I bumped into one of our clients in the grocery store the other day (yes, even in a city the size of Madrid, this kind of thing happens), and he mentioned how pleased they were with the way the way their daughters' English language skills had taken off since they began spending time with a native-speaking nanny a couple months ago. They are only with the nanny twice a week, he said, and, for the first time, we catch them using English words here and there when they are playing together, singing songs in English in the car...
It always makes us happy to hear this kind of thing from clients but, from his tone, I took it he was not just pleased, but also surprised. So I thought this topic deserved to be explored in a bit more detail.
Why is it that a native-speaking nanny can make such a big difference? I mean, kids already have English classes in school, right? Yes, but formal English classes are one thing, and spending time with a fun, enthusiastic nanny, who knows how playing and learning go hand in hand and uses the child's interests to foster language development, is something else, and a great complement to the formal learning environment.
Formal language learning is vital, and if your kids have that already, they are on the right track. But, to develop bilingual skills, most children need more than that. We need to look for ways to make the target language (English, or whichever it is), interesting and useful for our children, so that they see the need for it.
A native-speaking nanny does not "teach" English, what he or she does is "live" with your child in English. Whether the child likes Pokemon, art, football, dolls, or a combination of all of those, the nanny will use the child's interests to develop language skills naturally.
If you ask Google how much exposure a child needs in a target language to become bilingual, you'll get a lot of different answers but, according to multiple experts, 25 seems to be some kind of magic number.
25 hours of exposure to the target (or minority) language.
That is 5 hours a day, 5 days a week, or 30% of the time the child is actually awake, which may sound a bit scary, but if you break it down, it's actually quite doable, because those hours can come from different places, and include things like:
- time in school/daycare, if they offer the language
- Conversations with parents, if either parent is proficient in the language (most experts discourage parents from speaking to their child in a language they're not fully proficient in, but there are things parents can do, at specific times in the day, to support the development of the minority language).
- Playtime with a native-speaking nanny
- Songs and movies in the target language, though here most experts recommend watching the movies, or singing the songs, together with a native speaker who can help contextualize the audio or audiovisual material
- Playtime with other children who also speak the language
The trick is learning how to combine the different options available in a way that suits your child's personality and your family's routine!