Bilingualism is the best gift for babies (video)
Declan Tucker, 3, comes home from playschool needing his nap. But before he falls asleep, he has a long talk in fluent Xhosa with his child minder, Princess Thembani.
Neither of his parents, Beran Flowers and Robert Tucker, speaks Xhosa. But when they advertised for a child minder three years ago, they insisted it be someone who would speak to Declan in Xhosa only.
A ground-breaking study by Concordia University in Canada shows that not only are Declan's parents helping him gain a tremendous social advantage, they are giving a life-long boost to his problem-solving skills.
The research, just published in the Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, found that toddlers who switch between languages develop better creative problem-solving skills than children who can speak only one language. This is because using two languages makes the brain more flexible.
Senior author Diane Poulin-Dubois, a professor in psychology, said the study also found that "the more language switching toddlers engaged in, the more it benefited them", and that "those who had amassed a greater number of 'doublets' - pairs of words in each language" - performed even better in problem-solving tasks.
"Any words you say to small children they copy very quickly," said Thembani, lifting Declan's sister, 15-month-old Madison, onto her lap in the family's apartment in Sea Point, Cape Town. "When we walk to the shops, everyone admires how perfect Declan's accent is when he speaks Xhosa."
Flowers, Declan's mom, said: "Initially, it was my partner's idea. So many South Africans who aren't English make a huge effort to speak English, so it made sense for us that Declan should learn Xhosa from Princess."
Tucker takes his son to public spaces in Langa and Gugulethu so that he can converse with other children in Xhosa.
Johannesburg speech and language therapist Nikki Heyman said the South African context called for a delicate balance in homes where English was not the mother tongue. "It is important not to lose heritage and culture through the loss of a language, and ultimately, it is better to be bilingual," she said.
"But when it comes to teaching actual concepts - whether in maths, geography, etcetera - it is important that the person teaching the child is fluent in the language in which they're explaining the concept. Teaching a child a concept in broken English disadvantages the child."
The new research does away with what experts at online parenting advice forum Baby Center describe as "the most prevalent of all the misconceptions": that growing up with more than one language confuses a child.
Mpumalanga parents Merinda and Johan Theunissen, both bilingual in English and Afrikaans, said they were advised on a "one parent, one language" approach but did their own research and found that mixing languages up in one sentence was natural. "That relaxed things a lot, because it felt fake for us to each have a designated language when speaking to the kids," said Merinda.
Sonja Giese, executive director of Ilifa Labantwana early childhood development programme, said bilingualism (or multilingualism) was a rich resource for the country.
"Children who hear more spoken words when brain growth is at its fastest perform better at school and have better lifelong learning outcomes than their peers who have on average heard fewer words."
Unisa expert Nkidi Phatudi said that in many township and rural schools, teachers trying to introduce bilingualism were at a disadvantage because of their lack of proficiency in English, while in many former Model C schools, African languages were treated as token subjects and were introduced "merely for the sake of complying with recommendations".
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