Early Literacy and Bilingual Kids

“It has always been my conviction that Indian parents who train their children to think and talk in English from their infancy betray their children and their country. They deprive them of the spiritual and social heritage of the nation, and render them to that extent unfit for the service of the country.” – Gandhi, The Story of My Experiments with Truth.

A librarian sent me this article from The New York Times a while ago and that’s one of the things that spurred me to write this post. I couldn’t agree more with some of the issues addressed in the article, especially about bilingual kids and families.

Also, in the last couple of days, I’ve come to know a few parents and educators through Twitter who’re passionate about early literacy and the importance of reading to kids from birth. In particular, I came across Karen Nemeth’s website that motivated me to finish this post that has been in draft mode for a few weeks now. Karen,  author of  Many Languages, One Classroom is actively involved in encouraging pre school kids from multilingual families to continue learning and using the different languages they are fortunate to be exposed to, during the time that they transition to English. She offers strategies and resources that care givers and teachers in day cares and pre schools can use to help multilingual children ease into English without letting them experience the jolt of learning a new language.

The Language Dilemma at Home


Raising Multilingual Kids

Raising Multilingual Kids


We’ve been thinking about language a lot at home the past few months. You see, M started daycare/pre-school in April and I guess you could say that this is her first experience outside of home, away from me for some period of time on a regular basis. Although she only goes there two days a week and still spends most of her time with us/me, it’s obvious that the experience is beginning to have an effect on her.

People say that when kids start pre-school, you notice many changes in them. I am told they learn social skills, grow to be more independent and fall sick more often. I guess some of it is true. M has indeed learnt to wear her shoes and feed herself. She does fall sick more often and perhaps knows a thing or two about how to behave in a social setting with other children…but most of all, she has begun trying to speak in English. For us, that is an important change that is both a cause for concern and a source of pride.

Our Baby’s First Real Exposure to New Language

Yes, it’s great that she is picking up the language and is able to communicate with her friends and care givers when we’re not around. It’s nice that she is beginning to speak a language that she will probably use extensively for the rest of her life and I am glad that she is undergoing the beautiful experience of learning a new language. English isn’t completely new to her though – we do use fragments of English at home, read to her everyday and take her out to places where all we hear being spoken is English. However, teaching M English hasn’t exactly been on the top of our ‘to do’ list.  I’ve always known that she would eventually be exposed to an environment where she would have to learn the language and so I didn’t really put much thought into teaching her spoken English, thus far.

But, now, I’m getting a little worried.

Not only is she beginning to learn to speak English, but has begun to use it more often, even at home. And it appears that, if left unchecked, this can lead to her forgetting or completely ignoring our mother tongue – a rich, intricately structured language that is thousands of years old( nobody knows its exact age). Probably one of the very few ancient languages to be still in use in modern times.

Naturally, I don’t want that to happen at any cost.

Can Your Mother Tongue Really Fade Out of Your Child’s Vocabulary?

You might say, that I’m being paranoid or frenetic. That there are lots of bilingual and multilingual kids and families out there that are equally fluent and comfortable in both languages and in switching from one to another. That there’s really nothing to worry about, she ‘s just adding to her reservoir of knowledge and that learning one will not automatically lead to forgetting another. But, my fears are not unfounded. That’s exactly what I see happening with many of my friends and their children.

You see, to some of us, who’re not native English speakers, it’s reassuring to see our kids go to school and come back and speak to us in flawless English, most likely with an American accent, down to the last syllable and rolling of R’s. It gives us the belief that they will be accepted, that they won’t have to feel embarrassed or uncomfortable on account of their accent or the language they speak. These are reassurances that we think justify why we allow our kids to switch to English, often overlooking the fact that they’re actually forgetting(forsaking?) their mother tongue with every new word they learn.

Now there are many aspects to this.

First, this may not be the case with every family. Of course, we all know that in many homes, kids simply can’t and don’t forget their mother tongue because they must use it to communicate with their parents and relatives who live with them, who may not be as fluent in English. So, for them, it’s simply a matter of need – they need to be fluent in both languages in order to communicate effectively in different settings.

