As a Bilingual Speech-Language Pathologist, people ask me all the time: “How do you raise kids to be bilingual?”

The short answer is that you expose them to two languages. The rest of this blog post is just an elaboration on that basic idea.

Here are some useful definitions that are used in this post:

  • Majority language: the language that the majority of the people in a country speak; in the US, English
  • Heritage language/Minority language: a language that is not the main language of the country one lives in

In this post I will use the term “bilingualism” by default, but everything that I say about bilingualism can be applied to multilingualism, too. Also, I will refer to “parents” in this post for simplicity, but please substitute any words that apply in your situation to the key adult(s) who are part of your child’s home life. To paraphrase Tolstoy as applied to bilingual language development, “All monolingual families are alike; each bilingual family is bilingual in its own way.”

Table of Contents:

  1. Debunking Myths about Bilingualism
  2. Methods and Strategies for Raising a Bilingual Child
  3. Tips for raising a bilingual child

PART 1: Debunking Myths about Bilingualism

MYTH #1: “Bilingualism can cause a speech or language disorder or delay.”

THE TRUTH: On average, bilingual children learn language on the same timetable as their monolingual peers. Bilingualism does NOT cause speech or language delays or disorders. Bilingualism does not cause any cognitive, intellectual or emotional problems. Furthermore, bilingualism does not worsen such issues if the child already has them. 

MYTH #2: “A child’s brain cannot handle two languages.”

This myth incorrectly assumes that the brain has a very limited amount of resources to devote to language, therefore being better at one language necessarily means being worse at the other.

THE TRUTH: Learning more languages means knowing more languages. It is not necessarily true that one language must be learned at the expense of fluency in another. The human brain has “room” to learn multiple languages fluently. Of course, more language input is always better. (Having said that, you don’t literally need twice as much input for two languages; more details on that later.) Not only can a child’s brain “handle” multiple languages, but bilingualism has many proven cognitive benefits. Such benefits are beyond the scope of this blog post, but look them up if you are not already aware of them!

MYTH #3: “Kids will get ‘confused’ if exposed to more than one language” or, “Mixing languages is a sign of being ‘confused.’”

THE TRUTH: Mixing two languages together is nothing to worry about. In fact, it’s a common and normal stage of a child’s language development. This is especially true for preschool-aged children, as the language mixing stage most often occurs between the ages of 2 and 4 years.

After the developmental phase of language mixing, children will generally be able to switch between speaking the two languages monolingually. It’s been proven that even very young kids as young as 2 can figure out the strongest language of the person they’re speaking to without being directly told, and switch into it.

As for the fear of confusion, let me put your mind at ease. Half of the children in the world are raised with two or more languages. I daresay that half of the world’s children are not walking around in a perpetual state of confusion!

On a more serious note, there is a potential for mix-ups when a child learns anything at all – for example, they may mix up the number “1” and the letter “l” while learning their letters and numbers – but the potential for mix-ups is part of the typical learning process for anything at all. It is harmless for children to sometimes benefit from clarification on bilingual matters (such as an explanation that their monolingual Spanish-speaking grandmother understands “Dame el agua” rather than “Give me the water.”)

For more information on language mixing (a.k.a “code switching”) in children, here’s an excellent workbook resource. It is geared towards teachers but contains very useful information for parents too.

MYTH #4: “Kids pick up new languages super easily, like a sponge.”

THE TRUTH: There is a grain of truth in this one. Children are better and faster at picking up languages than adults. Having said that, children require a lot of language input to become and stay bilingual through adulthood. To make this happen in a perfect world, their total language input from age 0-18 would be 50%/50% in each language. In the real world, however, a good target is at least 30% of one of the languages. In terms of hours, that would be at least 25 hours a week of the minority language. That’s a lot for one language if you think about it, especially if the child attends school monolingually in the other! In sum, where this myth is incorrect is that it underestimates how much language exposure a child needs for fluency.

MYTH #5: “It’s too late to start with my kid, they’re too old.”

THE TRUTH: It’s never too late to start! Adults can learn new languages. Having said that, the earlier you start learning a second language, the easier it will be, because gradually over time, it gets harder and harder for people to learn a new language. People older than approximately 6 years old learn better with direct language instruction. Pre-school age children and younger are able to learn language simply from overhearing it (a skill that declines as children get older, and which adults are rarely able to do without formal, direct education.)

MYTH #6: Kids learn best the language spoken DIRECTLY to them.

THE TRUTH: Kids end up speaking best the language that they OVERHEAR the most. For very young children, that tends to be the language that the adults in the child’s home speak to each other. For school age children, their peers tend to have the most influence on their speech.

