The new year has begun on a really lively note at The Bilingual Zoo forum. In fact, nearly 200 posts have already been made to the forum boards in little more than two weeks. I admit, it can be hard for me to keep up with all the action there! (I read every single post but I’m only able to respond to some of them.)
During this flurry of activity, I’ve again noticed a key principle of language development that I’d like to emphasize in this post. The truth is, while managing The Bilingual Zoo takes daily effort, it’s also enormously gratifying to me when parents share their breakthroughs: how their children are now making stronger progress and using the minority language more actively than before.
This has been the case with a couple of our “zookeepers” since the start of the year—happy updates from Sam in this thread and from Nellie in this thread—and, in both instances, I think their experiences highlight the principle I’d like to articulate today.
Growing a pretty flower
First, full disclosure: I don’t have a green thumb—in fact, my thumb is more the color of soot. Each January I tell myself that this year I’ll dig up our weedy little yard and plant glorious rows of vegetables and flowers…but I still haven’t even managed to pick up a shovel in the nearly 10 years we’ve lived in this house.
In fact, the closest I’ve come to any gardening is the potted Venus flytrap I once brought home from the store, which looked really cool when I got it. Although I did my best to feed and water the poor thing, within a week it shriveled and turned black (yes, black).
Despite my thumb’s poor reputation, please let me make my point about language development by using a gardening metaphor…
In order to grow a pretty flower, two things are required: nature and nurture. The flower will grow quite naturally, from seed to bloom, if it’s nurtured well, with suitable soil and water. As long as these proper efforts are made—with persistence and patience—the eventual opening of that pretty flower happens organically, inevitably.
In the same way, the flowering of a child’s active language ability—the “pretty flower” of minority language use—requires the same combination of nature and nurture. It would be silly, of course, to expect that a child, any child, could start speaking in full-blown sentences at six months because nature itself has decreed that there are certain developmental stages in language acquisition, which means that the child’s own growing maturity is an integral part of this process.
And yet, quite obviously, maturity alone is not enough. A newborn can gradually develop into a small, talkative child, but that talk will largely be in one language only—the majority language—if there isn’t sufficient interaction and input in the minority language. So right along with the child’s growing maturity, we must be very persistent about nurturing that target language on a regular basis with ample exposure. Then, if that input has been sufficient, a breakthrough—like Sam and Nellie recently experienced—can eventually occur at the appropriate time in the child’s own process of maturation…resulting in more active use of the minority language.
Daily efforts pave the way
In my exchange with Sam, I mentioned that it’s hard to say exactly when the target language will “click” with a given child and a breakthrough will occur (we can’t know exactly when a flower will bloom, either!), but when our active nurturing enables nature to work its magic, greater use of the minority language is then an organic and inevitable outcome.
This is why the importance of ample exposure to the target language cannot be overstated: exposure is the first of the two “core conditions” for fostering active language use. (The second is the child’s perceived need to use it.)
Perhaps, then, we can sum up this principle by saying: The flowering of a child’s minority language depends on both nature and nurture, and the more active that nurturing is—persistent, playful, resourceful, from multiple angles—the more actively the child will come to use the target language when nature decides the time is right.
As I regularly stress: There’s always a payoff to perseverance. If you simply persist in your best efforts, day by day, you will pave the way for the beautiful flowering of language development and use over the months and years of childhood.
And you don’t need a green thumb to do it.