But, for families like ours, where parents and relatives are equally fluent in English, and where the kids know that they can simply stick to English for all communication, things become a little dicey. We don’t notice the early signs of the mother tongue being ignored. We ourselves may inadvertently use English words and phrases interwoven with our conversations in our mother tongue. Kids ask us something in English, and we instinctively reply in English. We read aloud books that are written in English. They watch us speak to others outside the home in English. Answer the phone in English.  For families like these(ours included), there’s no real need for us to use our native tongue. We’re all comfortable conversing in English without giving it as much as a thought and so, it just happens naturally. One fine day, we’re all having a conversation and all of a sudden somebody says something in our mother tongue. And either our kids don’t understand what was just said or they simply respond in English. And that’s when we realize that we may have actually caused them to forget the language that we should have taught them to cherish. The language that they heard in the womb. The language that came naturally to them, that we had to make almost no effort to teach. The language that would have differentiated them, that should have been, and is, very much a part of their identity.

The language that sounds foreign to our kids today, because we were so busy helping them blend in.

I know that this is a concern that many other parents share. So, I invite you to join me in this discussion. How can we ensure that our kids remain bilingual or multilingual by choice? What experiences will shape their lives in such a way that they appreciate the richness of their mother tongue and grow to love it and use it at home, while mastering the language they need to use with others who don’t speak their tongue?

Be it Language or Music, Learning Begins From Birth – Or Earlier.

M’s piano instructor reinforces what we already know. She says that when a child learns something before the age of 9( preferably even earlier), they have the ability to master it and perfect it in a way that late learners of the skill or language will never be able to. She compares kids in multilingual families to kids who begin early music lessons. The more they’re exposed to something at an early age, the more comfortable they get and the more naturally they learn. A grown-up who takes music lessons or learns a new language will never really attain the same level of mastery as someone who was exposed to it as a baby.

But, as we’ve already seen, it’s not simply enough to expose our kids to something. Sure, they may learn our mother tongue fairly quickly. But it’s just as easy to forget it, if they aren’t given enough opportunities to use it.  A latent skill is not really a skill, is it?

So, in order to ensure that our children derive the true benefits of being born in a multi-lingual family, I think we should look at our peers who have been successful at this and follow in their foot steps.

How to Ensure that Your Child Doesn’t Discard One Language for Another

1. At home, insist on using your mother tongue. Enforce this rule in a natural, loving manner. Whenever someone(even a grown up) says something in English (or whatever language is used officially where you live), remind them gently to translate into your language. Allow exceptions when they’re needed and be sure not to be so rigid about it that it backfires. Simply make an effort to converse in your mother tongue whenever possible, in a natural, easy manner.

2. Read to your kids books written in your mother tongue. This is something I wish I had started earlier. I have read countless books with M, but I now realize that not one of them was written in Tamil, the language we speak. As a result, she has almost no exposure to the Tamil script and although she speaks it flawlessly, I am not sure how she will respond when we read to her in the language. I plan to rectify this as early as possible by getting a few Tamil picture books and board books and reading to her from those everyday. She may not be interested at first or may find it weird, since all she has been read to for the first 3 years are English books. Even the stories from Indian or Tamil mythology that we’ve read are in English. But I hope that with a little effort and time, she will learn to enjoy it. The fact is, reading aloud is one of the best ways to teach a language. I know that it is from reading that M has picked up pronunciation of English words. It is because of the books we read together that she is aware of phrases and sentence fragments, and how she has learnt to string them together into sentences and conversations. Reading in a language has a lot to do with how deeply it gets imprinted in a child’s memory.

3. Watch plays, musicals, TV Shows, the News or even movies in your native language. Just find different ways to expose your child to your mother tongue every now and then. This makes it interesting for everyone. Let her see and listen to others speak the language, so she can hear different accents, dialects and learn new words and relate to them in different contexts.

4. Enroll her in a native language class. There is something sad and ironic about this, but the fact is, it’s necessary. Sometimes, we need to enlist the help of others to teach our kids what should be a natural part of their lives. Many of my friends have enrolled their children in Tamil, Telugu and other Indian language classes, because their kids can barely speak in their mother tongue, let alone read or write.  The good thing is that, parents have realized the need for these classes and we can only hope that there is still time for us to instill in our kids once again, the love for and interest in their mother tongue.

