My little girl Louisa is going to a French preschool and many people are confused when they find out. No, I don't speak French and neither does Chi. We both have small backgrounds in French but the days of study are long behind us. So, English from me, Vietnamese from mum and French at preschool. Why? Well...my question would be why not? I've heard all kinds of bizarre reactions like 'oh she'll be confused'. No, she won't. And she isn't. No need to go into linguistics and the language acquisition of children before the age of 6, or 8, or whichever cut off point you wish to choose. What is certain is that the brain is still developing in the first few years of life, neural pathways are firing and making new connections, and the area of the brain that deals with language will harden and stop creating new synapses at some point in childhood, around 6, 8 or 10 depending on who you read. The 'sponge' analogy is one used quite often and utterly true. It's intuitive that children will learn a language naturally and easily, without blinking an eyelid, at such a young age. Our challenge is not Louisa being 'overloaded' with languages, but how to maintain her proficiency at French once she gets to school age in a couple of years time.
Many couples have a forced third language problem. A school friend of Louisa's has a German father and a French mother who, despite their children already speaking 2 languages, are anxious about their English. Another friend of mine, a Frenchman, recently married a Vietnamese lady. Their language of communication is English, and then there is their respective native languages. How do you manage and balance three languages. Simply, exposure. Those first 5 years of life before you decide the language of your child's education provides ample time to expose them to language. But this does require extra effort. More so than a couple raising a monolingual child in a monolingual household. The effort is this - talking to your child. As soon as they are born. Obviously, this promotes the beginnings of language. Why is Dad constantly moving his mouth at me, making odd noises. Leaving babies to their own devices as if they will learn everything themselves is a mistake. They will learn by themselves, but with a parent actively taking the initiative to promote language and communication they'll be flying. And of course its the same with interaction and play.
When a child of multiple language families gets to school age, then you need to think about real literacy. What language would you like your child to be able to discuss, think and write in. More than one? Then school won't help you with both, you'll need to take on the role of home tutor as well. Which we all should be doing anyway. I do find it amazing, working in education here in Vietnam, the number of kids who enter Kindergarten or Grade 1 without knowing any letters, with no self awareness, without being able to hold a pen or a pencil properly. This is a sign of one thing - neglect at home. Too many years being raised by the nanny? Quite possibly.
The lovely teacher for the 'petit maternelle' section of which Louisa is one has started a blog, and here's Louisa getting her balance in order!