Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Multilingual Gambit

Jada doesn't say nearly as many words as many of the other kids her
age at the playground or at church. Chalk it up to hearing
exclusively one language the first seven months of your life, and then
a mash-up of other languages since. Also, Amy and I, as introverts,
don't as easily converse with Jada when we're with her as other, more
extroverted parents who are constantly jabbering away from Day 1. And
finally, some kids just talk later than others but they're grasping
language and words all along; and in fact Jada's comprehension is
getting pretty good, in terms of understanding simple sentences and
commands.

So I'm trying not to be too worried. Although Amy rightfully points
out that Jada can get frustrated when she can't communicate to us what
she wants, and that frustration, which now causes tantrums, can in the
future cause even worse behavioral problems.

Some might say we're confusing our daughter by trying to speak so many
languages to her, and that we'd get more bang for our buck teaching
her words and phrases in one language at a time. However, studies
show kids aren't confused by multiple languages and can distinguish
words and grammar at a remarkably young age.

In fact, it's when you introduce multiple languages a little later on,
say at age 5, that kids can get confused, seeing as their sense of
communication has been solidified on one language, so it can be hard
to comprehend that something they've known all their life as "nose"
could also be called "bee-dze" in another language.

Of course, the lingual flexibility kids have at age 5 is far greater
than at 15 or 25 or 55, so it's not at all a lost cause at that point;
it's just that starting from Day 1 is even better. And so I've
already circled on my calendar the date that I can enroll her in
Mandarin preschool.

The gambit, of course, is that early on there's less visible progress:
Jada might be able to say 3-5 phrases each in three languages, while
her friends might know 30-50 phrases. In chess, a gambit is when you
sacrifice a piece early on in return for material gain later on in the
game. And that's exactly how this all is likely to play out, for us
and for other parents who are seeking to raise their kids in
multilingual settings: our kids might not have as many words at first,
but they'll be the better for it for the rest of their lives.

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