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Why the confidence wave is so important to bilingual kids

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by Sarah Mueller

My middle son, Max, is a bit of a perfectionist. Some things come very easy to him and consequently, when he doesn't get something right the first time, he collapses into a puddle of frustration. It was like this when he was learning to ride his bike and like this when he is practicing math facts (his choice - Max loves math problems - weird for a 5 year old, isn't it?!)

Anyway, we're working to dispel his perfectionist tendencies and encourage a bit more perseverance. However, I've also realized he has a confidence problem.

Wave Photo by http://www.flickr.com/photos/thelastminute/

CC by 2.0

You'd think a perfectionist would have all the confidence in the world.

But some young perfectionists don't get much practice working hard at things. They may subconsciously stick to their comfort zones. If everything is easy, they don't know what to do when something turns up that challenges them, as it inevitably will.

Confidence can also be a big issue with kids learning German.

Learning a second language can be a source of frustration for some kids. If they are new to the language or if they aren't exposed to a lot of German, they may feel insecure or hesitant to use what they do know. Perhaps they were criticized or embarrassed by a particular mistake they made. Even well-meaning criticism can be hurtful at times. Confidence can also wax and wane from day to day.

Once a child's confidence is damaged, he may find it harder and harder to keep learning.

When my son is having a low-confidence moment (aka meltdown), there's nothing I can do to help him continue learning the skill at hand. I just have to wait it out and see if he recovers and wants to keep going. Your child may not get all the way to a meltdown, but you may see other signs of low confidence - a hesitancy to speak German around others, or complaining that the German books you're reading are too hard, although they were fine the day before. The child may resist going to German class or talking on the phone with Oma. You may notice he's not increasing his vocabulary or improving his accent at the same rate as before.

The chicken or the egg?

Which comes first? The low confidence or the struggle to learn? Well, one will certainly trigger the other and it doesn't really matter which comes first. The important point is to recognize that it will be more difficult to learn when you're struggling with confidence. This is the important time not to give up on the study. Things will eventually get easier again and confidence will improve.

Why is confidence so key? What about talent?

Think about a time when you had a major accomplishment. For the rest of your day, didn't everything else you did seem effortless? Didn't you feel talented? This is because your confidence was sky-high as a result of your accomplishment. You then were able to approach other tasks with the feeling that nothing could stop you. And nothing did. You were riding the confidence wave.

Talent is overrated.

When you're riding the wave, minor setbacks are no big deal and you navigate through them without batting an eye. You aren't suddenly a more talented cook, parent, or German speaker. It's the confidence wave, not some intrinsic talent. Eventually the wave comes back to shore and you are just you again; not superhuman any more. My son does have a bit of an aptitude for numbers. But it's his confidence that will make or break him when it comes to mathematic accomplishments. If he doesn't learn to work through periods of low confidence, he will probably decide that he's no good at math and it will be a self-fulfilling prophecy. Similarly, a child who is "talented" with languages but experiences great frustration and low confidence won't progress nearly as far as one who is "not" talented, but who works steadily to improve.

So we now know that building confidence is critical. But how do I do that?

  1. Recognize a confidence problem when you see it.
  2. Be a good model - show your kids it's OK to make mistakes. Be willing to laugh at yourself when you do something wrong.
  3. Pick one specific thing your child does well and praise him for it. Watch him glow with pride and see his internal confidence meter rise.
  4. If he's sensitive, find gentle ways to correct his errors. Don't criticize him in front of others. Help him work on his accent if it's a source of embarrassment for him. Make sure that he feels safe speaking German and making mistakes. If he never makes any mistakes, he's not getting out of his comfort zone.
  5. Let your child overhear you bragging about his latest German advance. Kids just love this!
  6. Make sure German in your house is low pressure and fun. Nobody's perfect and your child shouldn't expect perfection from himself.

Summary

Once you understand the importance of confidence related to learning, you will find all kinds of applications for this knowledge. You can't always keep your child's confidence high. More important is for him to know that a time of low confidence is only temporary and doesn't mean he's lost his knack. Help him to keep working and rebuild his confidence and you'll see the results in improved German.

I'm reminding Max of times when he did work hard at something and persevered. His big brother went through a similar phase and is now more willing to work through a problem rather than give up. I'm hoping the same change is on the horizon for Max and he can start to ride the confidence wave once more.


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