Raising a bilingual child

Raising a bilingual child doesn’t have to be a big deal

The best way to raise a bilingual child is to talk a lot and worry very little.

We’ve all heard the stories – ‘that mum at playgroup whose child can’t talk properly because she insists on teaching him two languages; it’s confusing for the poor little soul’. Well we call bunkum on this. It’s a myth and here’s why…

Language is a pattern

Children are fantastic at learning patterns and the earlier you start to teach your child multiple languages the easier it will be for him to learn. From birth babies can differentiate between different linguistic patterns and can quickly recognise the vocabulary in each one.

The (perceived) risks

Now, almost all myths have some underlying truths so let’s get this out of the way from the start. Yes, there is some evidence that a baby exposed to multiple languages may start to talk slightly later than a baby exposed to only one. However extensive research has proven that once talking, their developmental patterns and speed show no significant variance; in fact, they learn much more about decoding languages and will find it easier later in life to progress this skill and learn others.

It is also true that toddlers taught two or more languages from birth sometimes muddle their speech and use words and phrases from different languages in the same conversation. There’s a simple reason and it’s not as alarming as some people think.

From birth until three a child is still in the process of mapping out linguistic patterns. Depending on what exposure he’s had to each of the languages being taught, his vocabulary may vary from one language to another. So it is perfectly logical to him to use the word he knows as a substitute in a sentence for the word he’s not yet familiar with. “Want to play bola!” is a simple example. This child is learning English and Spanish. He knows he wants to play ball and is able to express his desire, which is fantastic – he just doesn’t remember the English word for ball so has substituted a Spanish word. No big deal. Respond in English “Yes, let’s play ball” and maybe he’ll remember it next time.

Structure and exposure

The best way to raise a bilingual child is to talk a lot and worry very little. Get the whole family involved, be committed to your goal, be flexible – but have a structure. Structure is important.

In order for the child to become fluent in both languages there has to be sufficient exposure to each and sufficient time to practise. To make this easy we’ll assume our child is being taught both Spanish (native) and French. In this scenario the family live in Spain, which is their Father’s home country but their Mother is French. She wants the child to speak her native tongue to communicate with Grandparents etc, so the decision has been made before the child is even born to teach both languages.

There are two basic structures that most people use; adapted slightly to meet their own requirements.

One Parent One Language (OPOL)

The first and perhaps the most effective is One Parent One Language (OPOL). This means that each parent will communicate with the child only in his or her native tongue. This is a fantastic way to ensure that there is exposure to both languages but there are some things you need to consider. As the child gets older he’ll attend school, where the language will be local. For our family this means the child’s majority language will be Spanish. In order for him to learn fluent French (the minority language) studies suggest he needs to hear and speak it up to 30% of his waking time.

This means you need to ensure that the parent speaking the minority language is able to spend enough time talking to and playing with the child – it might not work if mum is teaching the minority language and she doesn’t get in from work until 1830 every night, just in time for bath and bed. What will happen is the child will learn just enough vocabulary to communicate with mum during those times but will not feel it necessary to widen that vocabulary and become fluent in conversing with others.

Minority Language at Home

The second most common method is Minority Language at Home. This means that in the home everyone speaks the minority language (in this case French) and the child is exposed to the native or majority language at playgroups, nursery, school etc. This method can work really well for expat families preserving the language of their home country, but will not work for our example family unless dad speaks fluent French. The only downside to this method is that from birth the child will learn only the minority language and will not start to learn the other until he mixes with other children and adults. In reality though, if he goes to playgroups and nurseries from an early age and is fully immersed in the native language outside of the home, he’ll still find it easy to learn.

Things to remember…

  • You can teach a child a second language at any age although due to the speed of their cognitive development under seven is the optimal time for them to find it relatively easy.
  • Other people delight in having opinions about the way your children are raised and you will inevitably hear lots of negativity about confusing the poor mite. Ignore them. You are giving your child an enormous cognitive advantage!
  • Do your research. Being fluently bilingual doesn’t happen by accident and you need to ensure that you are structured enough to enable the child to get the most out of the learning experience. There are loads of great resources to help you.
  • A child learns through play. Don’t try to formalise learning; make it natural. Buy board games, books, maps, puzzles, DVDs, computer apps etc. in the minority language and watch as your child learns without even realising it. Amazon stocks lots of great resources in different languages, so make use of your child’s natural curiosity and the latest craze for their age group, like superheroes…
  • Don’t forget that speaking a language fluently doesn’t go hand in hand with being able to read and write in that minority language. Use flashcards, comic books, story time and games… and stick funny labels, posters and poems around the house to make learning and reading fun.
  • Music – even in the background – is a fabulous teaching tool. Have music in the minority language playing quietly at home and in the car; you’ll be amazed at how quickly your child will be singing along.

Remember above all that you’re doing this to help your child and to give them the best possible start. Research, read, watch, join groups and talk… don’t feel isolated and don’t give in to peer pressure.

You AND your kids can learn a new language just by watching TV

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  1. Hello, we are a Brazilian family (portuguese native speakers) living in France – we have 2 kids at age 5 and 2. Both now after 2 years living here are fluent in french and portuguese (of course that the baby is still in a learning curve). Now we will be moving to Germany. How to ensure that they not lose the french? At home they are very well exposure to the portuguese. Thank you in advance.

  2. Taking languages out of the equation, just for a moment, she is still very little. Children learn to talk at different times, so don’t worry. She’s understanding everything, so that’s great.

    With languages, understanding comes long before verbalising. Maybe she’s just shy to speak? Try it to pressure her and let it happen naturally.

    Anyway, I’ve heard great things about OPOL and have seen many happy kids speak multiple languages in this way, so I think it would be worth trying.

    Good luck!

  3. hello there,
    im suffering from this problem, my 2yrs abd 2 months old daughter didnt speak yet only few words and evryone is telling me because we teached her many languages ..
    when she was born we agreed me and H to teach her french sunce im french educated , and arabic of course then she went to english summer camp and now she is in pappilon class,French-English..
    i can tell that she understand evrythibg all the 3 languages very well but she doesnt talk:( she is saying few frensh words only which is making me nervous .her dr said that she maybe didnt decide what language she wants to use yet, her misses are saying how clever and strong and smart she is and she can do whatever they say but she still needs time to speak..
    all other kids in the family are talking and speaking vry well which us really makes me nervous and worried as i said ..
    liked the one parent one language thing.. is it really gona work?

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