Bringing up bilingual baby

November 4, 2010

By Laura Geggel

Infants and toddlers learn foreign language best through early play

Four-year-old Paul Kerdel speaks English with his father and French with his mother and au pair. The Issaquah boy did not always have such fluency, but developed it as French permeated his household.

The Kerdels knew they wanted their children to speak French. Karinne Kerdel grew up in France, and she lived there with her American husband for three months before they moved to New York and then Issaquah.

They tried speaking French in front of Paul, but at the end of the day, it was easier speaking in English, Kerdel said. She spoke to him in French before bed, but “even though I was trying to speak French to him at night, he was speaking English 10 hours a day,” at home and at preschool, she said.

Shortly after the birth of her daughter, Anne-Sophie, in 2009, they hired French au pair Emilie Uteza, a childcare worker who knew Kerdel’s family in France. The family also started sending Paul to the French American School of Puget Sound on Mercer Island, so “he’s speaking French all day,” Kerdel said.

Even Anne-Sophie, still in her babbling stage, has benefited from the family’s French movement. Her first word, cou cou, means hi and peekaboo in French.

If Paul and Anne-Sophie master French, they will be able to speak with their grandparents and cousins and, once they are old enough, decide which country they would like to live in.

“When they’re little, it’s amazing how they catch on,” Kerdel said.

Learning through play

Many children can learn a foreign language, and they learn best through play early in life.

Since 2003, the University of Washington’s Institute for Learning and Brain Sciences has researched the fundamental principles of human learning, especially children between infancy and age 5.

“We think that the brain is more plastic, or more open to experience learning — the earlier the better,” Gina Lebedeva, translation outreach and education director with the institute, said.

By 10 months of age, the babbling of infants reflects their mother language, and researchers have found this is when they start to lose the ability to distinguish sounds not needed in their language.

For instance, the sounds of L and R are the same in Japanese, but English-speakers must learn to distinguish the difference between the two letters for rake and lake.

While windows for learning different aspects of language are not rigid, research has shown that infants learn most about sounds, called phonetics, in their first year of life, and learn more about syntax between 18 months and 36 months, according to a research paper from the institute by Patricia Kuhl.

Vocabulary development skyrockets at 18 months of age, but can continue throughout life, she wrote.

“At 6 months, babies are universal citizens of the world,” Jackie Friedman Mighdoll, founder of Sponge language school, said. “They can distinguish any sound about the same. By 12 months, the neurons in their brains have been pruned, so they recognize their native language and they are less able to distinguish other sounds from other languages.”

How babies learn language is pivotal to their success in its fluency. Social interaction is a must, meaning children watching DVDs or listening to CDs will not get the same results as children interacting with a person speaking the language to them.

“You don’t need fancy toys. You just need to interact,” Lebedeva said.

In a recent study published by the institute, a group of 9- to 11-month-old infants was brought to the institute, where they interacted with a native Mandarin speaker for 12 30-minute sessions.

A control set of infants was exposed to Mandarin DVDs, a second control group listened to CDs and a third control group interacted with English speakers.

The group that played with the English speakers showed no sign of learning Mandarin, and neither did the group exposed to the DVD or CD, even though the children had shown rapt attention to both.

The relationship between the speaker and child makes all of the difference, Lebedeva said. The child can follow the adult’s gaze, imitate their speech and movements, and receive feedback.

“If a child laughs, an adult laughs. There is an engagement,” Lebedeva said. “That doesn’t happen in a TV interaction and that doesn’t happen in a CD interaction.”

Learning a foreign language happens best during bath or meal time, she said, adding, “It’s counter-productive to use things like flash cards and drills. Instead you want to build things into play.”

Affects of a second language

Children learning two languages may have smaller vocabularies in one or both languages, compared to children learning only one language, Lebedeva said.

Yet, when words from both languages are counted, bilingual children have either about the same or more words compared to monolingual children, she said.

Sometimes, bilingual children will mix their languages together, and Lebedeva said this is a normal stage bilingual children go through that helps them develop language skills.

Playing in Issaquah

Parents can find a variety of language-friendly play areas in the city. The King County Library System hosts free, 30-minute story times in 10 languages at its various branches. The Issaquah Library has Spanish story time at 7 p.m. every Monday. Go to the website at for more details.

