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09 Feb, Thursday
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Montreal Families

Boost your kid's chance of being bilingual

It’s not uncommon to hear Montreal toddlers and kids casually mixing up English and French. They might inquire if they can “go to the library demain” or beg for “bonbons from the magasin.” But some parents worry that this linguistic “melange” means their child won’t speak either language properly.

But there is no need to fret, says Dr. Fred Genesee, professor of Psychology at McGill University and a leading researcher on bilingualism (both in the home and at school). In fact, raising a child bilingually offers benefits that can last a lifetime. Genesee notes that the latest research shows that bilingualism boosts people’s brain power, helping them to be more creative and better problem solvers. Rather than hampering a child’s language development, bilingualism actually promotes it, meaning young people develop more extensive language skills compared to those who only learn one language.

In fact, children’s brains are more than capable of handling two or more languages. Babies raised bilingually do not show any delays in starting to babble or talk compared to those raised with one language. And preschool children who are raised bilingually have vocabularies equal to or even greater than those learning only one language.

Many parents find themselves especially concerned about language proficiency once their child starts school. Suddenly the amount of French and English taught during the day becomes of critical importance, with parents concerned that their children either aren’t learning enough of the second language (French for Anglophones, for example) or may be lagging behind in their first language.

Families who can enrol a child in the English school system have two main options: a core program that offers about two-thirds of instruction in English and one third in French or an immersion program (the amount of French varies from school to school). Some begin with solely French from kindergarten to either Grade 2, 3 or 4 and then switch to 50 per cent English and 50 per cent French. The other immersion program, sometimes called a bilingual program, offers 50-50 English and French instruction throughout all the elementary years.

Genesee reported that, in general, the more students are exposed to French in school, the better their proficiency in that language. At the same time, more French does not mean poorer English. In fact, some studies conducted in Montreal schools showed that students with more French also did better in English. Genesee argued that this makes sense if you realize that skills from one language facilitate acquisition of the other so the better you are in French the more positive the cross-linguistic facilitation.

Genesee, who has studied the effectiveness of immersion programs, notes that such programs do not hinder a student’s ability to speak, read, or write in English. In fact, these students’ skills are just as good as and sometime stronger than those students in an all-English program. As well, immersion students achieve equal results on tests of their academic subjects such as math and science.

Where immersion helps the most is — no surprise — in acquiring French language skills. Studies have shown that these students have the same comprehension skills (listening and reading) as the children whose mother tongue was French. When it came to speaking and writing, immersion students fared better than non-immersion students (but weren’t as strong as Francophones).

Finally, parents can also opt to send their child to a French school. Genesee pointed out that this is as effective as, and often more effective than, immersion because these students have much more exposure to native French-speaking students and their culture.

How to promote bilingualism

It’s never too early for children to hear two languages, especially because the years between birth to age 3 are when a child is most capable of learning the basic vocabulary, grammar and sounds of the languages.

Many families opt for the “one parent, one language” method. For example, the father will always speak French to the child and the mother will speak English. This can be a useful strategy because it ensures that the child gets adequate exposure to both languages. However, this is not the only way for parents to raise bilingual children; a parent who speaks French some of the time and English at other times is not confusing the child nor will it lead to any delays in speaking.

Parents can also look for different ways to encourage the learning of a second language. Daycare and preschool programs may offer a bilingual environment. Parents should also read to their children in both languages and encourage friendships across linguistic lines.

Genesee has authored a short guide to raising children bilingually, which is available for download from his website www.psych.mcgill.ca/perpg/fac/genesee/fredad.html

A more detailed article on this subject can be found at www.ccl-cca.ca/CCL/reports/journal/

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