(Of course, it goes without saying – we need to do all of the above with regards to teaching our kids English as well. )

As for me, I’m still in the initial stages of figuring out how to ensure that M gets the most enriching experiences we can provide her. I still have to get Tamil and Hindi books and begin reading to her from them. I’m  not sure if she’ll enjoy the experience. Maybe, I’ll have to alternate them with her favorite English books. Or maybe get translated versions of stories she already knows. I would like to get child-friendly versions of Thirukkural and Bharathiyar’s Compositions. I need to continue to expose her to Tamil poetry and nursery rhymes. Are there any Sanskrit children’s books available? I’ll have to look into that.

I’ll never know if my attempts will work until I try. All I am sure of is that M is fortunate to be surrounded by people who speak and value different languages and I hope that she grows up loving them for their difference and for the unique richness inherent in each of them.

10000 tries until perfection

“10″, says her music instructor – “is the magic number”. When you’ve practiced something 10000 times or for 10 years …that’s when you start approaching mastery of a skill, instrument or language.

In that case, I had better get started.

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15 thoughts on “Early Literacy and Bilingual Kids

  1. This is a lovely piece! I enjoyed seeing a glimpse of your wonderful family life. Thank you for mentioning my work here. If you don’t mind, I’d like to contribute some additional suggestions in addition to the valuable ideas you have listed. You might want to look up the work of Lily Wong Fillmore. (Wong Fillmore, L. (1991). When learning a second language means losing the first. Early Childhood Research Quarterly, 6, 323-346.) I know a website that sells children’s books in Tamil: http://www.languagelizard.com I do agree that reading stories in your native language will enhance that fascination with the richness and tradition. Another way to support that is with music – silly songs and sophisticated pieces. I also wish that language specialists might think about venturing away from native language ‘classes’. What if they taught art lessons or dance or karate – speaking only in the native language? Then it wouldn’t make the language seem so much like extra homework! Thank you so much for sharing your experience!

  2. Thanks for your valuable comments, Karen. I will look into the resources you have suggested. The material you recommend sounds very interesting. Also, it’s nice to see popular English books translated into various languages so kids who are already familiar with the English version can enjoy the native language version and vice versa. I like your idea for language classes to be incorporated with art or music lessons. Some of the classes I know do incorporate music and a spiritual or moral component with story telling and verse singing etc…but it would be even better to treat it as a ‘culture’ class rather than a language class.

  3. We are working hard at teaching Spanish, my family’s language, to our 2 boys, ages 5 and 7. It’s hard, but we’re following a similar path as the one you and Karen both mention…trying to incorporate it into what we’re already doing. We’ve written countless songs about our normal activities (my boys will even suggest topics, now for songs we need to add)…because like Karen mentions above, singing is a wonderful way in. It’s joyful. And that’s what language learning should be! Thanks for your post.

  4. @Pina – Yes, music is a powerful tool to teach almost anything from times tables to science formulas to a new language. And you’re doing it very effectively with your sons. Learning traditional songs in one’s mother tongue is great, but making up songs relevant to your lives is even better. You’re giving your boys the gift of a wonderful learning experience. All the best!

  5. I don’t have a bilingual child, but I do think your ideas are still relevant to just about everyone. We are taking our child to foreign language classes in our area just to expose her to non-native language.

    We hope this can give her some exposure to sounds so that learning a language, which we will encourage later, will be easier to handle.

    We also try to speak to her in French which is a language both my wife and I know (from college). I hope it helps!

    We are sort of taking the reverse steps that you mention above. :)

    Thanks for posting the NY Times article.

  6. @ Allen, Thanks for your comment. Yeah, the more languages and sounds a baby is exposed to, the better. It’s great that you and your wife are giving your child this experience out of your own interest. I’m sure it will be beneficial to her in many ways.
    I grew up surrounded by people who spoke different languages. Although we spoke our mother tongue at home, I had the opportunity to hear at least 3 other languages being spoken around me. I remember being able to learn words and phrases in a new language fairly quickly as a child. But, the important thing is to keep using the languages we learn, otherwise – well, we’re bound to forget them over time. ( I used to know 4 languages besides English as a child…I now know only the 2 that we use everyday)

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