Much of what I've shared so far on this blog is enthusiastic endorsements from books and parents about how wonderful it is to teach foreign or second languages to young children. But I would be remiss if I didn't point out that this process requires an extraordinary amount of consistency and commitment.
Meghan is a French teacher in the US who is staying home with her two kids (ages 4 and 21 months) right now. She had really wanted to teach them French, but has not been able to follow through with it. "I wish I could," she says, "but I just can't seem to get myself to do it. We do have some French books and things and we do a few words here and there, but no real communication."
Meghan spoke French to and read many books in French to her first child, "but as he got older he would veto them in favor of English books. Occasionally he'll let me read him one, but he was slow to talk and I started thinking that I just wanted him to speak English and then I'd worry about French [later]."
However, "later" never came, and "being a new mom was so overwhelming that I would just default to English. My husband speaks no French, and [it was hard] for me to always be trying to speak French to [my son]. Then my daughter was 8 1/2 weeks early and with all the craziness of having a newborn in the hospital, a completely confused two-year-old old at home...well, I just honestly didn't give [teaching them French] much thought. And now with my daughter being speech delayed [because she was a preemie], I guess again I'm feeling like I need her to just SPEAK."
Thus Meghan is reluctant to pressure either child to learn French. She adds, though, "Most days I think I really should just bite the bullet and start up with it again, but alas, I don't. I've found that as a non-native speaker, speaking French without any response back (or anyone to correct me, help when I get stuck, etc.) seemed like a whole lot of work."
I've heard many parents tell this story: they wanted to teach their child a second language but for many reasons, couldn't or didn't. It seems particularly difficult when they're not a native speaker themselves, when their spouses aren't bilingual, when they're harried and busy, when the children have more urgent needs to attend to. For example, my colleague Chuchang confesses, "I always regret that I did not talk to my kids in Chinese when they were young. They did not have any friends to speak Chinese with so I got lazy and stopped." But she's delighted to see that "they are taking Chinese classes in college now."
It does seem that starting later is still very worthwhile. Probably it's best to approach it both casually and systematically, at least at the beginning when the children aren't used to hearing the language spoken. Casually: Watch movies in the target language, play music in the background, leave books around the house and the car, invite speakers of the language over so the children can overhear you conversing in something other than English, get the kids involved in a playgroup with other kids who speak the language.
Systematically: Designate one place in the house for the target language (a couch, a chair, a blanket spread on the same place on the floor). Work formally on the language at the same time of day as often as the child can handle it (starting with once or twice a week). Make the "lessons" as fun as possible and age-appropriate, involving music, movement, and artwork as well as reading and eventually writing. Try to teach about a separate subject--animals, plants, geography, etc.--using the target language, supplemented with books and pictures, so that the lesson isn't focused on the language but the children are acquiring vocabulary without even realizing it. If the children respond unfavorably to the parent's use of the other language, enlist a different person who speaks it to be the tutor, teacher, or babysitter for a while.
Readers, do you agree? Many of you have much more experience than me! Please write in with comments if you have had a situation similar to Meghan's or if you have ideas of how to start teaching languages to kids who have been monolingual so far.