**Original Text from the best seller book series in Thailand “Parents can raise bilingual children” written by Pongrapee Tachapahapong** The first book was published in 2009. Translated to English by RNG (some part)
“Parents can raise bilingual children.” This is a perspective in teaching second languages to children on a foundational, natural level. Parents use the second language with their child while focusing on letting the children soak in the language naturally. There is no focus on memorizing vocabulary, practicing the tenses of the verbs, or trying to learn the grammar structure of the language. Instead, there is a focus on learning grammar from “intrinsic feelings.”
Children can use the language correctly while assimilating the grammar structure without even knowing what grammar is. This is no different from Thai children who speak Thai fluently and correctly without ever having to study the basics of Thai. Even then, Thai children know immediately when someone speaks Thai incorrectly. This we call “intrinsic grammar.”
This perspective views language as a speaking language. Learning a language must start with first listening and speaking. It is unnatural for someone to learn to read and write before listening and speaking. This concept also holds that the education of the child must begin with things they are interested in, not in what the parents of the child are interested in.
The focus is to teach language and simply use language in an atmosphere in which the children are playing, eating, sleeping, and spending relaxing times with their parents. There is not much more explanation needed, only to “use the language.” This perspective believes that teaching children in the fashion of translation, for instance, the “A=Ant มด, B=Book หนังสือ,” method only leads to learning loss in the second language because in doing so, children only create a translation system in their heads.
They begin to use reasoning and think only of the letters in the alphabet. They focus on grammar while creating sentences and finally, they stress about speaking incorrectly and become terrified of speaking in fear that they may use the wrong tense.
This is the broad picture of the concept of “parents can raise bilingual children,” given simply and in a straightforward manner.
As for the next points, I will begin to lay the jigsaw puzzles piece by piece, explaining the main points carefully and clearly, as well as the reasoning behind everything. If you are ready, prepare yourself to come on a journey of learning.
Bilingual children versus Bilevel children
Many years ago, at a birthday party, my seven-year-old nephew was able to speak a birthday blessing for his grandma in Chinese. The blessing was at least 5 minutes long. I was stunned and thought,
“Wow, he is really good! He speaks Chinese like a breeze!” A while later, when I had a chance, I asked him about the Chinese he spoke at the birthday party. He told me then that he had forgotten all of it. At that time, he had only memorized it. Again, I was stunned when I heard this answer and exclaimed, “Oh, come on! Your teacher got you to memorize it!”
Memorizing something five minutes long is not an easy thing to do, not to mention that memorizing in your second language is even harder. It was unbelievable that he could do it so well, but I was filled with regret that a child’s learning ability was used in such a useless and impractical way. Rote memorization does not create any kind of connection with the language. It is only a thing of short-term memory. By the time they walk out of the house and stumble over a stone, everything is forgotten.
Even though I am frustrated about this and disagree with repeating everything like a Myna bird, this is not the worst. What I dislike the most is “teaching English via translation.” This memorizing and translation method is what we see the most.
I would like to call children who are trained in the “Teaching via translation” method, “bilevel children.” The first level is Thai and the second level is English. In the space between the two levels is a mechanism that examines reasoning, grammar as well as a hundred other things. Communication is done by translating both ways. I am not shy about saying this because I grew up with this method.
You can call me the “old generation of bilevel children.” I grew up as a “bilevel child,” and I never felt good about it. When I spoke my second language, I had to think hard. I was terrified of making a mistake all the time. I used to ask why I couldn’t speak as confidently as I did when speaking Thai. When I was speaking Thai, I never had to think about the grammar of the Thai language at all, and yet I could still speak it correctly. If someone spoke incorrectly, I knew right away. Why?
I spent a long time considering this phenomenon before I was able to come to the simple conclusion that I spoke out of my “intrinsic feelings!”
The next question is…. So where do these feelings come from?
I reviewed this question and pieced together my memories. The picture that came to mind was that these feelings were refined through long use of the language until everything had gone into my long-term memory. Next, long-term memories created emotions with the language, giving it sight, taste, smell, hearing, and touch..
When I hear the word, “sour,” instead of thinking about Thai grammar and which word describes which word, I think of the feeling when I eat limes, to the point that my mouth waters each time I hear this word.
