The Big Debate – When to begin a second language

A few days ago I spoke to an old friend of mine.  He has a three year old, about 9 months older than the babe. And it was amazing how we had some of the same ‘Big Issues’ or concerns regarding our kids.

The first was – when do we introduce a second language, and which language should that be? Now we have had some blogs on this site before on introducing second languages. Basically for some of us, English is not our ‘mother tongue’ or our first language. Mine is Bangla and his was Hindi. To complicate the situation further, in my case, my husband does not speak Bangla, so we do actually use English to speak to each other at home.

There are pros and cons to introducing English first and then following up with our own language.

Pros for going English first:

  • Most books, toys, kids CDs are in English
  • It makes it easier for the child when he or she joins pre-school or daycare
  • The child is less shy in an outside environment as he or she understands the spoken language

Pros for going with your language first:

  • I have heard this again and again from moms whose kids are fluent it a second language – ‘English they will learn anyway once they go to school’
  • If they have siblings who speak English, they tend to learn that in parallel anyway
  • While the kids is at home, you have a more controlled environment to introduce a language which he or she can learn to speak like a native.
  • Its easier for them to communicate with relatives back at home or grandparents who come to visit and cousins, specially since many grandparents are not as fluent in English. Since grand parents and aunts and cousins live most of the year in a different country, knowing the language makes bonding quicker
  • It makes them closer to our culure – this one is debatable

Most moms I know have gone the route of mother tongue first.  Some even delayed preschool to teach the language. And most admit that once school begin, sibling interactions switch to English and they seem to prefer it that way.

But if, like me, you started with English, hope is certainly not all lost! If you begin around or before 3, research shows that kids can pick up other languages like a native.

Here is what my friend said he did, with success, in a period of nine months –

  • Switch at home to speaking in the new language to the child. Respond to his queries in the new language even if it he asks them in English
  • Plan a trip back home or spend some time with family. This makes them understand theres a whole world out there speaking a different language
  • Ask family members back home, specially cousins to speak to the child in the new language. This makes the child think, in his words, that this new language is ‘cool’ and spoken by kids
  • Keep it up!

And if he reads it, I want him to correct or add more. He mentioned that she learned to understand the language very well first and then speak.

For me, the trip back home was really good to get the babe going on understanding the language. He understands it fully and uses words. Only problem is, now he uses these words with his English speaking friends, which he has plenty.

Well, more later, got to go. Do send your ideas and comments and I will collate a list for all of us.

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  1. Ano

    The back home trip is important, as you say for them to realize theres a whole world speaking new language. How about same lang friends in the country

  2. gene

    I think it is vital to begin before two. And maybe even from birth. I would suggest going with native language or languages first and avoidig English altogether. Once in school they will pick it up first

  3. Dora

    Hey Khushi, I think maybe you can start English and the other lang together. Dont know how it goes though.

  4. Rohini

    I think English first makes the kid more comfortable in the new enviromnet. If you stick to it, the mother tongue will follow. My tip is, to include a lot of books in the mother tongue. Childrens books.

  5. Pry

    we always talk mother tongue at home..My kids know our language also English which they learned from school.

  6. Sands

    Khushi Mommy,

    This is that freind’s wife who yu spoke to 🙂

    We started English first and Hindi is our mother tongue. At the age of around 2.5, I was talking to her completely in Hindi and my husband was talking to her in English, with only a bit of Hindi.The trick worked very well as she was asking for translations of words in Hindi so she could keep talking to me and now after a year she is speaking very good Hindi with little help here and there. We haven’t started Hindi books yet. The trip back home wokred wonders and our request to everyone around to not to cater to her in English. We told everyone to speak as if they are talking to any other Hindi speaking child.

    My belief is as long as the child is getting the right exposure to the native language before the age of five, it would glide in smoothly. To us , it was important for her to learn English first to be able to communicate her needs at preschool, to not feel alienated at such a tender age.

  7. Khushi Mommy

    Sands, welcome and thanks for clarifying. This seems like a great plan. I am going through the process of switching to Bangla with my son as now he speaks English and understands Bangla so I will follow the tips.

  8. riya

    Hey Kushi,

    I have a 1 year old daughter, am a south Indian and my husband is a Sindhi. Since the day she is born(rather when she was in my tummy)I have been talking only in Telugu and Tamil to her and my husbands talks to her in Hindi and English. My Inlaws are here(Thank God I can work) with us and they talk to my daughter only in Sindhi no English at all. Now all in all she knows Tamil, Telugu, Sindhi , Hindi and English…she is 12 months and 8 days old(No kidding) she responds to all of us in all different expressions. So I betya you can without any worries speak in any language you know or want to teach, kids will learn. My doctor also told me that the babies brain is like a sponge, the more you give the more they take. so don’t waste time thinking..just speak your heart out.:)

  9. Khushi

    Riya, thanks so much for your comment. 4 languages at 12 months is really amazing. But I believe what you mention about a baby’s brain being a sponge is right. I will talk to him in Bangla as much as I can and see!

