Bilingual children can enjoy many advantages over monolingual ones. Parents need to understand these benefits along with the various ways they can raise their kids to be multilingual, if they have that opportunity to do so. The rewards could be huge and you’d be a good father for it.
Both my wife and I grew up bilingual. My wife spoke Hungarian with her family and English everywhere else. Similarly, I spoke Cantonese with my parents at home and English everywhere else. We both spoke English with our siblings.
Being bilingual has been very beneficial to us in our travels and understanding of cultures. When it came time to raising our own child, we made sure we were providing him enough opportunities to flourish in multiple languages. And it has worked out so well for us.
We have researched this topic well and hope to provide some useful details on having a bilingual family as your toddler develops their language skills. Read on to find out more.
The Benefits of Bilingualism
There are generally two situations that would prompt a family to consider raising their children multilingual. Either the parents speak different native languages, or the parents speak the same language but live in a community where the common spoken language is something else.
Whatever the case, this is a great opportunity for you to encourage your kids to learn more than one language. Here are some of the benefits.
Improved Family Relationships
Being able to communicate in the native language of the parents is a great way for children to have more interaction with them, along with the grandparents and extended family. Your entire family bond will be stronger for it.
I get to read and tell jokes to my son in English, while my parents speak Cantonese to him over facetime. All other interactions are done in Hungarian with my wife and her parents. Our families have never been closer.
Becoming More Culturally Aware
A big part of learning a language is also about learning the culture. Children love this and they get a sense of cultural identity and belonging. They will eat up any quirky traditions or events that bring the family together.
They also become more empathetic and accepting of diversity. Of course, you don’t need to be multilingual in order to be more compassionate. But those who speak other languages are more likely to understand and accept ambiguity from others, which is quite important today.
Better Educational Performance
Bilingual students tend to get better academic results because their cognitive abilities are heightened. Their brain is kept more active and alert, which helps with multi-tasking and problem-solving skills. They are less distracted than monolinguals and can focus better.
I’m truly amazed at my toddler’s memory ability as he can sing songs in multiple languages just by hearing the lyrics a couple of times. Sometimes he can even recite entire books that I’ve read to him months earlier. He’s not even three years old yet.
Being bilingual can make you more open-minded and clever. If you know more than one way to say something, this will naturally increase your ability to think outside the box. This is due to the cognitive advantages of bilingualism as well as an enriched conceptual knowledge. Kids that speak more than one language show a more diverse choice and interest in art and music as well.
More Future Opportunities
Multiple language skills will open up doors for your child in terms of job opportunities as well as places to live later on. Having these skills can even net them a higher salary. Also, bilingual children are at an advantage socially by having more enhanced communication skills. They can travel to more countries with higher comfort level and they will have a better ability to learn additional languages.
It can even be argued that if your child doesn’t speak more than one language, then they are already behind the rest of the world, who generally speak their own language plus English.
With a sharper mind, bilinguals are less likely to develop dementia or Alzheimer’s disease earlier in life. They also have better neurological health due to lower amounts of stress. Also, your child’s self confidence will be higher by knowing two languages. Being bilingual slows down the aging process for the brain.
How to Raise a Bilingual Child
Like most situations in parenting, there isn’t one right solution for how to raise your children to be bilingual. What might work for me might not work for you. But what’s important in this instance is being consistent. Pick a strategy and stick with it as long as you can. And exposure to the languages is the key.
Bilingual Family Methods
There are two common approaches to raising bilingual kids.
The One Person One Language (OPOL) method is when one parent speaks one language to the child, while the other parent speaks the other language to them. Some believe that this is the most effective approach as it gives the child a good balance between the two languages. But this will depend on how much each parent interacts with their child. This is a natural way for parents who speak different native languages to go at it.
The Minority Language At Home (MLAH) method is when both parents speak to the child in the language that’s not the dominant language in the community. The child gets a solid foundation of this language at home, and then they will pick up the dominant language as they are immersed into the community through school, television and others. This is common for parents who speak the same foreign language.
We kind of do a mix of these two methods since our situation is a little more unique. But it’s closer to the OPOL one. My wife speaks Hungarian exclusively to our son. This is also the dominant language where we live. I speak English to him, while giving a little exposure to Cantonese, which my parents would speak to him with (sometimes). So we’re raising a trilingual child with 2 dominant languages.
The best is to choose an approach that works best for your family and be consistent with it.
Exposure to Language
Children require constant and massive exposure to language in order to become fluent and multilingual. This will help increase language quantity as well as quality. Children that hear a lot of words will have a larger vocabulary to draw from. And children who have more meaningful face to face interactions will engage with the language more.
