Do you want your child to learn a second language so he or she can speak with non-English speaking relatives? Or do you want your baby to be bilingual so they’ll someday be better equipped for travel, foreign language requirements in school, or the job market?
No matter what your motivation is, speaking two languages will benefit your children greatly.
If your goal is raising a bilingual child, you’ve got work to do! Let’s look at what you can expect and all the information you need to get started.
The Growing Trend of Multilingualism
Residents in the U.S. are putting a higher emphasis on multilingualism than ever before. Some of that is by necessity — some parents and grandparents speak little or no English, so to converse with them a child has to learn a second language.
But a lot of the language diversity in the U.S. is by choice instead of necessity.
But we’re still far behind many other countries where bilingualism is much more common. In Switzerland, approximately 42 percent of the residents speak two or more languages every day.
There are a couple of reasons the U.S.’s bilingualism has increased. A big one is more immigrants locating in the U.S. — they bring their language with them and often pick up English as well. As they have children, they often speak both languages to their children.
Another one is a parent who decides to teach their child more than one language because they think it’s a good thing for them to know.
Benefits of Being Bilingual
If you’re going to put all this time and effort into raising a bilingual child, it better have benefits. It’s not like you’re going to give up your few precious minutes of free time for something that doesn’t offer any rewards.
Bilingualism will benefit your baby in the future. Here are some of the ways it will help them:
- An appreciation for other cultures: When a child learns another language, it opens up another world to them. They learn more than just words, they learn about a whole class of people and their customs. That can be invaluable for the rest of their lives.
- They learn the world is a big and diverse place: It can be easy for children to feel like the whole world is their neighborhood or their towns. Learning a foreign language forces them to think of themselves as a global citizen.
- Mental strength: Your child should experience a boost in their brain function no matter which age they begin to learn a second language (2). According to research, speaking a second language can lead to better concentration and even greater intelligence.
- Landing that dream job: Speaking more than one language can make your child a more attractive candidate when they start looking for work someday.
- Feeling more comfortable traveling: You never know what travel opportunities may come up for your child in the future. Many colleges offer programs in which students study abroad.
- It helps improve memory and may delay dementia: Some studies have shown that additional languages can improve the memories of both adults and children. Other studies have shown a correlation between learning another language and delayed dementia, although that link hasn’t been conclusively verified. Still, if you have a family history of dementia, it wouldn’t hurt to learn that second language along with your child.
How To Decide Upon a Language
For some families, deciding what a child’s second language will be is easy. If there is already a native language spoken by relatives, that’s the obvious choice. It’s a great way to strengthen family bonds and teach your child more about your family’s culture.
But sometimes the choice isn’t so easy, particularly if bilingualism is being pursued solely for the benefits to your child, not because of a family reason.
So how can you decide which language to teach your child?
- Examine your reasons: If you’re teaching bilingualism because you want your child to have an advantage later in life, you may want to pick a popular language that’s spoken by a lot of people. Good picks include Chinese, Spanish, French, or German.
- You know a foreign language: If you already know a language, that may be a compelling reason to teach that one. You’ll be able to impart your knowledge to your child while brushing up on your own skills.
- Whether you have an instructor nearby for that language: If you have a neighbor, a relative, or a friend who knows a foreign language, it makes sense to at least consider that one since you’ll have accessible resources. Otherwise, you’ll have to look at if there is a teacher nearby that can be hired — you might not have many language choices in smaller towns or rural areas though.
- What your child wants: Older children may have a strong feeling about which language they want to learn. If they have a certain language in mind, let them pick that. They’ll be more motivated if they have a say in what they’re learning.
How to Raise a Bilingual Child
You’ve figured out which language to teach and how quickly you want your child to dive in. You’re ready to begin! But, first, here are some tips to keep in mind that will help ensure your child’s success.
1. Start Young
Although anyone at any age can learn multiple languages, it is easiest for young children. It’s never too early to start or too late, but the optimal time to introduce another language is between the newborn stage and up to 6 years old (3).
Think about how quickly children pick up languages — it’s astounding how much they learn in such a short time. This ability isn’t only geared toward their native tongue — they can do it with any language they have exposure to.
That’s in part because they use sections of the brain that have to do with language acquisition. That section stops growing as fast around the age of 11. That doesn’t mean a person can’t learn a second language then, just that it becomes more difficult to do so.
When I was in grade school, I loved math and I excelled at it. But by high school, the mere mention of the word math had me groaning.
It wasn’t because I no longer had the ability, I just had developed a negative attitude about it after hearing all my friends complain about it and because the problems took longer to solve than the simple equations I faced when I was younger.
Young kids don’t have the self-doubt and negativity from their peers to contend with. They won’t be self-conscious about mispronouncing words in front of their friends like they will be if they try to pick up a language in junior high or high school. Their attitude won’t get in the way.
Learning another language won’t happen by accident. It’s going to take some serious planning. First, you need to pick the right language based on whether you have teachers or adults around to talk to your child in that language regularly. For older children, remember to keep their language preference in mind to fuel their desire to learn the language.
