two types of bilingualism, namely sequential and simultaneous bilingualism. Sequential bilingualism is when a child is exposed to one language at birth and then to the other language later in childhood or adulthood. An example is when a child learns a second language at the age of 3, then he experiences the process of sequential bilingualism. The second, simultaneous bilingualism is when a child is exposed to two languages within the first year of the child’s life. Studies reveal that simultaneous bilingualism leads to better accents, more diversified vocabulary, higher grammatical proficiency, and greater skill in real-time language processing.
I decided to give it a go to simultaneous bilingualism. My decision was based on a study, stating that right after birth, infants’ brain has the ability to differentiate and interpret cues based on context in order to understand which language is appropriate in different situations. Infants are able to recognize different languages merely a couple of days after they were born. In addition, English and Indonesian language are two completely different language in terms of pronunciation and grammar. This fact should be regarded as an advantage for parents in Indonesia as the process of bilingualism would become easier when the two languages are totally different.
As the process went on, I discovered that there are other factors of quality and quantity to take into my account. Would it be possible to set the TV on, let children watch shows, and expect them to gain an outstanding progress? I can say that that would be too good to be true. Despite the fact that children’s brain is like a sponge that easily absorbs, never expect them to acquire language perfectly only by television viewing. In general, most experts in early bilingual development agree that social interactions are highly important because high quality language exposure does involve social interaction. Opportunities to interact with multiple different speakers has been linked to vocabulary learning in bilingual toddlers. In doing so, I kept reminding myself to improve my language ability as well, both English and Indonesian language. Even though I have Indonesian as my mother language, I never underestimate the use of proper and correct Indonesian. The same goes for English. As parents we need to ensure that we serve as a good resource for interactions, and provide high quality references such as books, video programs, etc.
It is also important to consider the quantity of children’s exposure to each language. Quantity can be measured by the number of words that children hear per day in each language. Parents need to ensure their children have sufficient exposure. At home I created an environment of one parent one language where each parent (almost) consistently speaks a certain language to child. Why did I say almost? It’s because as parents we sometimes get lost as it’s not, I repeat, not an easy thing to do especially because both my husband and I are Indonesians. I’d say it would be easier for those whose partner or husband is a native English speaker. Another strategy to ensure the quantity may include setting time. Choose certain days of the week or certain time (morning/afternoon) when you speak a different language to child. One thing to consider is the child’s comfort. As far as I’m concern it is important to develop a strategy that suits your child the most because children are not robots.
When my child was 5 years old we had to temporarily live in an English-speaking country. That was exactly the time when he needed to start his formal education. It is a good opportunity for us to learn about how school takes part in the process of bilingual language acquisition. At home we still talk in Indonesian. 8 months after my child had started school, I noticed that time spent at school had resulted in a more equal language acquisition. There is no dominant language as school has appeared to help to balance exposure, enabling my child to use both languages even more equally. I also noticed that using Indonesian at home also helped him with emotional and psychological difficulties he encountered because of moving to a new environment.
However, one thing to note is that each child may respond differently. My best friend’s child has the experience of silent period when he had to move from Indonesia to another English-speaking country. Silent period may happen when a child is exposed to a new language, causing him not to talk much for a while. This can sometimes last for several months and will go away. After practice and continual exposure of two languages within a period of time, my best friend’s child succeeded and performed well at school.
One question then. Is it too late to raise your children bilingual? Parents may feel their children are too old and therefore erase the idea of raising them as a bilingual child. In her book, Raising a Bilingual Child, author Barbara Zurer Pearchild stated that there is no such a thing as too early or too late. However, the best time is to start right after birth until a child reaches the age of 3 when the brain is still very flexible. The next window of opportunity is at the age between 4 and 7, as children can still process more languages in a parallel path. Your child is now 7 years old? No worries because before a child reaches the age of puberty, it would still be possible for parents to raise a bilingual child. Beyond that age, a person starts to store a new language in a separate place in his brain, forcing him to translate the new language via his mother tongue. From this point, he may have to go through a more complicated process but it doesn’t mean that it’s impossible to learn a second language.
Now it’s been more than a year since we arrived in this country. One day I had the opportunity to attend the parents evening and discuss my child’s performance in class. In regards to his language performance, I asked his teacher if she noticed my child mixing two languages when he is interacting at school. She thought for a while before giving me an answer, and confidently she responded, “Not a single word. I’ve never heard him saying a single Indonesian word at school.” Her response was kind of motivating me to keep being consistent in doing what I’m doing because it proves that a bilingual child is able to switch in different environments more easily. I am fully aware that bilingualism is not the only ingredient for a successful development in life. Yet, my two cents is that its advantages are worth the efforts.