Second Language Acquisition: Pre-teen Children
Saigon Shane | June 18, 2009 at 04:39 amby
2702 views | 12 Recommendations | 0 comments
Second Language Acquisition information for pre-teens hard to find
A friend contacted me recently after reading my "Raising Baby Bilingual" article. He was lamenting the seeming lack of freely available information and advice for parents of pre-teen children (ages 9-12 years) learning a second language.
While much has been researched and written about second language acquisition in general, and children of this age are sometimes mentioned, the focus all too often seems to be on English as a Second Language/English as a Foreign Language (ESL/EFL), babies and young children, post-teens or adults.
Much of the online second language acquisition information I have been able to locate is academic research and likely not very easily understood by lay people interested in the subject. There also seems to be little available for parents of pre-teen children acquiring the local language while living in a foreign country for the first time, and with no previous second language exposure. This article is my response.
My friend is contemplating moving to Hong Kong and he is keen for his pre-teen children to take advantage of this move by learning Chinese as a second language. All the family members are first language English speakers and none currently speak a second language. While this situation concerns Hong Kong, and forms the basis of this article, the advice should be equally useful for those in a similar situation living in other countries.
Mandarin or Cantonese as a second language for Hong Kong?
These are the primary options for my friend. Without delving into the linguistic technicalities, Cantonese is spoken in Hong Kong, while Mandarin is the Beijing dialect. They share the same writing system but use many different terms for the same objects and have different pronunciations.
In a diglossic situation such as this, my friend is presented with a dilemma over which Chinese second language his pre-teen children should acquire: Mandarin or Cantonese? There are pros and cons for each option but a choice must be made.
Acquiring Cantonese will have the benefit that a vast majority of locals are Cantonese speakers. However, without going into the politics of language, Mandarin is considered the 'official' Chinese language by most of my contacts who speak one of the Chinese dialects as their first language. Mandarin also has vastly more first language speakers than Cantonese.
If the purpose is to enjoy and make the most of the time in Hong Kong, then Cantonese may be the better choice. If the goal is a second language for the future, then it would be difficult to argue against Mandarin - although it will be a greater language learning challenge.
As a parent, ensure you know your children's personalities. As much as it is possible, critically assess each child's individual personality. Shy or self-conscious children in this age group will most likely require different teaching or learning methods than more gregarious or outgoing siblings. Be as honest as you can with this, personality plays an important role in all learning, and successful second language acquisition is no exception.
Attitudes are important in second language acquisition. It is unlikely any study or learning of the new language will be successful if the child does not have a positive interest in the new location, language, culture, food, people, etc. Before you leave, seek out anything you can find out about the new location that each child enjoys. Try to foster an inquisitive attitude in the children.
Set your own expectations realistically. Don't expect miracles. You may have to settle for something anywhere between a child's silent familiarity with the sounds of the language and a child who seemingly becomes fluent easily and almost overnight. Also be prepared that the children may surpass your own second language learning efforts - eventually.
Realistic parental expectations may be the most valuable thing you can do for a pre-teen second language learner. About the worst that can happen is that the children will be familiar with the sounds of the language. This familiarity will be invaluable if the language is studied again later in life.
Buy some listening resources in the new language: movies, music, software programs, anything. Topics close to each child's heart are most likely to be positively accepted by the pre-teen second language learner. Don't expect too much speaking from these activities, the point here is to make the sounds of the language less exotic and more familiar to the ears.
In my case, although I was an adult second language learner, I went so far as to ensure there was always something in Vietnamese playing while I slept. I have no idea if it helped at all, but I figured it couldn't hurt.
Learning short songs in the new language by mimicry helps the ears, mouth and mind become familiar with the sounds and rhythms of the new language. If you can find the words in English and choose song topics the children enjoy, even better. For example, boys seem to particularly enjoy football chants and team songs. Girls often pick up the chants associated with skipping games very easily. This can begin before arrival and continue for the duration of the time in the country.
Either or both parents also learn the new language. There are two options here: parents learning together with the children or in parallel with them. The choice may depend upon family dynamics, personalities and each individual persons attitudes to the new language, culture, people, location, etc.
In my experience, children and adults learn second languages differently. Adults have a greater ability to use their cognitive faculties and worldly knowledge to grasp a lot of information very early on in the language acquisition process. Adults seem to grasp things early but often not very deeply, whereas children of this age seem to grasp things more slowly but deeply. Of course the teaching/learning method also influences this situation.
A disadvantage of this "family" approach could be that children become embarrassed when they are not progressing as quickly as their parents in the early stages. This could lead to disillusion and a lack of motivation on the part of the pre-teen learner.
Parents and children learning at the same time - but not together could be the way for all the family to learn the same language without exposing the differences in learning. Both parents and pre-teen children can struggle with learning the second language in their own way without influencing the others. Outside of the structured learning, if the language is used at home, each can learn from the others. This can open up opportunities for fun banter around the home in the new language.
Encourage friendship with local monolingual peers. In many countries, an English speaking person will often be befriended by locals wishing to improve their own English. At the very least, the pre-teen's local friends should be encouraged to speak the new language to the children. It can be difficult to arrange and maintain, but the benefits of natural interaction in the new language with a first language speaking friend cannot be underestimated in pre-teen second language acquisition - although it seems to be less effective in adults.
I should state that this is NOT an academic second language acquisition article. Rather, it is an opinion piece being written by a bilingual parent (adult learner of Vietnamese) raising his own bilingual child. It is an effort to call on my own knowledge and own reading to help a friend who will soon have an opportunity to introduce his children to a second language. My friend is contemplating the issues of raising bilingual children within his family for the first time and would like some advice and guidance.
The following are NOT cited as sources for this article, but are offered as suggested reading only:
(Links are to online excerpts)
Kendall A. King (2008). Raising Bilingual-Biliterate Children In Monolingual Cultures. Studies in Second Language Acquisition,30 , pp 106-107 doi:10.1017/S027226310808011X
Murad, Jasmina (2006). Age as a Factor in Second Language Acquisition. Scholarly Paper (Advanced Seminar), 32 Pages. ISBN: 978-3-640-31946-6
Daub, Eva (2001).Language and Age: Changes in linguistic behavior - the transition from childhood to adolescence. Scholarly Paper (Seminar), 14 Pages. ISBN: 978-3-638-13454-5
McLaughlin, Barry (1985). Second-Language Acquisition in Childhood: Volume 2. School-Age Children. (Second Edition) ISBN 0-8058-0096-4 (v. 2)
Birdsong, David (Ed.) (1999) Second Language Acquisition and the Critical Period Hypothesis in TESL-EJ (Nov, 1999). ISBN 0-8058-3084-7
Second Language Acquisition (Wikipedia) - Broad overview of second language acquisition
Bilingual Families Connect - Tips and resources from and for people raising bilingual children
The Linguist List (Eastern Michigan University) - The world's largest online linguistic resource
This article was first published by this author at Second Language Acquisition: Pre-teen Children
deleted_user_453310These members have powered this story: