Families make so many difficult decisions for their children.
Deciding on the best way to discipline them.
Looking for good role models for them.
Saying “no” to chocolate ice cream for breakfast even though that would be awesome…
Fortunately, there’s one decision that’s a no-brainer: Teaching children more than one language from a young age.
The benefits of bilingualism will impact all areas of their life, from opening up fantastic job opportunities to broadening their perspective on the world.
There’s also research showing that bilingualism positively impacts the development of cognitive abilities, and that bilingual speakers have, among other enhanced capacities, greater reception to feedback and criticism and a higher level of attentive focus.
In essence, the question should never be “should I raise a bilingual child?” but instead, “how can I raise a bilingual child?”
And that’s exactly what we’ll address here today.
The answer of “how” will depend somewhat on your household and who already speaks what language(s). Whether you’re monolingual or bilingual, we’ll give you some practical tips for building a happily bilingual home that your children will thrive in.
Different Ways to Structure a Bilingual Household
Depending on the languages spoken in your household, there are a number of different models you can choose to effectively encourage bilingualism.
To get started, check out these six models outlined in Martyn Barrett’s “The Development of Language.” They’ll help parents and guardians decide when and in what environments to use native versus target language communication.
For instance, a Spanish-native parent and an English-native parent living in the U.S. would use the “one parent, one language” model, with each parent using his or her native language to speak with the child.
Identifying the model your household uses will establish clear communication guidelines within the natural and healthy confusion that does come along when a child is learning two languages at once.
Don’t Let Myths About Bilingualism Get to You
Parents raising children in a bilingual household are often on the receiving end of well-meant-but-ignorant comments made by teachers and others who aren’t familiar with how bilingual children learn.
First of all, it’s important to know that some bilingual children’s vocabulary skills will seem behind their peers in early education, but this gap quickly closes—research shows that it’s gone by age five, and other skills aren’t affected.
Moreover, the perceived academic gap in earlier years is largely due to a failing in standardized tests to properly measure dual-language learners.
Raising Bilingual Children: How Any Family Can Get It Right
As noted earlier, different households will approach their kids’ bilingual educations in different ways. Below, we’ll provide practical tips in two categories: one you can use if you’re monolingual and another if you’re bilingual.
Of course, there may be some overlap depending on your environment and what languages other members of your nuclear or extended family speak. Overall these tips should help you make conscious linguistic choices for your home that support bilingualism.
Before we get to those, there’s one tip that’s useful no matter what your household looks like: Exposing your children to authentic target language content like children’s stories, games and more.
One especially effective and kid-friendly tool is FluentU, which has real-world videos (like movie trailers, children’s songs, cartoons and more) that’ve been transformed into language learning experiences. Each video comes with interactive captions that provide in-context definitions and pronunciations for any word.
FluentU’s innovative “Learn Mode” also creates flashcards and exercises for each video, to help with memorization of new vocabulary. It’s an awesome way to teach your kids both the sound and culture of the target language, while ensuring they actively build their vocabularies.
Plus, there are plenty of TV clips, YouTube videos and more that adults will love, so you can develop your language skills alongside your children!
Tips for Monolingual Parents/Guardians
Plan Family Activities in the Target Language
Hands-on activities—especially ones that utilize visuals—will help children contextualize and absorb their target language.
For example, you can get a cookbook in the target language and learn to cook a traditional dish from a country where it’s spoken. Board games in the target language are another great way to build language skills and have family bonding at the same time.
Attend Local Cultural Events That Involve the Target Language
Cities have tons of these and offer a great opportunity to expose children to the cuisine, language and people whose native language is their second.
For example, Chicago hosts an annual “Flavors of Mexico” festival and New York City hosts an annual 116th Street Festival, the largest Latin festival in the Northeast.
To find these types of events, try searching on sites like Meetup.com or checking out the “Events” tab on Facebook (on the left side of the page, under “Explore”). Your local university’s language department or public library could also point you to some great options.
Encourage Children to Read Aloud from Books in Both Languages
Reading aloud can help children parse through the different phonetic rules of each language while supporting overall literacy.
Better yet, encourage them to read theatrically and dramatize the story! Beyond just making reading more fun, it can also help them find their distinct voice for each language, which is a bilingual phenomenon that tends to happen naturally.
Become a Homestay Family for Kids Who Speak the Target Language
Introducing your child to a new friend who speaks their target language will give them essential, authentic communication practice from a young age. It’ll also help them understand the relevance of bilingualism as they build a new friendship in a second language.
Simply asking around, such as making a Facebook post asking for recommendations, can be a good starting point to find homestay opportunities. Many families get put in contact with one another through a mutual friend.
If you’d like to go through more official channels, Cultural Homestay International is a thorough and reliable resource for families wanting to learn more about hosting an international guest. Another option is registering as a host for international families looking to send their child overseas through Homestay.com.
Tips for Bilingual Parents/Guardians
Be Deliberate About When You Code Switch
This gets back to the bilingual household models we discussed earlier. It’s important not to vacillate randomly between your native language and other languages—instead, consider your surrounding environment and (if applicable) your partner’s languages, and be deliberate about when, if ever, you switch languages with the child.
However, note that code switching (or switching between languages/modes of communication) on the child’s part is common and shouldn’t cause concern. It’s actually a good sign and evidence of their expanded vocabulary capacities.
Remember that it’s important to stick to your communication model even when switching to another language may feel easier.
This is especially relevant when disciplining or reinforcing rules; it may be easier to switch in the moment but, barring safety issues, try to adhere to your dual-language model as strictly as possible.
Read Aloud to Kids in the Target Language
There have been tons of studies done on the value of reading aloud to children, but this is especially important in raising a bilingual child if you’re bilingual. Not only is it great exposure to the target language, it’ll also get them comfortable reading it—not just speaking and listening to it.
It might not seem like a big deal now, but developing target language literacy skills early can help lay the groundwork for bilingual academic and professional success down the line.
Have Children Write Letters in Both Languages to Family Members and Friends
Writing to relatives or family friends is a good practice to adopt in general because it encourages children to expand their concept of family.
Writing in different languages supplements this by reminding them to expand their concept of language—it’s not just something they’re learning for themselves, it’s something that has positive implications for their relationships with others.
Plus, it’s great practice! Check their letters for grammar or spelling errors and have them correct any that you see before sending the letters out.
Leave Lunchbox Messages in the Minority Language
The “minority language” in this case refers to the household language that’s not spoken in the surrounding environment. For example, if you’re a native Mandarin speaker teaching your child Mandarin while living in Canada, Mandarin would be the minority language.
Leaving lunchbox messages will help keep the language relevant throughout the child’s day without interrupting the schoolwork or social communication that’s done in the majority language. Plus, it’ll be a sweet reminder of family and home!
Now that you’ve solidified and verified your resolve to raise a bilingual child, it’s time to choose a course of action and dive in.
Strategies will and should vary from household to household.
Every bilingual household is different with regard to who speaks what language, the surrounding community and the temperament of the child.
Just remember that you’re giving your child a wonderful gift that’ll last a lifetime.
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