 

Part 2: Methods and Strategies for Raising a Bilingual Child

Method #1: “Two Parents One Language”

This is when both parents speak the heritage language (for instance, Spanish) to the child AND they speak Spanish to each other in front of the child. This is a “person-based method” because it involves certain individuals speaking a certain language. Children eventually pick up English from school and the community.

Method #2: “Minority Language at Home”

This is a “place-based method.” For example, if your heritage language is French, by this method, the moment you walk through the front door, it’s all French all the time.

Methods #1 and #2 give the most exposure to the heritage language and therefore the best chance of growing up to be a bilingual adult.

Method #3: “Strict One Parent One Language”

“One Parent One Language” is a popular method that you may have heard of. However, here I have broken down that concept into two more narrowly defined categories. “Strict One Parent One Language” is when one parent speaks one language all of the time, and the other parent speaks the other language all of the time. This method works best when both parents are bilingual in the same languages, but one of the bilingual adults is much stronger in the heritage language then the other adult.

For example, consider the case of two parents: Mom, who came from Russia to the US when she was 17, and dad, who came from Russia to the US when he was 6. Mom’s dominant language is Russian, and dad’s dominant language is English, although they can both understand their non-dominant language. Mom is very comfortable speaking English, but dad is not very comfortable speaking Russian because he hasn’t needed to speak it consistently since he was a small child.  This is a situation where “Strict One Parent One Language” would be fitting: the mom speaks Russian to the child and to her husband, and the dad always speaks English to the child and to the mom. The benefit of this method is that everybody speaks the language that they’re comfortable speaking, and everybody understands what’s going on.

Method #4: “Child-Directed One Parent One Language”

This method is ideal when you have one monolingual parent (for example, English only) and one bilingual parent (for example, English and Mandarin). “Child-directed” means that the bilingual person would only speak Mandarin to the child, and other person would speak only English to the child. Of course, given that one parent is monolingual, the parents would speak English with each other in front of the child.

Method #5: “Multiple languages mixed all the time”

This is not a formal method, but rather the natural state of many homes. Language mixing (a.k.a. code mixing/switching) is a very common occurrence among fluently bilingual adults.

The pros of this method is that if this is how a couple has always communicated, then it is effortless to implement, and it exposes the child to more than one language.

The main con of this method is that if the child never gets a 100% monolingual language example of the minority language, then if they’re ever in a situation where they must speak just that language, it might be hard for them to do so. This is because they will not have a clear model in their mind of the heritage language. This may cause obstacles in the child’s communication with people in their life who only speak the heritage language.

Method #6: “Time-based”

This is what it sounds like: you split up the languages by time. For example, a family might speak only English on Monday, only Italian on Tuesday, and consistently alternate each language every other day. Another example is dual language schools: They may have Spanish instruction from 8:30am-12pm, then English instruction from 12pm-3:30pm. This method also has notable pros and cons.

Pros:

  • With strict implementation, this method can lead to something close to the ideal of 50%/50% language input

Cons:

  • This method can be difficult to sustain due to its highly structured nature. For instance, some parents find it difficult to switch languages precisely by schedule.
  • The time split is arbitrary, and that makes it tough to use with very young children, who do not have a solid concept of time yet.
  • Time-based methods don’t foster the same type of natural emotional connection that goes along with person-based or place-based methods, and feeling a positive emotional connection to a language is ideal for being able to retain it long-term.

So, which method is best?

This is a personal decision. The best method for your family balances the maximum possible exposure to the minority language with pragmatic feasibility. If the child’s schooling is primarily in English, then methods #1 and 2 maintained throughout childhood allow for the best likelihood that the child will grow up to be a bilingual adult due to the high input of the heritage language that these methods involve.

Part 3: Tips for raising a bilingual child

Generally, it is good to bear in mind four key components that support bilingualism:

