- The Washington Times - Monday, March 11, 2002

When Johan Lundegardh, 8, of Vienna comes home from school, his mother AnnaCarin Lundegardh usually asks "Hade du en bra dag i skolan?" to which Johan might respond, "Yeah, my day was great. We had art and physical education."
Johan, who was born in Sweden but whose parents moved to the United States in 1998, is one of a large group of bilingual children in the District and surrounding areas.
Sometimes Johan and his younger brother, Jesper, 5, mix the two languages, using a string of words in Swedish, ending the sentence with a word or two in English.
This type of mixing and matching words worries some parents and in the 1940s and '50s, linguists were even advising against teaching children two or more languages at once, saying they would get confused.
However, that thinking has changed dramatically in the last few decades. Now many linguists and foreign-language researchers recommend teaching a child two or more languages at once.
"I don't think that mixing the languages is anything to worry about," says Rebecca Oxford, director of the second-language education program at the College of Education, University of Maryland in College Park.
"If the child does [mix the languages], it's usually with one of the parents who speaks both languages," Ms. Oxford says.
The child most likely will not mix the languages in the company of someone who does not speak both languages, Ms. Oxford says.
Mrs. Lundegardh agrees.
"It was natural for us from the very beginning to speak Swedish at home since Johan speaks English at school," Mrs. Lundegardh says. "But if I ask him something in Swedish, he usually answers in English because he knows I understand English."
While bilingual, Johan says English comes more naturally to him now since he speaks it every day in school.

A second language can be taught alongside the first language, starting as early as when the child is an infant, says Nancy Rhodes, director of foreign language education at the Center for Applied Linguistics in Northwest.
"Children are amazing in their ability to learn languages at an early age," Ms. Rhodes says.
However, when learning two languages simultaneously, it may take longer to reach a certain skill level in English than for a child who speaks only English, she says.
"Children who are exposed to two languages from birth may start speaking a little later. But they will catch up eventually, and then they have two languages instead of one," she says.
However, one language usually is dominant in some way.
In Johan's case, his accent and pronunciation are perfect in both Swedish and English, but his vocabulary is better in English, the language he speaks at school.
To keep the "other" language active, it's important that the child keep using it (including reading, writing and speaking) as much as possible once he or she goes to school and is surrounded by English, says Stephen Dare, head of the primary school at the Washington International School in Northwest.
Otherwise, the child may completely forget the other language.
When the parents are native speakers of different languages, linguists recommend that they stick to their own first language when speaking to their children.
Mr. Dare's own daughters, 2 and 4 years of age, speak both Spanish and English at home. His wife, Ximena Moreno, who is Colombian, speaks Spanish with the children, while Mr. Dare speaks English.
"That way they know with whom to speak what language," he says.
But sometimes, after having spent a whole day with their mom, the girls might respond to their father in Spanish, again, because they know he understands it.
"I will ask the younger one, 'Do you want something to eat?' and she might respond 'Quiero pan,' " indicating she wants bread, Mr. Dare says.
Mr. Dare and Ms. Moreno are using the right way to teach their daughters two languages, says Ms. Oxford.
"If you have two parents who represent different languages, the best policy is that one parent speaks to the child in one language and the other parent speaks to the child in the other," Ms. Oxford says. "That way the child will be able to make a distinction between the languages easily."
There is no definite age when a child is too old to learn to speak a language as well as a native speaker. But the older a person gets, the more difficult it becomes to learn the rhythm and pronunciation of a language, while grammar and other theoretical concepts may become easier, Ms. Oxford says.
The advantages of speaking two or more languages are many and sometimes obvious, says Ms. Rhodes.
"You can communicate with more people and you learn about a different culture," she says.
Also, more job opportunities may be available to those who speak more languages than one.
"I think it improves your ability to work on the world stage in politics and business," Ms. Oxford says.
There is also research that shows that bilingualism can improve a student's academic ability in other areas too, she says.
For all the benefits bilingualism may bring, there may be downsides too. Learning two languages at once may not be for everyone.
"It's difficult to think of any disadvantages, but if you notice that your child is unable to reach a [proficient] level in either language, then that's a problem," Ms. Oxford says.
Mr. Dare says it's been his experience teaching bilingual children at the Washington International School that those cases are few and far between.
With his own children, he has seen only benefits of bilingualism, so far. When the girls go to Colombia they can communicate with their grandparents and other relatives and learn about the nation's culture.
The Lundegardh family wants to make sure that when they return to Sweden a date has not been set their sons will be fluent in Swedish.
In the meantime, instead of worrying about the mixing and matching of words, Mrs. Lundegardh says she thinks it can be quite adorable and funny.
"Sometimes Jesper lacks the vocabulary to finish a sentence in Swedish and will insert an English word," Mrs. Lundegardh says.
"He might say 'Jag vill ha pankaka, but with sylt,' " she says, recounting her son's request for a pancake with jam. "I have so many funny stories. Once he said he had 'killed' the neighbor's cat, when he meant 'tickled'," as he came up with "killa" a Swedish child's slang word for "tickle" instead of the English word.


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