Varying Exposure in Children's Language Learning

Have you ever noticed that you tend to talk about the same things at home over and over?  How often do you find yourself discussing world geography or Chinese history at home?  The fact is that household language is fairly routine and formulaic.  Variation is of large significance when helping your child grow up multilingual.  And it’s not just exposing them to different topics, but also different speakers and different types of language.

Children who grow up in a bilingual home can often have great everyday conversations, but struggle outside of that, especially if trying to use the language for academic or professional purposes.  This is why a bilingual immersion school can be a huge boost for your child’s minority language.  It will give them exposure and practice with language they would not use much otherwise.

Different speakers, and particularly, accent variation is another key component.  To truly be fluent in most languages, a speaker needs to be able to understand a wide variety of accents.  One thing I truly found interesting when I lived in Prague, was that Czechs had a very hard time understanding foreigners speak Czech if the accent was even a little off.  This was because the number of speakers is so small that they have little variation in language.  TV and movies are another culprit, they are usually created in Prague.  Think of the US on the other hand, where we constantly have people with accents in our TV and films.   Is there a German American in the film?  Then we’ll find someone that uses a German accent for the role.  English speakers are very used to a large variety of accents.  You want this same ability for your child, especially for languages like Spanish, Chinese, and Arabic that are used in a wide geographic area and vary greatly depending on location.

Finally, structure and vocabulary exposure needs to vary.  You’re probably not aware of it, but you have patterns of language that you use.  You may use “have to” much more than “need to” or “will” instead of “going to” for the future.  For my daughter and I, this is something I’m acutely aware of.  As a non-native speaker, I often like to rely on what I know and what I’m comfortable with.  However, I know this isn’t going to help my daughter learn the large variety of structures she needs to become a proficient speaker.  For example, I make the conscious choice to vary the ways I say “have to” in Chinese (得, 必须, 需要) even though I’m definitely more comfortable with one structure over another.  Of course, exposure to different media, content, and speakers will also help her greatly in learning and using a large array of language!

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