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How to Raise a Bilingual Child

Nowadays, there is a lot of pressure on parents to make their children high achievers, starting from an early age. The standards for raising an athletic, charismatic, artistic baby Einstein may have gotten out of hand. However, speaking another language really does bring a child a host of benefits in a variety of areas.

Reasons to Raise Bilingual Children

While we won’t overwhelm you with reasons and pressure, there are many benefits to embracing another language.

Bilingual brain benefits

Speaking two or more languages has been shown to improve brain function. Specifically, bilingual children have better verbal working memory. Working memory is the division of memory that people pull from in the short term. In the case of language, they pull words that have been stored there. Children with additional language development also show better visuospatial reasoning. That means they are more likely to correctly perceive space and relationships between objects. Learning a second language can even help with Math.

Expand their horizons

While some reasons for raising a bilingual child revolve around intelligence and cognitive gains, these are often exaggerated. Nevertheless, the simpler benefit of expanding their worldview is worthwhile. Teaching children early about the amount of diversity that exists can help broaden their horizons quickly.

They’ll learn more than just the features of a different culture and people. A bilingual child will see that other concepts exist in different languages. For example, in Spain, there’s the concept of a “Pueblo,” which is deeper than just a hometown. “Mi pueblo,” used in a certain context, refers to a place where the majority of your older relatives live or have lived. You can still call it “Mi pueblo” even if you never lived there. The town where one of your parents is from gets its own term. Bilingual children get additional insight from speaking two languages.

Launch them into a global future

Coding Camp or Mandarin Camp? that is the question. While the push to teach-your-kids-to-code is waning in recent years, languages are still a strong bet. Of course, picking the correct language does get tricky. While American grandparents today mostly learned French and Millennials leaned toward Spanish, some Gen-Z kids have intrepidly voyaged beyond European languages. To raise a bilingual child in an Asian language or Arabic is to relinquish a bit of control. However, in 20 years, a person multilingual in an important world language can provide job security in their household. The good news is there are benefits regardless of the language. Learning any tongue facilitates further language acquisition.

Reasons to Start Early

The supposed “critical period” for young brains learning languages is overblown. However, it’s still important to start early. That’s because children are constantly learning, so they are good at learning. Moreover, they have less ego; they’re not afraid to look silly when they mispronounce or call something the wrong name in their second language. The brain is good at learning languages, so children can make good use of their learning skills while they’re sharp. If you don’t start early, you may not end up raising a bilingual child at all!

Finally, starting young is important because it’s easier to infuse their environment with a lot of vocabulary and grammar while they’re toddling, then going to extracurriculars and camps. Combatting the will of a teenager with a strong preference for their first language is another story. Plus, children given exposure to native speakers can quickly acquire killer accents.

Raising a bilingual child can be FUN

Let’s forget we ever used the word “combating” above, because at any age, learning a language can be a blast. Even if you’re not sure how to raise a bilingual child, diving in with them can be fun. Just don’t take yourself too seriously!

Some good news is, for young children, you needn’t go over past participles and other boring grammar topics. Instead, you can have fun with your child via music, games, dance and stories. Learning about other countries’ celebrations and replicating them at home or attending a festival can be invigorating! One key to raising a bilingual child is to be certain to fuss over them if they speak well with a native speaker.

Not only is learning with young ones fun and less intense than adult grammar drills, but it can also offer additional motivation. Whether you’re relearning a language you spoke well or studied in school, or you’re embarking for the first time, jumping into children’s material can be rewarding. Small wins may give you motivation. You might even go on to enjoy grammar drills in your language, especially when drills are all that remain to improve your second language.

However, if you’re not keen on studying a language with your child, there’s no reason to feel guilty! It’s not an impediment to raising a bilingual child. In the next sections, we’ll cover all the options. Whether you don’t speak your child’s target languages, speak one, or speak both, you’ll gain more insight into raising a bilingual child.

Monolingual Homes

When your family speaks one language at home, there are upsides and downsides. The upside is they will have correct modeling of their native language. With multiple native speakers at home, children receive more variety to incorporate into their vocabulary and grammar. Of course, this does mean that parents must seek out or create language development opportunities for the second language.

Second language exposure, ASAP

By using “ASAP,” we don’t mean start language exposure after birth. This is not an over-achieving post. However, do consider how long it takes a child to properly speak one language. You may never have noticed, but four-year-olds make errors in their first language, even after thousands of hours of exposure. They may use incorrect past forms like “I readed the alphabet” or not understand hypothetical sentences like: “We would have been able to go to the park if it weren’t raining.”

It’s important to get children used to listening and speaking a language early. There are four major skills for a language: reading, writing, speaking and listening. One issue for raising bilingual children is that the skills of reading and writing the second language depend on children being able to read and write. Once they can read and write, ensure they practice in their second language.

DIY language activities

We’ll get to school and program-based options later. For now, let’s look at how parents who don’t speak their child’s second language, or don’t speak it well, can help them learn. The most important advice is to use fun and age-appropriate materials. Plenty of websites provide reviews on different shows, books and music. Some provide activities in different languages.