  10. S~R~S

    I have been a part of similar discussions myself over the last couple of years, chiefly because I have a toddler who’ll turn 3 later this month. My husband and I use English with him at home, and naturally that’s the language he’s taken to. He understands Hindi as well, and uses a few Hindi words occasionally, but not enough to merit more than a mention. He’s going to start school tomorrow here in San Jose, where we live, and I don’t forsee a communication problem as he’s quite at ease when using English, as I mentioned. However, once he’s settled at school, I intend to get him started with Hindi. My husband and I speak the language fluently, having lived in Delhi all our lives, though he hails from Punjab (at least his parents do!), and I am from South India (or at least, my parents are!). We’ve always used both English and Hindi with each other, and hope to do the same with our son. I had actually intended to get him comfortable with both languages much earlier, but was clearly not very serious with my efforts, a major reason being the numerous conveniences of knowing English when living in America. (Not a very good excuse, I can see). Nevertheless, to prove my point,- the books I read to him are in English; his friends at the park use the language; so do strangers, and hence it’s just more convenient. However, I realise, I could still have ensured he knew enough of a second language to have been able to hold “toddler conversations” with his grandparents, aunts and uncles whom he visited in India just this last month.

    I agree with Riya’s (see June 20th) “sponge theory”, having been told the same thing myself a couple of years back when taking a course at the University of Toronto. Kids can easily learn more than one language at a time, and needless to say, the ones that do, end up the better for it. So now I’m actually (seriously) going to try and use this knowledge with my toddler and hopefully, in a few months time, I shall proudly proclaim to all and sundry that my son is “now truly bilingual”!

  11. Derick Jerome Dallas

    I retired from the Air Force in 1994 and lived in Germany over 15 years. At the time I spoke NO German and it was a challenge that i had to conquer. i first started with words then sentences, then television and movies. My German friends would write sentences in German and I would write down how they pronounced it in German how I could understand it in English. Before you I knew it, I became proficient. Every chance I had free I was rereading and repeating the sentences as often as possible.

    In 2006 I found I had a 3 year old that I did not know I had. His Mom and I was together for about a month. At the same time the Real Estate Market, Stock market and my business crashed and burned and I found my self starting all over. I had a DNA test and my son was 98.99 % mine. I cried and prayed and was scared to death because I also had just filed bankruptcy. My sister and her husband adopted my son, for me to get back on my feet and for him not to go into the system. Still working my home base business, so that I can be with my son and make it right.  We text, and talk daily and I have him with me every weekend.

    i shared a bit of my story to share my  WHY that i wanted my son to make better decisions that I did by not giving up even when you fall below falling. When Juan was 4  he and I would talk a few words of German and then a few sentences. I always remind him, ” It’s a process, we’re not looking for perfection only  progression.

    Then he became a member of the local library and on Mango languages, for free you can learn as many languages as you like. that was a part of his personal development every day in which he had to log and write down in his journal the 5 sentences and repeat and pronounce the words.

    I pay him daily $2 – $10 a day when he sends me a text to let me know that his personal development which consisted of teaching himself and working on himself to be a better communicator. . His Mom named him Juan, so he would write down 5 sentences in English and Spanish, and over Time, he began to write 5 sentences as well in German, French and Chinese. 

    Now at the age of 10 he types 40-50 words a minute from teaching himself with Mavis Beacon Typing Program. I found another typing program program with English and Spanish and added that to his personal development. 

    It’s the Slight Edge Philosophy, easy to do, we are not looking for perfection. But I have learned that Success is a few simple discipline repeated everyday over time with a Great Attitude will lead him to success. Although not perfect at this time, the compound effect of the repetition and being rewarded or earning his paycheck at the end of the week is working for him for doing the thing and getting the power to eventually speak all of the languages over time.

    On Saturday Mornings we go to the bank and he completes his deposit slip and deposits more than halve and puts $5.00 in his pocket and knows that his money will soon be working for him. One of my mentors Jim Rohn, once asked, How many languages can a child learn? His answer was, as many as you can teach them. 

    When I lived in Germany I always ran into people that spoke 3 – 5 languages. For Europeans it was the norm. Juan and i will one day in our future travel the world and visit the countries for him to see it from another perspective

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