This article is brought to you by Bricks 4 Kidz.
Raising bilingual children is appealing and necessary for more and more families these days. Becoming bilingual is a special gift parents can offer their children. And in today’s global village, speaking more than one language is advantageous personally and professionally. Raising bilingual children does not happen overnight, however. For kids to be successful in more than one language, thought, dedication and creativity on the part of the parents are required.
Here are some of the most important factors to take into account when raising your very own polyglot tot.
1. Define what bilingualism means for your family
Every family’s expectations are different when it comes to being bilingual. For some families, having the ability to understand a second language will suffice, while other parents expect their children to also be able to communicate effortlessly in both languages. What is best for you and your kids? What is important and necessary within your community and culture?
In general, language efficiency is evaluated in terms of listening, speaking, reading and writing. So at the end of this long process, is it okay if your children speak only one language but have listening comprehension in two? Or maybe you want them to be able to listen and speak in two languages, but it’s all right that they have reading and writing ability in only one. It’s up to you, but have a clear familial definition of this relative label before starting to raise your bilingual children.
2. Start early
Being proactive from the start, you are more likely to nurture a good balance in your children’s bilingual ability. Studies show that it is easier to learn two languages from birth. You can even start to expose children to two languages during pregnancy. This time until age six or seven is when young brains are primed for language acquisition. Also, once children start attending school in one primary language, it grows harder to maintain balance with the minority language. Imagine your children starting from scratch with a second language at this time.
3. Have a plan
Families who take the time to discuss their goals for language development often see their children acquire higher levels of language skills in both languages. Be enthusiastic, yet realistic with your goals, and don’t leave anything up to chance. Parents need to talk about how exactly bilingualism will be achieved by their children.
Keep in mind, children need to be exposed to a different language for at least 30 percent of their waking hours to become bilingual, according to Fred Genesee, a professor of psycholinguistics at McGill University in Montreal. Less exposure may result in your children understanding but not speaking a second language. However, this is not a magic number that will guarantee multilingualism in your children. It’s just a number to aim for. If you have the ability to expose them to their second language 50, 60 or 70 percent of the time, that’s wonderful. But on the other hand, if they receive less than 30 percent exposure, that is no reason to give up on raising them bilingual.
4. Be consistent
Many experts recommend the ‘one-parent-one-language’ method for maintaining a bilingual home. The idea is the mother always speaks her own language with the children, and the father always speaks his own language with them. Others suggest ‘one-place-one-language’, meaning one language is spoken at home while the other is spoken at day care, school, camp, etc. Whichever routine works for you, consistency is key.
According to Marsha Rosenberg, if children hear you mixing languages in the same conversation, they will find it harder to separate vocabulary and grammar into the appropriate language. This may cause them to learn a sort of hybrid language that doesn’t make sense to anyone but them. When raising bilingual children, it is common for them to mix up languages. Maybe they’re used to cooking with the parent who speaks Italian, so they always use Italian food words when they speak the other language. But don’t confuse minor missteps like these with the aforementioned problem of children concocting their own hybrid language, which can signal a real problem.
5. Speak your native language
Children learn best from people who speak that language well. Speaking to your children in your mother tongue, you can better explain ideas, use more advanced vocabulary, share jokes, ask questions and overall express yourself more clearly. No matter how well a person speaks another language, it seems their personality is never as true as when they are talking in their first language.
Marianne, from the US: "My husband (who is Spanish) travelled a lot when our kids were small, and when he was away, we would speak only English at home. He found it hard to come back and be the only one speaking Spanish, so he began speaking to them in only English, as well. Not only did they not learn Spanish until they were older, but they also picked up a few bad pronunciation habits like pronouncing the ‘w’ in ‘sword’."
6. Get over social etiquette
Say you’re in a room full of people speaking English. You converse with everyone in English, as well, but when you address your children, you speak your designated language. Are you being rude by speaking to your child in a language that maybe not everyone around you understands? Who cares? This is about raising your bilingual children in the most effective way possible. This is about staying consistent with your well-thought-out plan. Your companions will just have to accept the fact that you have a secret language with your children. Actually we think it’s pretty cool.