This is what I believe, and it is such a common thing. Every single Thai person has gone through this experience before, even if we forget about it. But never mind. I am here to take you all back to the foundation, back to all those old memories one more time.
I believe that to learn a second language well, speaking must come from feelings, not from rote memorization or a pattern. Speaking ten sentences out of feelings about the same thing will be different each time. This is not something strange because the feelings we harbor in each faculty are all different– the tone of voice is different, the emotions are different, and the things we recall are different. When we speak ten times using memorization, however, we end up saying the same things each of the ten times. “How are you? I am fine, thank you. And you?”
This is the memory lesson that has been fed to each Thai student for the last 50 to 60 years until it has become a joke about Thai people studying English. These words were even used to title a comedy movie.
The question is, how will we create these feelings for our children when teaching their second language? The answer is that these feelings must come from the children being able to create an understanding of words in their second language mode, without translating. The children should use their 5 senses, whether through sight, taste, smell, hearing, or touch to understand and eventually record words in their long-term memory.
This happens through frequent speaking and refining the language each step by using it in real circumstances. If you teach children the word, “walk,” you should take them walking for each of the 5 senses to record “video” of them walking, the sound they hear from you, the feelings they have at each step, the breeze that touches their face, and the smell that is wafting from the bakery close to you.
By the time you have read to this point you might be remembering some of those old memories of your own, but don’t be surprised. All of us have passed those experiences in our Thai language mode already. It’s a natural thing and one common in the human language learning experience.
Children who speak two languages from both modes of feeling will be able to speak Thai while thinking and feeling in Thai, and speak English while speaking and thinking in English. These children I will call “bilingual children.” This is the point where parents will have to choose between having their children be “bilingual children” or “bilevel children,” because from now on, the two concepts begin to separate into two different ways.
If you’re still wanting to choose the path of bilingualism, the first principle of this concept that you must know by heart is, “Don’t translate.”
If you want to teach the word “fish,” only point to the fish and say, “fish.” Let the child establish understanding by themselves.
In addition to this, I would like to advise the use of body language. Parents should use body language together with expression and emotions while communicating for children to understand more quickly. In this way, they will use all 5 of their senses in interpreting the meaning and recording the event.
Many of the parents that have tried this are still worried about their children not understanding. In the end, they can’t keep from translating for them. This weakness brings the path of the child back from that of a bilingual child to a bilevel child. This also creates a tendency for the child to wait for their parents to translate.
In answer to the question, “If I don’t translate, will my child understand the meaning?” Whether or not the child understands the meaning does not matter. What matters is what we should do to help the children express their feelings in their second language mode. You might say the word fish, and the child thinks you mean dog. The child points to the dog. You say it again and the child still points to the dog. Parents should not do at this point tell their children, “Fish is a ปลา, not a dog. Fish is a ปลา. Do you understand?”
The thing parents should do, though, is to take the child close to the fish and point to it while saying the word, “Fish.” Try to create a fun atmosphere. Don’t get frustrated with them if they don’t understand. Keep on using frequency and correction and don’t forget that what matters is that they express feelings in their second language mode.
For instance, they might say, “Mommy, dog, dog!” This shows the child does not understand the word they are saying, but they are showing feelings and emotions in their second language mode. This is what matters.
Children learn from imitation, not from textbooks
I once watched a documentary about a group of ancient people that was called, “Neanderthal.” There is one part where it discussed why the Neanderthal people became extinct. They were not able to fight with the people of the modern-day era, because their voice boxes were not in the same place as the voiceboxes of the people of the modern era. This affected their ability to communicate among the Neanderthal people who were a level “lower” than the modern-day people.
Whether this is true or false has yet to be proved by anthropologists, but what is sure is that the ability to create patterns of communication is instinctive from birth. If we use age as a measuring stick, “listening and speaking” will always take longer to develop than reading and writing. There is no comparison between the two.
When children are born, as soon as they open their eyes to see the world, they cry without using any kind of language. In their early years, children spend much time listening to their parents to form speech patterns and be able to vocalize those patterns. This is the effort of imitation in human learning. Language is a speaking language. To begin, children do not need to reason. Instead, they need a model to mimic and someone to support them in their speaking.