You’ll have to plan to find the materials your child will need and make a schedule that will allow them enough time to nurture their new skill.
3. Create Exposure
Without exposure to their new language, a child will never catch on to more than basic vocabulary words. While they may be able to memorize simple things like counting to 10, their skills will never be given the chance to grow. And when it comes to foreign languages, if you don’t use it, you lose it.
So they’ll need a place where they are encouraged to speak in their new language, as well as finding someone who can take their lessons to the next level.
4. Find Opportunity
Nothing will excite your child more about their new language than getting the chance to use it in the real world. While conversations with their teacher or relative who uses the language are great, nothing beats an organic encounter where they see their hard work pay off.
If your child is studying French, that doesn’t mean you have to break the bank and book the trip of a lifetime to France. Unless you can somehow convince your partner that expense is justified, of course!
Getting your child jazzed up about their studies could be as simple as taking them to a French restaurant where they are allowed to order what they want off the menu and speak rudimentary French to the waiter.
5. Make It Fun
If it seems like work or pressure, your child will resist learning another language with everything they have. And anyone who has ever seen a toddler throw a fit in a grocery store will know what I’m talking about. If your toddler isn’t on board, you can kiss the idea of a bilingual child goodbye.
One sure way to get them excited about learning another language is by making it fun. Sing, dance, and play your way through language instruction and they won’t even understand they’re secretly honing a new skill. Use puppets that only speak the second language or sing simple songs.
6. Take It To The Next Level
To help your child speak fluently, it will take more than your basic understanding of a language or limited exposure to someone who speaks the language. If your goal is fluency, you may want to look for classes for your child.
If you have a bilingual home where a relative speaks a native tongue they are teaching their child, there are several ways to teach that language to the next generation. Let’s look at how you can accomplish that goal.
One Parent, One Language
This method involved having the parent who speaks the second language only talk to their child using this language — not English if that’s the primary language. The other parent will speak the other language.
- The child knows exactly which parent will speak which language to them so there is less confusion.
- Your child will have plenty of exposure to the second language.
- This method limits the time a child can spend conversing with both parents at once. And unless the parents both speak the language, it can be isolating for them at times.
With this method, everyone speaks at least a little of both languages in the household. It can be a learning experience for everyone.
- It promotes inclusion rather than excluding anyone.
- It can strengthen everyone’s foreign language skills in the family.
- It might lead to the primary language being spoken more frequently, unless you are strict about how often the second language is used.
Time and Place Method
This method maps out how many days each language should be used and where at. You might choose to alternate languages every day at home or earmark an hour a day for the second language — the structure is up to you.
- You can set this for a time that is convenient for you.
- Your child will always know when it’s time to speak the other language, which will limit confusion.
- Everyone can be included with this method.
- It can be hard to stick to a firm schedule for school-aged children who have other obligations.
Myths About Bilingualism
Have you heard some things about teaching your child another language that have you concerned? Let’s look at the reality behind some myths you’ll hear about bilingual children.
Your child won’t know the difference between the languages.
This is a common worry, but it’s totally false. Children are incredibly sensitive to the differences in languages. It can be trickier when the languages are similar, but even then, children will distinguish between the two quickly.
It will create delays with their speech, which will set them back in school.
Sometimes a child who is learning more than one language will start talking later than children who only know one language, but this is rare. The delay isn’t anything to worry about though (4). It doesn’t cause a long delay and it doesn’t mean your child is falling behind.
Studies on this matter show both groups of kids — monolingual and bilingual — learn language at the same rate, which means there is nothing to be concerned about when it comes to speech.
They will mix up both languages which will create problems for them.
Your child might mix up the languages occasionally. That’s perfectly normal, and it doesn’t mean your child will have a harder time with either language.
When you notice your child using words from the second language while they are speaking the first, all you have to do is gently remind them the word they just said is from another language. Sometimes kids catch that they are doing this all on their own and they’ll correct themselves.
So while your child may mix up their words sometimes, it’s not an indication of a problem and it’s nothing to worry about.
If you don’t start early, it will be too late to introduce another language.
It’s never too late to learn a new language — adults in their 70s and 80s can even do it. Just because it’s easier for children to grasp the new language when they are younger doesn’t mean you shouldn’t bother if you don’t try to teach them until they are teenagers.
Children can pick up a second language easily.
While it can be easy for a child to learn another language, it doesn’t mean all children will be fluent with no problems. They still have to put the work into learning it. And parents should understand that their child still won’t be fluent in the language for years, just as a baby isn’t fluent in English for years.
Unrealistic expectations on a parent’s end can derail a child’s progress and can make older children feel as if they are failing or aren’t smart enough to catch on.
Give It The Old College Try
No matter what a person’s age is, learning a second language is a useful skill to have, whether it’s for traveling, broadening a person’s world, or to get an edge in a competitive job market.
Although it’s easiest to teach your child another language while they’re younger, you can absolutely do it if your child is older. Just remember to give them consistency and to make it fun for them.