Raising Bilingual Children: 9 Tips on How Any Family Can Do it Effectively
Thinking of teaching your children more than one language?
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.
Whether you’re monolingual or bilingual, here you’ll find some practical tips for raising bilingual children.
- Raising Bilingual Children as Monolingual Parents/Guardians
- Raising Bilingual Children as Bilingual Parents/Guardians
- Different Ways to Structure a Bilingual Household
- Don’t Let Myths About Bilingualism Get to You
- And One More Thing...
Different households will approach their kids’ bilingual education in different ways. Below, I’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. These tips should help you make conscious linguistic choices for your home that support bilingualism.
Raising Bilingual Children as Monolingual Parents/Guardians
1. Plan Family Activities in the Target Language
Hands-on activities—especially ones that utilize visuals—will help children contextualize and absorb their target language while also having fun.
For example, you could 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.
2. Attend Local Cultural Events That Involve the Target Language
Cities have tons of cultural events and offer great opportunities for children to experience the cuisine, language and people whose native language is their second.
For example, Chicago hosts an annual “Taste 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 Google and Meetup.com, or you could also check out the “Events” tab on Facebook. Your local university’s language department or public library could also point you to some great options.
3. 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 your children 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.
4. Let Kids Watch Media in the Target Language
When physical immersion isn’t possible, the next best thing is to let children watch family-friendly movies, TV shows and other forms of media in the target language. Subtitled cartoons are highly recommended as they allow kids to listen to and read the language all in one go.
To boost your child’s listening and reading skills while also allowing them to learn through fun and native content, you could try using FluentU.
FluentU takes authentic videos—like music videos, movie trailers, news and inspiring talks—and turns them into personalized language learning lessons.
5. 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 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.
Raising Bilingual Children as Bilingual Parents/Guardians
6. Be Deliberate About When You Code Switch
This links 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.
7. 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, but it’ll also get them comfortable reading it—not just speaking and listening to it.
And don’t limit yourself to just books. Any opportunity you get where you can read the target language aloud, go ahead and take 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.
8. 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.
9. Leave Lunchbox Messages in the Minority Language
Here, the “minority language” 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!
Different Ways to Structure a Bilingual Household
Depending on the languages spoken both in and outside of your household, there are a number of different models you can choose to effectively encourage bilingualism.
To get started, take a look at these six models outlined in Martyn Barrett’s “The Development of Language.” These models can 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 a clear language plan within the natural and healthy confusion that happens 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.
This perceived academic gap in earlier years is largely due to a failing in standardized tests to properly measure dual-language learners.
Now that you’ve decided to raise a bilingual child, it’s time to choose a communication model.
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 by raising bilingual children you’re giving them a wonderful gift that’ll last a lifetime.
And One More Thing...
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