Do Children Learn or Acquire Language?

Below is a video of our 3 year old speaking Mandarin. Her teacher sent it to us because she was very impressed with Siena’s accent in Mandarin and how natural it sounded. To be honest, I was very impressed as well even though I have no idea what she is saying. In fact, I find it totally fascinating that even though I know more than the average person about bilingualism that I am still reacting with amazement of my daughter acquiring a third language. That is, her development as a bilingual Spanish and English speaker came as a “Of course she is becoming bilingual because we, as a family unit, are bilingual,” but it wasn’t an “Oh, wow! Look how she acquires both languages” moment.

As you can infer from the paragraph above I believe Siena is acquiring Mandarin which is very different from learning Mandarin. According to second language acquisition theories, acquiring a language occurs in authentic  settings, such as living in a country where the language is spoken and where individuals are forced to use the target language through social interactions. Learning a language usually occurs in the a traditional school setting and many times grammar becomes a focus.

Our daughter is very privileged in that she is going to a Montessori Chinese immersion school for young children. We didn’t purposely plan on adding a third language to our family’s linguistic repertoire, it was a matter of “convenience” actually. That being said, we welcome the opportunity with open hearts. We also recognize that it takes a huge commitment on our part as a family. We have opened up spaces in our home to talk about learning Mandarin in purposeful ways. One way we do this is with the weekly homework the school provides. For example, I will read the pinyin in order to understand the Chinese characters when helping my older daughter complete her homework. Pinyin is “the official romanization system for Standard Chinese in mainland ChinaMalaysiaSingapore, and Taiwan” (reference from Wikipedia). Meanwhile my younger daughter is also participating by repeating the teacher -recorded sentences. Although this interaction reflects a “learning” of Mandarin it does support the way both girls are acquiring Chinese when they go their classes.

My main message for parents who have their children in language programs is to remember learning/acquiring a language takes a village. It is NOT the sole responsibility of the teacher. You, too, have to make a HUGE effort to support the minority language in your home. This can mean taking the time to learn Spanish (or the target minority language), or in our case Mandarin, as well. This can also mean finding ways to increase the status of the minority language in your lives. However you plan on embracing an additional language–make sure you are enjoying the process because children will also respond to your reactions towards becoming a bi/multilingual family.

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