With so many tod­dlers and chil­dren under 5 (in my expe­ri­ence) show­ing seri­ous lan­guage delays (recep­tive and expres­sive) are we real­ly doing any­one a favour by try­ing to teach infants a for­eign lan­guage (from 9 months “when the synaps­es are at their opti­mum” as was recent­ly quot­ed to me).

Our pro­gramme con­tains numer­ous chil­dren and their sib­lings who are grow­ing up speak­ing Span­ish-only whilst attend­ing a day­care pro­gramme that is cur­rent­ly Eng­lish-only. They learn Span­ish from their par­ents, their nan­nies and from oth­er fam­i­ly mem­bers. We also have, and have had, adopt­ed chil­dren from Chi­na and Korea who are sent to our cen­tre with­in a few months of their adop­tion. That’s real­ly scary! No one knows their pri­ma­ry language!

There seems to be a pre­vail­ing opin­ion that we must pump babies and young chil­dren with as much infor­ma­tion as pos­si­ble, all the while for­get­ting that it is our oblig­a­tion to teach them how to behave towards their school­mates, teach­ers, oth­er peo­ple and school mate­ri­als, how to eat inde­pen­dent­ly and with uten­sils, dress them­selves, toi­let train­ing and, by the way, teach read­ing and writ­ing at an even ear­li­er age!

His­tor­i­cal­ly at our facil­i­ty behav­iour mod­i­fi­ca­tion has been very high on all our teach­ers’ lists. Thus behav­iour is an issue we infant teach­ers focus on. Yes­ter­day I tried to teach a one year old how to ‘put’ items into (‘in’) a bas­ket. He cur­rent­ly goes around our shelves and dumps every­thing on the floor! 

‘Put’ is in my vocab­u­lary because I con­sid­er ‘take’ to be insuf­fi­cient. As in the direc­tive “Take your lunch­box to the cor­ner”. The major­i­ty of 2, 3 and 4 year olds I’ve observed reach the cor­ner and prompt­ly ‘throw’ their lunch­box­es on the floor! If they are shown how to ‘put’ their lunch­box down gen­tly the noise lev­el and gen­er­al­ly surly behav­iour is reigned in.

Per­haps the direc­tive should be “Take your lunch­box to the cor­ner and put it down qui­et­ly”. Lan­guage needs to be clear­ly and pre­cise­ly taught in order to be clear­ly understood.

Now back to our infants. The infant who grew up with us from 6 weeks old and turned into the child with the best recep­tive lan­guage (Eng­lish only at home and at school) absolute­ly under­stood every­thing we asked him to do. He also did it with humour, which is fur­ther remark­able and indi­cat­ed his trust in us.

Our cur­rent one year old old­est infant (the ‘in’ and ‘out’ boy, above) has been con­tainer­ised (just think about the range of baby con­tain­ers for a moment) for most of his young life and his phys­i­cal and men­tal devel­op­ment shows it — he is also rarely hap­py unless over stim­u­lat­ed by an adult (squeals to com­mu­ni­cate and then it is hard to read his needs). He is of course also used to the hyper-stim­u­la­tion of var­i­ous types of baby TV and DVD’s, in the car and at home. How can we compete?

Which brings me back to learn­ing lan­guage. Many of our Span­ish-only speak­ing chil­dren have behav­iour­al anom­alies. They have had lit­tle or no back­ground or foun­da­tion in speak­ing Eng­lish and I believe they do not clear­ly under­stand what we are ask­ing of them. They also appear to come from a lais­sez-faire par­ent­ing style. That could be a cul­tur­al difference.

The idea of cre­at­ing a bilin­gual child needs to start at birth…with the par­ents. The best idea seems to be that one par­ent com­mu­ni­cates in one lan­guage and the oth­er in the sec­ond lan­guage — all the time. How­ev­er, when both par­ents are work­ing they need to decide which of their child’s mul­ti­ple car­ers is going to teach their child the two lan­guages they want. If you send your baby to an Eng­lish speak­ing facil­i­ty what lan­guage do you think they will under­stand bet­ter while there for 10 hours a day 5 days a week? English!

It is the par­ents’ job to teach their child what­ev­er for­eign lan­guage they desire and the best way to do that is — be at home with their child. I don’t con­sid­er it pos­si­ble for chil­dren to learn Eng­lish from some­one who does­n’t speak it clear­ly and I don’t con­sid­er it pos­si­ble for an Eng­lish speak­ing child to learn that per­son­’s pri­ma­ry lan­guage either.

It just becomes an adver­tis­ing ploy to say that “Our tod­dler teacher speaks Por­tuguese” and “One of our infant teach­ers speaks Span­ish”. Such state­ments may aid the sell­ing of the pro­gramme but in my expe­ri­ence young chil­dren can learn nei­ther of those lan­guages sim­ply because those teach­ers only have flu­en­cy in their native lan­guage – not in Eng­lish, the lan­guage of the major­i­ty of their teach­ers and the lan­guage of the rest of their edu­ca­tion — we do live in Amer­i­ca after all!

Let’s at least ensure that a child learns one lan­guage real­ly well! If we deny the need for recep­tive lan­guage — in the child’s dai­ly pri­ma­ry lan­guage — in order to com­ply with day­care rules, cus­toms and to learn, we are over­look­ing the basis of learn­ing to speak. 

Let’s drop the ‘sec­ond lan­guage’ idea at day­care unless all speak­ers in a facil­i­ty are total­ly flu­ent in the two lan­guages preferred!