One thing is certain, a second language is necessary in life today firstly, for better job opportunities and secondly (perhaps even more importantly), for healthier brains. Before attempting to discuss how to teach a toddler a second language, one should wonder whether it should be done at this stage.
Personal experience as a teacher could not provide an instant yes or no response to the above issue. A study conducted back in 2011, however, revealed that bilingual children managed higher scores in what is known as ‘executive functioning’. This is the area responsible for, as one grows older, planning, organizing, goal-setting and the ability to strategize.
So how is it that children can learn a second language before they can master their native one? Babies can hear from the embryo stage and are able to hear their mother’s native tongue from inside the womb. By the age of 9 to 12 months babies begin to become less apt at discriminating among sounds that are not in their native language (Loraine Obler CUNY Graduate Center New York).
After about age 7 the brain focuses more on what it’s learning, which involves the type of memory children use to pick up languages (Michael Paradis, McGill University, Montreal). Consequently, it is not wrong for parents to attempt at teaching their toddlers a second language.
What parents should keep in mind, however, is how the child responds to this endeavor and whether in the process the child is stressed or not. It is this writer’s personal and professional belief (as an educator) that if the child is stressed over learning another language then the parents should either proceed using a different method or abort the effort until a time when the child is ready.
The best way to learn a second language at any age is to immerse oneself in that language. Parents that work might want to consider a bilingual au pair. Additionally, schools which pride themselves in teaching a foreign language through immersing the child in constant exposure to it are also a sure step. Finally, there are language programs available such as MUZZY and KidSpeak as well as others.
Meanwhile, at home there needs to be an appropriate atmosphere so that the child does not feel estranged about learning another language. There are bilingual books, toys and games available so that parent and child can become involved together. Remember that children learn best through what they observe. If they observe their parent (s) making an effort in learning a second language, it is more likely the child will view it as normal and will gladly take part.
If one of the parents is lucky enough to already be fluent in another language, then that parent should speak to the child from the very beginning in that language. The other parent will use English and it will all balance out. The child will adjust naturally and will speak one language with the one parent and the other with the second parent. Consistency is a must here, though, and the parent speaking the second language should use it continuously.
Encourage your child to use the words learnt as done when the child was learning the mother tongue. In the beginning the child will learn as few as two or three words, but by simply repeating those words, he will find it more natural to continue with more. Listening to and vocalizing another language will create the ability to interpret and pronounce foreign sounds, which will make learning another language down the road easier.
One should always have as a rule of thumb, though, that each individual is created separately. Hence, each person learns or is able to learn different things and at varied paces. Patience, repetitiveness and fun are the three gold keys to creating the apposite surroundings which will nurture a foreign language learning milieu.