Dr Susanne Dopke says learning two languages will give child a high level of awareness about grammar and sentence structure
Australia’s bias towards English makes it difficult for migrant families to maintain their native language, according to local language experts.
For migrant parents, raising their children with more than one language in a land dominated by English is daunting. Fears abound that children will struggle learning two languages at the same time; it will delay their development, and slow them down in school.
But such fears are unwarranted, according to Dr Susanne Dopke, who spoke at the Raising Children in More Than One Language workshop at Melbourne University on 7 December.
In fact, with the right strategies, raising children bilingually is not just achievable but has real long-term benefits for both the child and family, said Dr Dopke.
So what is the secret to bringing up children in Australia with two languages?
Parents who want to raise their children bilingually need to start speaking to them in their home or native language from birth, Dr Dopke said. “Children as young as two months old can hear the difference between different words even if they don’t start speaking until a year later,” explained Dr Dopke, who has a PhD in linguistics and a MA in Speech Pathology. “Most importantly, we as parents need to get used to speaking our own language, especially those of us who’ve been living in Australia for a long time.”
The most successful strategies involve either parents speaking only their native language at home and English outside the home; or one parent speaking only the native language and the other speaking English, Dr Dopke said. She said some families get the grandparents to speak to their children only in their native language, but this only works if they have a lot of contact with the children. And there is a risk the language will be lost in the event the grandparent dies.
Dr Dopke favours the, “one parent, one language approach”, having used it to raise her own two children bilingually in German and English. This saw her husband speaking in English to their children and herself only in German.
Dr Dopke stressed that the native language needed to be spoken, “consistently and persistently” for children to learn. “If your child responds to you in English they need more [native] language input from you, not less,” she said.
But how do parents communicate to each other when using the one parent, one language approach? Dr Dopke said parents can use whichever language they prefer, so long as they stick to the rules when speaking with children.
Dr Dopke said she and her husband did plenty of activities with their children separately, so they had time speaking one language with one parent. For example, her husband would read a book to their children, and she would take them to the park. She added that it was valuable to speak to children in the native language outside the family home because it enriched the learning experience; this is simply because outside are many different things to talk about, like the natural environment, cars and shops etc.
Dr Dopke also stressed that it was crucial parents support each other. For example, if the child incorrectly asks mum for a drink of water in English and dad is present, he can say ‘you need to speak to your mother in the native language’, to make the rules clear. She also said parents should not change the rules or mix languages, using both English and native words, when they speak to each other, as this could be confusing for children.
One of the most uncomfortable challenges parents face when raising children bilingually is dealing with disapproving teachers, friends and even strangers, Dr Dopke said. She said the best approach was simply to explain why you’re raising your child with two languages. And perhaps tell them some of the benefits, such as bilingual children having a high level of awareness about grammar and sentence structure because they know there is more than one way of doing things. “All our friends were very positive and supportive once they understood what we were doing,” she said.
“When I got criticism from teachers because my son used German vowels for English, I said ‘Don’t worry, this transference will go away’. And most said ‘Oh, thanks for explaining!’ And backed off,” Dr Dopke said. She said transference between languages was common when children were first learning to read and write but they would quickly grow out of it. “Language mixing is often the speakers choice—in parents and in children,”
Dr Dopke said. “Children may just have a preference for some words because they are the easiest to say verbally,” she explained, adding that, “Some children just need to hear words
more often to learn”.
Parents will find vast resources to help them raise their children bilingually from books, tapes, and YouTube videos, Dr Dopke said.
Dr Dopke also provides family consultation for raising children bilingually through her speech pathology practice Bilingual Options. For further information or news on language seminars and help for parents, log on to bilingualoptions.com.au