As for the model, it is not possible to have it be anyone other than parents. When children begin to mimic, they spend only one to two years before they can fluently speak, no matter what language it may be. Understanding this point, the parents should be the model in teaching their child a second language, using language with their children in daily life.
They should use it over and over with their children because frequency is an important factor that can help refine the child’s imitation to perfection. Before that point is reached, the parents have the constant responsibility to support their child’s speech. This is the second principle according to the idea of “parents can raise bilingual children.” This is something that parents will have to do with their children from young up.
What does it mean to support speech? It begins with correcting unclear speech, teaching the correct words to use, stimulating the child’s speech, and creating conditions for the child to imitate adult speech, and to create a model for speech. This helps children be familiar with using the muscles in their tongue, their jaw, their vocal cords, and other parts used in speaking to assimilate this intrinsically. The model should not observe and lead the child’s speech, when the child as of yet does not have a large treasury of words. Being a model for them to imitate is enough, as well as being an encouragement for the children and complimenting them when they speak well.
This is what it means to learn a language through imitation, which differs from studying a language. Studying a language uses reasoning in communication, with a focus on grammar, reading, writing, and memorizing vocabulary. Of these, there is no need for me to speak more.
Many people are dissatisfied with my words on this subject, but let them speak. I do not reject learning in the form of studying textbooks at all, but the first level of learning must come from imitation. This level must be firm first, and then we can progress into studying from textbooks where we can dive into the world of reading and writing. This is what I would like to point out.
Intrinsic grammar (inner grammar)
I once sat talking with a younger friend who was skilled in English. It’s not necessary to say what her TOEFL points were, but there was an interesting part of our conversation that I would like to point out.
I asked her, “When using sentences that speak of the future, how many patterns are there in English?”
I hadn’t even stopped speaking when she started gushing like a grammar book come alive. I sat and listened intently while smiling, and the moment she stopped to take a breath, I quickly asked, “So, in Thai when we speak about things that we keep doing continuously, or what you call Present Continuous, how many different patterns are there of speaking?”
She looked stunned for a bit and then looked thoughtful as if she had never heard this question before. Then she slowly started speaking softly.
“Well, probably only just one.” She answered as if she was not quite sure of herself, and I knew she wasn’t when I heard the word “probably” from her mouth.
“For example, the phrase, ‘กำลังกิน.’ Right?” She nodded.
“What about ‘gin yu.’ Do these two phrases have the same meaning?” I asked again.
“Hmm, it is the same meaning,” she answered.
“‘กำลังกินอยู่’” I added another way of saying it.
“It’s the same thing,” she answered, wondering slightly what I was playing at.
“How do you know that it’s the same thing? From Thai grammar books?” I asked, trying her out.
“No, I just feel like it’s the same thing.”
“That’s the thing. Your Thai grammar comes out of your intrinsic feelings.
You can use it, you can understand it, but you can’t explain it. Actually, that’s the only answer I wanted.”
From that point on, I changed the subject to the concept of learning a second language through a natural method.
“Teaching grammar through speaking from feelings.” This is the third principle of “parents can raise bilingual children.” This sentence may sound strange, but if you think a little bit more, you will see that it explains itself clearly. Everyone has passed through this experience already in their Thai language mode.
To teach a second language to children, there is no need to do much, other than speak the language in context. For example, when you see a train moving toward you, the only thing you have to do is say, “The train is coming.” When the train is moved away again, you only say, “It’s gone.”
It would be ridiculous to try to tell the child that when you see something moving toward you, you have to use the present continuous tense and when it has passed, you need to use the present perfect.
At the same time, you are hefting your verb tense book and opening it for them to look at.
When using language, the tone of voice, and the emotions of the speech model are both factors that stimulate the child to remember more accurately, because children use all 5 senses in registering language. When children start to understand, they will begin to imitate these words or sentences and will try them out. Parents, as models, must try to support their speaking, create opportunities for them to speak, and use these sentences as often as possible, for this is creating “cumulative frequency.”
When frequency is stressed more, the child’s memory will begin to create a structure of feeling. When these feelings begin to take root, they will be able to communicate naturally, speaking with correct grammar without even knowing what grammar is and not needing to know.
*กำลังกิน, กินอยู่, and กำลังกิน all mean “I am eating.”