Cecilia McGowan, KCLS coordinator for children’s services, said the program targets children whose families speak a foreign language, and children who are learning a foreign language.

Several language schools in Issaquah teach children about different languages and cultures. One of them, Sponge, teaches children through play, song and dance.

At a recent Mandarin lesson, teacher Xinyang Liu played with 9-month-old Grace Robertson and 2-year-old Kai Marcelais, showing them toy farm animals and talking to them in her native tongue. Their mothers played, too, surrounding their children with Mandarin words.

Friedman Mighdoll said she and the instructors live for moments when children spontaneously speak in a foreign language. Art projects with their toddler students are speckled with foreign phrases about the most ordinary things, like saying, “Can you pass the glue?” in Spanish.

Parents are given handouts so they can review vocabulary and songs their children learned in class, she said.

Other parents join neighborhood language groups, or spend time with friends who speak a foreign language. The Issaquah Highlands Playgroup meets every Thursday from 9:30-11 a.m. at the Eastside Fire & Rescue fire station, 1280 N.E. Park Drive. E-mail Natalia Santi at to learn more.

A fine balance

Andrea Noon, a Spanish teacher at Issaquah High School, studied Spanish in college and traveled across Chile and Spain as a young adult. When she and her Mexican husband had their daughter, Leila Ramirez, they decided to teach her both Spanish and English, so she could communicate with both sides of the family.

When a Spanish-speaking friend of hers babysat Leila for the first two and a half years of her life, Leila’s Spanish blossomed so much that her parents began to worry about her English. Now age 4, Leila’s English is by far better than her Spanish, though she improves every time she spends time with native Spanish speakers, like friends of the family.

“I’m excited when Leila goes to play with them, because her Spanish improves in 15 to 20 minutes,” Noon said.

As a Spanish teacher, Noon said she recognizes two types of students with a previous knowledge of the language. There are students who grew up speaking Spanish, “and their parents have done a really good job educating them in reading and writing,” Noon said.

The other type includes students who speak Spanish at home, “but there is not really an emphasis on the educational side. They might have never seen it written,” she said.

While this last group may speak the language conversationally, “usually their level of Spanish is weak grammatically and they have a lot of misconceptions about it,” Noon said.

Noon said she hopes Leila will speak and read Spanish fluently, though she knows she and her husband will have to use the language regularly at home if they want their daughter to follow suit.

Kerdel, the French mother, acknowledged the challenge of sticking with a foreign language.

“I think children tend to go with what’s easier, and English is everywhere,” she said.

The benefits of a polyglot

The most obvious benefit of speaking a foreign language is obvious to most. Speaking French, Spanish or Mandarin can help children communicate with others and could expand their circle of friends, as well as career opportunities.

Friedman Mighdoll said she feels a thrill when her two children say hello to people in Seattle’s International District.

Other benefits are not as readily observed. A recent study published by the institute at the University of Washington showed that bilingual children tend to think more flexibly.

“It doesn’t mean that bilingual people are smarter, that they have a bigger memory, that they have bigger IQ,” Lebedeva said. “What it does mean is that there are certain skills that bilinguals are better at.”

Bilingual children playing a game were able to adjust to a change in rules faster than nonbilingual children, according to the study.

In one game, children were asked to sort objects by color. Then, the rules changed and children had to sort them by shape, though some children got confused since some of the shapes were red and others were blue.

“In order to do that, you have to ignore the first set of rules and use the second set of rules,” Lebedeva said. “Bilingual kids don’t get as confused.”

The answer to why may lie within the child’s prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain that allows him or her to switch back and forth between two languages with variations in words, pronunciation and grammatical structure.

To get to that point of fluency, Lebedeva prescribed children a healthy dose of foreign language playtime. She instructed parents to follow the child’s lead, meaning, “if the child is interested in the ball, let’s talk about the ball and play with the ball,” she said.

When children reach middle school, learning a second language is harder to master.

“By the time seventh grade rolls around, it’s just too late for your brain to learn a second language as well as a native speaker would,” Lebedeva said. “You can learn vocabulary, but you’re never going to learn it as functionally and efficiently as a young child.”

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