The choice of raising your child bilingual can be intriguing, but daunting, for many reasons. You may have read of the lifelong benefits of learning more than one language. Maybe you are anxious to begin, yet, you also feel apprehensive about teaching a language yourself. Perhaps you favor one language over the other a little too much, or you may be concerned because both (or neither!) parents are bilingual. Even if both parents are multilingual, but in differing languages, you may wonder how many languages to teach and how much to involve each language in everyday life. Will your child be able to ‘sort’ the languages out in her head? Is it really worth it to go though all the extra effort?
It is apropos to mention that adding multiple languages to a child’s repertoire is a very extensive commitment, but one which offers abundant advantages. From our experiences, we have compiled some basic steps for you to consider and have helped us in daily life in a multilingual family.
- Decide what your goals are. How fluent do you want your children to be in the languages you have chosen to implement? Is the purpose of raising them bilingual for family or cultural reasons and/or their own enrichment? This will help you decide how much you will want to bring both languages into daily life, whether you are just hoping for a basis in a second language, or for fluency.
- Do your research. As with any other big step in your life, raising your children bilingual takes an incredible amount of time and dedication. It takes lots of exposure to the language as well as lots of patience for both parents. If one of the parents is not mutilingual, the bilingual environment may be something very new and at times frustrating for them so it is a good idea for both parents to read up as much as possible.
- Be willing to learn yourself. We learn so much from our children. Don’t be afraid to look up the correct tenses, proper uses of words, and to refresh your knowledge of grammar and sentence structure so that your child learns correctly. Be sure to answer their questions to the best of your ability as they grow and wonder about the languages they speak. Let yourself learn with them as they develop both languages, too.
- Expose your children to the language as much as possible: songs, movies, books, and everyday life. If you are a unilingual speaking parent, ask the bilingual parent to record a few books with an audio app so you can help to read bilingual books.
- Try to keep the languages as solid as possible. If one parent is monolingual and the other parent is bilingual, try to have one parent speak one language to the child and the other parent speak the other.
- Guide don’t force. Learning a language takes time! As with most other areas in your child’s life, if they are exposed to languages and are given the tools to thrive, sooner or later they will. They may progress at the pace you were hoping, or to the level of proficiency that you desired. Remember that mastering any language can take a lifetime. Also, don’t forget that children tend to favor one language over another for quite awhile before implementing both on a more equal scale.
- Don’t be discouraged! Believe it or not, just like any other area of parenting, there will be other parents, family members and even random strangers who will have opposing views and may express them to you. They may doubt you, doubt your ability to raise a bilingual child, and loudly express their opinions with comments such as “you are just confusing them!” or “That won’t work!” Remember, however, that it is your child they are speaking about and you will know your child’s abilities and limitations and be able to work with them in a way that is right for them. Let naysayers have their opinions and stay strong with your resolutions. There may also be times that a child only wishes to speak one language or another for a time. They may also “mix” languages often. (1) Don’t be discouraged! Keep speaking to your child in both languages, and often the child will realize the advantages to speaking a second language–especially if you can converse in a “secret” language no one else can understand!
- Know truth from fiction. You may have been told that learning two languages simultaneously can inhibit vocabulary or developmental progress. In truth, it has been discovered that bilingual children sometimes have a slight delay in verbal communication, but usually catch up very quickly. (2) Remember that their minds are also processing, sorting, and cataloging two languages! So, when they catch up, they will speed ahead with two languages, instead of just one.
- Be aware of the differences between monolingual and bilingual learning. Bilingual children have not only linguistic, but cognitive and neurophysiological differences, too. In essence, bilingual children learn differently. If you learn about the ways the differences occur, it can help you to better frame the way in which you nurture and assist your child.
- Linguistically, when a bilingual person hears or reads words, both languages are activated in their minds. Bilingual adults also learn new words more rapidly than monolingual adults. (3) By learning two or more languages, children are able to pick up more languages in the future as they grow.
- Cognitively, “Bilingual children have been found to exhibit superior performance in divergent thinking, figure-ground discrimination, and other related meta-cognitive skills.”(3) Early exposure to multiple languages enables a better memory and better overall concentration. According to the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association, “empirical evidence suggests that bilingualism in children is associated with increased meta-cognitive skills and superior divergent thinking ability (a type of cognitive flexibility), as well as with better performance on some perceptual tasks.” (3) Don’t forget that our society is becoming more and more multilingual, and knowing more than one language opens your child’s mind to many concepts monolingual children may not have the opportunity to learn until much later in life.
- Neurologically, multilingual individuals that were introduced to two or more languages in life show an array of different neural activity and connections made in the brain. They have denser grey matter as well as bilateral processing that is not present in monolinguals. Bilateral processing may be understood as the activation of both hemishperes of the brain (right and left) and may give early bilinguals the advantage in both language and reading as the child grows. See this diagram by the collaboration of University of Toronto, National Science Foundation Science of Learning Centre – Visual Language and Visual Learning, VL2 Gallaudet University.
- Visit the country. If at all possible, orchestrate a trip when your children are able to comprehend the language being spoken and can be immersed in the culture. Not only will this be a memorable life experience, it will also broaden their understanding of the language via cultural influence. Hearing proper grammar, fluent cadence, correct accents, inflection and tone are essential to mastering a language.
- Naomi Steiner MD, ‘7 Steps to Raising a Bilingual Child’