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Q: My son is eight-months-old, and he'll be learning how to speak soon. My husband and I are Vietnamese. We want our son to speak both English and Vietnamese. How can we teach him how to speak both languages without confusing him? Can we introduce him to both languages at the same time or one at a time only?
A: Throughout the world, millions of young children grow up learning two -- or even more -- languages simultaneously. Learning English and Vietnamese will not confuse your young son. And it will definitely benefit him intellectually, culturally, and economically in the future. It is just a myth that there are adverse effects to growing up with two or more languages in childhood. So far, there is absolutely no scientific evidence that hearing two or more languages leads to delays or disorders in learning to speak.
While your young son can't speak right now, he is already busy learning the meaning of words in whatever language or languages he is hearing. In helping your child acquire both English and Vietnamese, do what is natural to your family in having him hear both languages. He will need to hear both English and Vietnamese in many different circumstances in order to acquire sufficient vocabulary to speak them well. Reading books to him right now in either language is another excellent way to help him acquire vocabulary.
You can certainly speak both languages to your son. If you have just been speaking English or Vietnamese to him, don't abruptly switch to using just the other language. Instead, introduce the new language gradually.
Don't expect your son's knowledge of both English and Vietnamese to be perfectly balanced. One language may predominate at times because he is using it more than the other. And don't be surprised if he inserts single words or even phrases from one language into the other. This is not a sign that he cannot distinguish between the two languages. Later on, he will only do this with people who understand both languages.
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Peggy Gisler and Marge Eberts are experienced teachers who have more than 60 educational publications to their credit. They began writing books together in 1979. Careers for Bookworms was a Book-of-the-Month Club paperback selection, and Pancakes, Crackers, and Pizza received recognition from the Children's Reading Roundtable. Gisler and Eberts taught in classrooms from kindergarten through graduate school. Both have been supervisors at the Butler University Reading Center.