Parent to Parent: “The Brain Changes When Exposed to Another Language”

by multilingualmania on September 19, 2011

in bilingual parenting, Parent to Parent

Jenean Flanagan is a mother who is exposing her daughter to Spanish, French and Mandarin. She also owns Peninsula Lango, which teaches Spanish, Mandarin and French to preschool and elementary aged children.

DSC_0494Tell us a little bit about yourself and your family. Are you monolingual? Multilingual? In which way are you raising bilingual children?
My husband and I are typical American educated adults. We both were taught a language in high school but did not go on to use them regularly, so we quickly lost the little we had. We both try to use our Spanglish and Germanish but wanted much more for our daughter. We placed her in an immersion school in North Carolina, where she attended for kindergarten and part of first grade. We were pleased with how much she learned in that time frame, but unfortunately we had to move and our new area did not have an immersion program available.

We are a military family, so we have had opportunities to live overseas, so my husband did get to use his rusty German for a time. I was a cognitive psychologist in my past life, and studied second language acquisition. This really reinforced to me the importance of early learning of languages and the impact that being multilingual has on information processing and decision-making throughout life.

Why is it important to you that you raise your children to be bilingual? Why is bilingualism important to you?

Again, falling back on my graduate training, I see how much the brain changes when exposed to a second language. I understand (mildly) the neuronal changes that take place during the language acquisition window and how important it is to retain those neurons for later life use – like a muscle you must use it, and from a young age, or you will lose those pathways.

On another level, just studying a language opens your heart and mind to that culture. By being multilingual you are showing respect and allowing yourself opportunities to learn from others you would not be able to learn from if you could not speak that language. It is a big, lovely world out there. We need to go enjoy and all the people who inhabit it. Learning a second, or third language is the first step to getting out there.

What challenges have you faced as a parent who is raising bilingual children?
Being told by my daughter I “talk” Spanish, I don’t “speak” it. Even at age 5 she knew I was horrible with Spanish. It’s challenging not being able to keep the language alive daily in our house. I don’t want her to hate learning Spanish, so I often back down when she doesn’t want to watch a movie in it. But that is one less hour of exposure she needs.

What have been your greatest successes or celebrations in raising bilingual children?
I bought a program called Lango – and started a business in my area. Peninsula Lango teaches Spanish, French and Mandarin to PK and elementary aged kids. I did this so my daughter would have as much access to other languages as possible. I wanted more than once a week with a tutor. Peninsula Lango is my gift to my daughter. It is forcing me to learn more Spanish, which makes me very happy!

What tips or suggestions do you have for other parents who are raising bilingual children or would like to raise bilingual children in the future?
Prioritize it! Your child will thank you so much for this gift. It is unlikely they will use ballet or soccer or karate in their adult lives. It is highly likely they will use a second language. Scholarships, jobs and travel are all easier with a second language. This is a skill they will really use.

Find friends for them that speak the same language. Play dates with other kids help them feel they are not alone doing this, and they may even speak in the target language a few times!

Expose your children to children of all nationalities. Don’t just expose them, but allow them the opportunity to have friends from many countries. Cultural awareness motivates them to keep working on their language. I am blessed to have teachers with children my daughter’s age, so she sees Mandarin, French and Spanish spoken naturally in families. That is priceless. I also sought out other kids at her school as potential play mates who spoke another language at home.

Consider hosting an exchange student, especially one who speaks your child’s target language. Since I can’t speak to my child in Spanish, someone else can on a regular basis. Free language classes in your home! And the cultural experience for the whole family is phenomenal!

Parent to Parent is a weekly interview series that features parents who are raising bilingual children. If you would like to participate in the interview series and share your experiences with other parents, please contact us at multilingualmania(at)yahoo(dot)com.

More Parent to Parent Interviews:
Parent to Parent: It’s About Much More Than Bilingualism
Multilingualism Fosters Greater Understanding and Acceptance of Other Cultures

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{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Sarah @ Baby Bilingual October 6, 2011 at 12:10 pm

I so strongly agree with you about the importance of encouraging our children to befriend families from many cultures, languages, and backgrounds! It opens their minds, raises awareness of other places, and provides great motivation for them to learn other languages.

Tatjana Miloradovic-Lindes October 13, 2011 at 9:54 pm

Great information, supported by the research cited in a NY Times article earlier in the week.

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