A favorite game for parents teaching their toddlers to talk is to ask, "What does the [insert name of animal] say?" A toddler who speaks Mandarin will tell you that a pig says "hu-lu, hu-lu." The truth is, a pig in China makes the same sounds as a pig in the Unites States, but ask a toddler who speaks English to tell you what a pig says and she will likely say "oink, oink." Teaching your child to know what the piggy says is just one of the many challenges you'll face when raising a bilingual toddler.
In some families it works well for each parent to speak only in his native language at home, exposing the toddler to native accents and idiomatic expressions at an early age. The challenge in this situation, though, is that exposure to both languages may not be balanced, especially if one parent spends more time with the child. According to the Center for Applied Linguistics, parents should focus on the total quantity and quality of exposure to both languages that their children receive.
In some bilingual households the parents will talk to one another more in one language than in the other. Your toddler may interpret this as one language being more important, or valuable, than the other. She may choose to respond to you in the language she perceives as "preferred," even though you addressed her in the "less important" language. The same way she gets the point -- eventually -- when you stick to your guns about no dessert unless she eats her vegetables, your toddler will "get it" and answer you in the language you addressed her in once she sees you value both languages.
The use of two languages in the home promotes bilingualism, an important resource for the child, the family and the community. Bilingualism matters for multilingual families because speaking and understanding both languages helps a child connect with both his family and his heritage. It also provides him with a tool -- the knowledge of a second language -- that may be considered an asset by future employers.
Parents sometimes face the unexpected challenge of needing to educate their child's teachers about the benefits of raising a bilingual toddler, especially when the second language being learned by the toddler is English. English language learners, the term for those learning English as a second language, are often placed in bilingual programs that are meant to be transitional, eventually mainstreaming all children into English-only classrooms. Parents are then challenged with the task of helping these teachers understand that while they fully support their child learning English, they also want their child to retain and respect their first language. So, while English may be the language emphasized at school, parents can best help their children by speaking to them in the language in which they -- the parents -- are most comfortable.
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