Having support from family and friends can help a lot. If your child uses the language in multiple ways with multiple people, they will develop a need to get better at it. We video chat with both sets of grandparents as often as possible and our toddler learns new works every time.
Keep if fun and playful for them. Good ways to bring language to their everyday life is through playing games, reading books, listening or signing songs, watching quality videos, and language programs. Making it interesting will result in more attention from them. It lightens the mood and doesn’t put pressure on the learning part and more emphasis on the language being a normal part of communicating.
Also try to let you child lead the way and incorporate language learning into the things that they are interested in. If they have the movie Frozen memorized entirely, maybe try letting them watch it in another language.
The Challenges You’ll Face
There are bound to be some bumps on the road in your journal in raising bilingual children. How you handle these difficulties could affect how well your child does with the language. Be patient because your child is acquiring two sets of vocabulary and cultures in the process.
Hard Work is Needed
The hardest part is to make sure that there is enough natural exposure to both languages. The key is to provide enough opportunities for your child to use the nondominant language in a way that isn’t forced. Keeping the situation as natural as possible will allow them to be more engaged with the language.
Face to face interaction is the most useful way to learn language. Screen time doesn’t count for learning a language for young children, unless it is face to face conversations. Although kids can learn content and vocabulary from educational screen time later on. Get your family members and friends to communicate with them often. Maybe hire a nanny that speaks the nondominant language. You can also enroll them into a bilingual school where they will need to use the language.
If children are exposed to languages in a variety of circumstances with different people early on, and if they feel they need the language to interact with the world around them, they will learn it.
Parents also shouldn’t just assume that once the child speaks a language naturally, they will grow up having this skill forever. They still need to be using the language regularly in order to keep it up. And a second child generally gets less bilingual attention than the first. So make sure they get a similar treatment to ensure stronger results.
It’s easy to just give up if your child is not receptive to learning multiple languages. Kids typically will develop a dominant language by the time they go to school. Over time, the dominant language may change, but it’s critical for children to not conclude that one language is less important than the other.
Parents don’t really teach children to speak. They learn from exposure and need. If they hear it and they feel that it is needed to communicate, they will learn and use it. Parents need to continue encouraging use and exposure when possible. Praise them when they are using the language.
Remind yourself and help your kids understand the benefits of being bilingual and hopefully the motivation to maintain it will be as strong as ever.
A child typically has 6 stages of language development. And although they can pick up the language at any point, starting them earlier will ensure an easier path to success.
The first few years of a child’s life are critical for their development in all areas, including learning language. This is when their brains are developing rapidly and they are absorbing everything around them like a sponge. Take advantage of this time to introduce them to new languages if you can.
And it is never too late to learn a language, despite the general consensus. It will just take more work to become comfortable and have full command of a new language later in life. You do have to immerse yourself in a community that speaks the language in order to become completely fluent. This can be achieved by moving and living in a culture that speaks the language. So don’t be discouraged if you wish to expand your language skills in your later years. It can still be done.
Typical Concerns and Questions
There are many misconceptions and myths that can influence a parent’s attitude towards bilingualism. However, they are typically based on misinterpretations rather than scientific research. These are some frequently asked questions.
Do Children Get Confused With More Than One Language?
No. They might mix up some words from the two languages, which is referred to as code mixing, but this is normal in their bilingual development. Children learn very quickly and understand the differences between languages and who speaks which to them. My son will even go as far as answer a Hungarian question from mom in English to me.
How Does it Affect Their Literacy Skills?
Children will learn to read and write in both languages very easily. In fact, they might even develop a higher competency based on having a better understanding of relationships between words and sentence structures.
How Does it Affect Speech Development?
It won’t affect it. They are picking up vocabulary at the same rate as a monolingual child. Once they understand it is for different languages, they will stop mixing words up. It may seem that there are delays in their speech development if they are quiet early on. But they are merely taking in what they are being exposed to and once they begin speaking, you’ll wish they’d stop. Well, maybe not.
Do Children Need to be Smart to Become Bilingual?
No. It all comes down to language immersion and consistency. If the parents implement the changes in their lifestyle necessary to foster bilingualism, their child will achieve it. Their children become smarter because they are bilingual.
Do The Parents Need to be Fluent in the Language For Their Children to Speak it?
It is definitely easier. But this is where support and outside sources will help with the encouragement and exposure. For foreign parents, their kids will learn the dominant language in the community without any issue even if they don’t speak it at all. So with the proper exposures and interactions with peers, kids can learn any language.
Teaching your child multiple languages is one of the best gifts you can give them. And you will discover that it can be the best parenting decision you will ever make. So go out there and expose your child to languages. You will not regret it.