  1. Exposure is key. This may seem obvious, in a way. I imagine no one would be surprised to hear that I’ve never been exposed to the Swedish language and, consequently, I don’t speak Swedish. However, it’s more complex than that. Ideally, a child would have 50% of their language exposure from each language throughout their whole childhood, between the ages of 0-18. It’s important to remember how heavily the scales get tilted in favor of English once the child reaches school age, assuming they go to an English-only school. Therefore, for the best chance of achieving bilingualism, it would be ideal to expose a child to as close to 100% heritage language input from age 0 until they start school, then after school starts, continue with the heritage language everywhere outside of school.
  2. It is important that the child has a need to use the minority language. For example, suppose an American child going to an English-only school has two bilingual Portuguese/English-speaking parents. Once it becomes even a little easier for the child to speak English, the child will switch to answering in that language if they know they can still be understood by doing so. A child’s focus is communicating effectively in the moment. The natural inclination to speak in whichever language comes most easily means these parents would have to go out of their way to create situations in which the child needs to use Portuguese.
  3. It’s crucial for parents to foster a positive attitude towards the heritage language, and preemptively prevent the common occurrence of children developing a negative attitude towards or rejecting the heritage language.
  4. FUN! A fun atmosphere not only supports a positive attitude towards language, but also, interesting, dynamic, fun activities often come from a wide variety of sources. Using the minority language in unique, exciting situations and places leads to more exposure to complex language, as well as a variety of vocabulary beyond hearing the usual household words over and over. Only ever hearing phrases like “Put on your shoes,” “Take out the garbage,” etc. in the minority language is not only dull, but leads to a vocabulary that is not as varied and rich as it could be. Fortunately, there are many tips for making bilingualism more fun!

Here is a compilation of some of the best language tips gleaned from many sources, including interviews with countless of my fellow bilingual parents:

Tip #1: Start early

Start with the minority language as early as possible, ideally from birth. This is because very gradually over time, it gets harder and harder for people to learn a new language. There’s no need to wait until the child starts speaking – they understand language well before they can speak. If you have a baby or very small child, narrate what you’re doing, even if you think they’re too young to answer or understand. For example, you can say in the heritage language: “I’m chopping the carrots for soup,” or “I’m putting up curtains. The curtains are orange and shiny. Aren’t they pretty?” This extra exposure to language adds up over time.

Tip #2: Be persistent

Do it even when it’s hard, even when you’re tired, even when it’s not the most efficient way to get the point across; just keep it up. Becoming bilingual is a marathon, not a sprint: keep your eye on the prize, namely the future benefits of being bilingual. After all, I have never met a bilingual adult who wishes they were monolingual! If you feel like your family has gotten off-track with language for a little while, just get right back on track and keep going. Remember that kids can quickly become monolingual speakers of the majority language (e.g. English) if given half a chance, since it is the path of least resistance. If you’re trying to raise bilingual children, you’re not just a parent, you are also a language teacher, which is often a thankless job. Also bear in mind that sometimes, being proactive and consistent means showing enough enthusiasm for both yourself AND your child.

Tip #3: Only give positive feedback

As per the principle of maintaining a positive attitude, do not give in to the temptation to tease a child about a mistake in the minority language (no matter how cute!) Also, do not give into the temptation to correct a mistakes, at least not too often. Sometimes, what you gain in language exposure from pointing out a mistake, you lose tenfold in attitude. It’s natural for kids to want to default to the most comfortable language for them, so it’s important to avoid adding an element of self-consciousness to the situation.

Resist the urge to correct, but if you must do so, simply repeat the child’s phrase back to them grammatically correctly, then continue the flow of the conversation. To give an example, if a small child is playing with baby dolls and says, “Babies is sick,” don’t correct it directly. Instead, do so indirectly by modeling the correct version: “Oh, the babies are sick. What are we going to do with the babies if they are sick?” The child still hears the right way to say it: (“Babies are…”) because you’re repeating a correct model back to them, but the rephrasing still makes sense within the conversation and keeps it neutral.

Tip #4: Explicitly name the languages being spoken at home

This will further bolster a child’s ability to distinguish between the two languages. Labeling languages can be as simple as saying “Daddy speaks English and Mama speaks Finnish.” You can mention in conversation that Finland is a whole country where they speak Finnish, or mention that in Australia, people speak English, too. This lends a global context and importance to the language, and helps allow the child to internally organize and categorize what they’re hearing. I have heard some humorous stories where some children think their family speaks in a secret code that only their family knows when it’s actually a language that many people speak, such as Korean.

Tip #5: Speak in one language at a time

This gives children a clear, whole, grammatically correct language model to aspire to. It will also help the child be able to distinguish as quickly, easily and early as possible which language is which. Having said all that, it’s fine and sometimes inevitable to mix languages here and there; it is simply a fact of life in many bilingual homes. Switching between languages mid-sentence is not harmful but speaking full sentences in only one language is the most helpful. Note that intentional simultaneous interpretation (saying the same thing in one language, then another) is not recommended as a method of teaching two languages, because children end up simply listening in their stronger language and disregarding the other language.