Of course, it’s hard to create language fun constantly. Many moms and dads don’t have the energy, personality or time to make engaging or clown-style experiences for little ones. At the least, try to make the language material compelling or interesting.

Overall, follow the child’s natural interests and put them in that language. Do they want every day to be princess day? Must dinosaurs be invited to dinner? Foreign language music and games on their favorite topics can work wonders! Also having language toys and materials they can reach or take out as the only option in one room, or in the car, is a nice way to control their environment. It’s easier to raise a bilingual child if you minimize the native language options sometimes.

To raise your child bilingual with thorough vocabulary, ensure they’re exposed to different speakers. Variety is necessary. Don’t rely on only one TV show or audiobook. Nevertheless, with a colonially-dispersed language like Spanish or French, don’t use material from a different country every week. You want to avoid a second-language-acquisition treadmill. There’s no point in learning five versions of the word “pen.”

Another tip is to label items in your house and in outside play areas. Laminate labels for the outdoors. To help them speak Spanish, put a label reading canasta on their toy basket. The label doubles as a reminder to everyone to use the language and practice.

What not to do

As we mentioned earlier, second-language exposure should be fun for your child, or at the least, interesting. If your child throws the book “Goodnight Moon” in their first language, don’t buy it in their minority language. Also, don’t interrogate them with constant questioning to get them to speak in that language. Having them ask for things or describe scenes in a fun way is better.

The vital component: the NEED to communicate

If your child doesn’t ever speak their second language to someone who can detect the correctness, their skills will not fully develop. This is the hardest part of raising bilingual children in a language you don’t speak. They must have real conversations with a speaker.

Similarly, if they don’t ever read or write…they won’t automatically be able to read or write. Brains are good at learning language, however, they must receive practice in each skill to become fully bilingual. Millions of individuals have one or both parents who speak another language, yet they can understand it but not speak it. Likewise, many heritage speakers can successfully listen to and speak the language, but not read or write it because they never read or wrote.

A shortcut to raising a bilingual child with great vocabulary skills is to have them recall information at optimal intervals. Flashcard apps like Anki and Fluent Forever are designed according to scientifically proven natural forgetting curves. That way, they practice a word right before they forget, every few weeks or so. That’s better than practicing it every day or “learning” it twice but never again!

Schools, tutors and nannies

The best way to raise a bilingual child is to pair them with a native speaker or several. Of course, not everyone has an affordable immersion school nearby. Immersive education is the best option, and some areas even have tuition-free charter schools. Otherwise, a bilingual school, where two languages are spoken, is the next best option.

Don’t worry if attending school isn’t an option. For a decade, Chinese have parents connected their kids with English teachers overseas via webcam, with success. Now, virtual learning is more common. An intermittent camp can help reinforce skills learned at home.

Another option is finding an in-person or online tutor. However, individual options are more expensive. A conversation partner or a game-playing partner may be more affordable. A popular option is to get a native nanny. This can kill multiple birds with one stone, including cutting down on learning screen time!

Both Languages at Home

If you and your significant other, or another family member, can offer both target languages at home, that’s a promising opportunity. However, it still takes discipline, commitment and willpower on everyone’s part. Many family members reel at the amount of effort needed to raise a bilingual child. Even if speakers of both languages are often present, the family may need to designate time for each language and even make a schedule.

Two family members, three languages

Once in a while, there are three languages distributed amongst different family members. For example, one parent may be a heritage speaker of Japanese, another of Spanish, and they both speak English to some degree. In this case, it’s important to dedicate time to each of the target languages. If someone has a hectic schedule, a tutor, nanny, camp or online class can assist.

Two family members, two languages

Making time for only two languages in the home is still crucial. If one speaker of a target language travels for work or works nights, supplementing with materials, programs and other speakers can help. Using a school or program is still a great add-on even if they speak and write both well by age six. While parent-mandated exposure may get tiresome, kids can fall in love with target-language activities, friends, teachers or group leaders.

How to speak to them

If you have a foreign language to offer your child, use clear, descriptive, positive communication. Don’t underestimate the value of describing routine actions and events aloud, like walking the dog or cleaning. College language instructors even do this. Colors, textures, directions, exclamations and the names of actions (pet the dog) might even be absorbed by toddlers.

How to ensure learning

Whenever possible, include visuals to support language exposure. Letting them touch an object will make the information stick better in their mind. Making them act based on the information, or giving a command, like with the game Simon Says, is great. For kids over three, I recommend turning the game “The Floor is Lava” into a Simon-Says-style language game by saying the colors in the target language. You can use this method with tiles you create for other vocabularies (shapes, types of flooring or pictures of grass, sand, etc.). Or create a whack-a-mole style game with the same principle as Simon Says. Although it may be challenging to get kids to continue speaking the language with you as they get older, do your best to help them associate the language with fun, love and interesting elements of life.

Finally, don’t forget to celebrate your heritage! Have decorations and activities from family members’ culture and language. Don’t only unpack ancestors’ boxes from the attic. Buy some new decor and games too. Having a heritage language is a gift to keep giving and celebrating.

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