Peter, from the UK: "I sometimes switch to Spanish when I’m talking to my sons, but for the most part, I try to stick with English unless it’s something that I want everyone around us to understand. I’m the only English-speaker in their lives so it’s important for me to be consistent. Yes, it does feel a bit rude sometimes, but mostly we’re with people who know us well. A lot of Spanish parents love it. They like their kids to come to our house because they get to practise their English. "
7. One language will be deemed ‘less important’
This is all about the children’s point of view. One language will likely seem more important to them because it’s the language they use and hear more frequently. Some children may shy away from the less important language because their classmates don’t speak it. Don’t get disheartened. Try out new ways to get your kids excited about their second language. Plus, maybe you’re lucky and have kids who think it’s great to speak a language most of their friends can’t understand.
Janice, from the UK: "When my son started attending a local school at the age of three and spending less time with me (the only person speaking English to him), I noticed a decline in his spoken English as Catalan became his primary language. I decided to take him on playdates with other English-speaking kids, and we enrolled in some English-speaking after-school activities."
8. Find ways to engage with your children in each language
Music can be a great way to engage
If children only hear the ‘less important’ language from one parent, they may not get enough exposure for that language to develop naturally. It is essential to find other sources of exposure, whether it’s books and songs, riddles and games, or day care and sports teams. You might even consider enlisting grandparents, a cousin or a paid babysitter who speaks the other language to look after your children occasionally. It helps tremendously for your children to hear that their parent isn’t the only one who speaks this language. Plus, this idea gives you two the opportunity to go out for a well-deserved date night.
As your children grow up, they still need to practise—especially the minority language. Play off their interests to motivate them. If your daughter loves to dance, put her in dance classes with teachers and students who speak her second language. If your son is obsessed with Marvel Comics characters, make him watch every cartoon and movie about them in his second language. If your children like to write, you might suggest they find a pen pal. Writing letters, emails or (grammatically correct) Whatsapps to another child in a foreign country not only improves your children’s writing skills, but teaches them how to build a relationship with someone from a different background than themselves.
Remember, kids are savvy little creatures. They are more than capable of concluding that they don’t really need to know a language if only one person they interact with speaks it.
9. Read aloud
Reading to your children in your native language is a tried-and-true way to help them become bilingual. This includes telling stories that you learned as a child, and in time, letting them tell you stories they invented or accounts of their day. Talk about the pictures in books together and fantasise about alternative endings. Books and storytelling help children develop all the skills for linguistic proficiency.
As your children begin to read on their own, make sure you keep enough reading material around the house. Utilise local libraries to provide them with new books, comics and magazines in both their languages. You can also get creative with your kids’ reading material. If you’re making something new for dinner, ask them to read the recipe to you while you chop and sauté. Just bought furniture from Ikea and don’t know how to put it together? Ask your kids to help you read through the manual and build it as a team. There are also catalogues, brochures, atlases, road signs and more to read in any language your children need.
10. Travel when you can
We agree with Bilingual Monkeys that time abroad can be ideal for bilingual children. Travelling to a country where the minority language is spoken is one of the most powerful ways to promote language development and cultural understanding. Being in an exciting new place where everyone speaks their second language, children can better grasp the value of that language. They can practice constantly with native speakers they meet, and will associate the language with all those great memories years after the trip is over.
11. Be patient
The old cliché says children’s minds are like sponges. This may be true to some extent, but it’s also true that each child learns language skills at his or her own speed. Raising bilingual children is a commitment that will have countless ups and downs. Be patient and know that there will be times when doubt sneaks in. But when your child turns to you and asks for a hug in your language, the pride you feel in that moment will make the rest of the process worthwhile.
René, from the Netherlands: "I’m from Holland and my wife is French. So our kids are learning our languages, plus Spanish and Catalan. We realised at the beginning of the process that it all might take longer when there is so much information involved. Both of our children were late to talk and when they did it was such a mix of words that no one except us could understand them. We aren’t giving up, though."
Raising bilingual children totally gives them a foot forward in life. Bilingual kids have the advantage of knowing two cultures and of being able to communicate with a wider variety of people, from making a diverse group of friends on the playground to networking internationally when they start their career. Children who learn two languages are known to be better at multitasking and have stronger bonds with their parents. Those who speak more than one language develop their brain better and have sharper memories. In the end, being bilingual might even land them their dream job or help them meet their soul mate.
Bricks 4 Kidz offers fun and educational LEGO-based activities, including after-school classes in English, Spanish and Catalan for children aged three to 13. See here for more information.