Even if the child does not become proficient in a foreign language as fast as expected, it will still be very beneficial to expose them to the foreign language.
The general stages of learning a language are marked by:
- gaining a notion: a child may be discovering what an object is for the very first time. In this case the child does not know how to name it in any language.
- gaining passive vocabulary: when a child (or a grown up) learning the language understands the meaning of the word, recognizes it, and may even translate it into the language in which he/she first acquired the notion.
- converting passive into active vocabulary: when a child is able to use the word in a phrase and does so in a meaningful manner.
Reading and writing in a new language is secondary and can be introduced at a later stage. (This said, there are different excellent methods promoting early reading skills.)
For many, an obvious sign of a person knowing a foreign language is when the person speaks it. However, what comes before that is building up a passive vocabulary. Often a person is able to understand quite sophisticated phrases and subjects, and yet does not feel comfortable to respond. In this case, observers would erroneously conclude that this person does not speak the language. In reality, passive vocabulary is very important. It can easily transform into active vocabulary when the child is placed in the right environment.
As an example, if you speak Russian to your child, observe their reaction. If you see them responding, doing what you are asking them to do, these are clues showing that they understand. Tell them they can ask for a translation if there is a specific word they do not recognize. Keep building up their vocabulary, as well as their confidence, and one day they will be conversing in Russian. Making mistakes is a normal part of the learning process. Help them understand the structure of the language, how to construct sentences, and how to change verb endings in different cases. They will learn the grammar as they advance with their speaking skills.
If we take example of learning Mandarin (Chinese) in a family where neither one of the parents speaks it, the following could be a good path: enrolling the child in Chinese classes at least twice a week, finding friends who speak the language, turning on cartoons in the language, and finding reading circles in a library. Hiring a Chinese native speaker as a nanny is also a great option, depending on the budget. If the child is not fluent after a year, parents should not get discouraged. Remember about passive vocabulary, and continue exposing them to the language. If someday your child decides to become proficient in Mandarin, he/she will have much stronger chance at succeeding vs. someone who was never exposed to the language at the early age.
Stay tuned for more articles with language specific book and activity recommendations. During the first stage of TotPolyglot development, our focus will be the Russian language. Our goal is to add Mandarin, Spanish, French and English into the mix.
About the author: Elena Stungis is a Russian native who studied German between ages 9 and 15, winning city language competitions representing her school. She started studying English with a private tutor between ages 12 and 15. At the age of 16 she graduated High School with a dual foreign language citation as officially noted in her diploma. Later she acquired a degree in Philology from the Linguistic University of Nizhny Novgorod (LUNN), mastering French and English. Thanks to her second degree in International Business and diverse job responsibilities, she also learned Spanish to the level allowing for negotiations and business presentations. She has many years of experience tutoring Russian students of different ages in the English language. One of her most recent project involves teaching her own children the English, Russian, and Spanish languages.