Tip #6: Read books and stories in the heritage language

reading books

Literacy is an important dimension of language learning.  To make reading even more interesting, tailor it to your children’s interests. If your kids like comic books, find them some in the heritage language. You could subscribe to magazines in the heritage language. Something about the novelty of getting snail mail and having something they’ve never seen or read before is fun, and the pictures support understanding of the words.

You could also get clever and keep certain books in the heritage language with inappropriate language around the house. One mother I interviewed did this to incentivize the older children whose interest in reading Russian had faded over the years, and it worked in that she started to notice that those incentivizing books containing “colorful” Russian language often went missing from the bookshelf!

Also note that literacy begets literacy. Literacy in your first language has transference to literacy in your second language.

There are many benefits to reading things originally written in the heritage language. It fosters a positive attitude, and can feel like a cool secret code. If you are able to read a text in its original language, you can get nuance of meaning and beauty out of it that someone who reads a translation simply can’t, which makes it special.

Translations sometimes get unfairly maligned, but in fact, they can play a positive and important role. It can be very motivating for a child to read a translation of a book they’re already excited about. For example, if a child loves Dr. Suess, Harry Potter, or Alice in Wonderland, why not get them a translation of those in the heritage language? There can be something very motivating about reading a translation of a beloved book in which the characters and events are already familiar, so the focus of the book is the language rather than the plot.

Besides books, you can also make up your own stories at home. In the stories, you can use your places and people that you know, or act out plays together as a family. Creativity only adds to the fun and interest.

Tip #7: Listen to music and watch TV in the heritage language

Music is a fun, effective way to learn language. You can listen to CDs, sing songs together, or go to concerts in the heritage language. Poems, fairy tales, or anything that rhymes is especially good because rhymes help you remember words. And if the TV is on anyway, why not make it a TV show, film, or cartoon in the heritage language?

Tip #8: Play games in the heritage language.

You can do puzzles, board games, “I Spy”, 20 Questions, storytelling games, or more. There are countless different games–be as creative as you want!

Tip #9: Have a puppet or doll who “only speaks [heritage language.]”

This tip works best with very young children. If you want to have them speak the language, take the puppet and say in a “puppet” voice in the heritage language: “Oh no! You’re not speaking [Spanish/French/etc.] … I can’t understand you!” You’ll know exactly the day that that tip stops working, because the child will tell you. “I know the puppet is you, mom!”

Tip #10: Find schools and after school programs in the heritage language

Schools in the United States are primarily English-language. Having said that, depending on your heritage language and what city you live in, you may be able to find daycares in your heritage language, dual language schools for older children, afterschool or weekend heritage language programs, or heritage language summer camps.

There are also countless other minority-language opportunities outside the home besides school or direct language instruction programs. such as heritage language playgroups, clubs, theater groups where plays are performed, conferences, and religious services. See if there are local classes that are taught in your heritage language, such as dance, gymnastics, piano lessons, tennis, drama or art – especially if that’s an area of interest for your child. These language exposures outside of the home are not only crucial for exposure of different types of vocabulary, but they also foster a positive attitude of the heritage language by demonstrating that there are other speakers of this language in their community, which aligns with a child’s natural desire to fit in. Furthermore, children meeting with other children their own age who speak that heritage language is important because once a child reaches school age, a child’s peers influence how they speak more than their parents.

Tip #11: Invite people to your home who only speak the heritage language

This creates the need to speak it. It can be family, friends, foreign exchange students. If you have a babysitter or any other help in the home, consider working with someone fluent in the heritage language. If that’s not feasible, Skype with relatives or friends abroad who only speak the heritage language. If possible, go on vacation to a country where that language is spoken. For older children, see if they are interested in studying abroad, or doing a summer homestay abroad.

Tip #12: Enlist the help of older children in teaching the little ones the heritage language

Sometimes, having that responsibility can be really fun for them. Sometimes when an older child is simply more comfortable in English, they don’t even realize that they’re speaking English. What typically happens in families with several children is that the oldest child will speak the heritage language the best, the second oldest child will speak the heritage language second to best, the third oldest child will speak the heritage language third to best, and so on, because the amount of exposure to the heritage language, despite the parents’ best efforts, gets lower and lower because the household becomes more English-speaking as the older children go to school.

In conclusion: at the end of the day, none if this is that big of a deal. This should be lighthearted and joyous. There is no such thing as death by monolingualism. You can’t mess this up too badly. Have fun with it and if there’s an imperfection or some opportunity is missed: nobody is perfect, life isn’t perfect, just keep persisting.  And, when your kids grow up they’ll thank you – hopefully, in two languages!

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