Raising a Bilingual Child: 6 Things You Need to Know

baby-164897_640Multilingual Parenting is a great website if you’re in a household that uses more than one language. Even if you, yourself speak only one language, there are many ways to support your budding bilingual child, but sometimes it’s hard to find resources on the web. I have not read the book by the website creator, Rita Rosenback, but I enjoy reading her posts, if only for the encouragement. Even though my family has found bilingualism to be fairly seamless to incorporate into our routine so far, that may not be the case once my kids start talking and reach school age. In this two-part series, I share my favorite blog posts from Multilingual Parenting, and add my two cents!

This week, I’m focusing on 12 things parents raising bilingual children need to know. I love this post, and draw from its points often as I talk to other people (especially monolinguals!) about bilingualism. I’m taking some creative license in combining and adding to Rita’s list here, but be sure to check the original post!

  • Raising a bilingual child requires planning. Why do you want your child to be bilingual? What level of proficiency do you expect them to accomplish? Is it enough for your child to know basic vocabulary? Do they need conversational ability? What about biliteracy? Who will they communicate with in each language? Distant relatives, live-in grandparents, peers? How much exposure will your child have to the language, without going out of your way to find it? These are critical questions that determine the degree of front-loading required to get your kid on a steady path. I know children that hear both languages in their homes (even with parents that don’t speak English!), but by the age of 5, the child has completely rejected the minority language, and does not speak it.
  • Raising a bilingual child requires conscientiousness. How much exposure is realistic for your child? This is a tough one to quantify, especially for little ones. My children hear mostly English from me, and 100% Spanish from my husband and our care-provider. Fact: A mother carries the most influence on child language (1-English, 0-Spanish). Fact: My kids hear Spanish from more people (1-English, 1-Spanish). Fact: My kids spend three days a week with our nanny alone, two days a week with me alone, and two days with both parents, so how much time is that per language? (?-English, ?-Spanish). It’ll be easier to gauge what’s sticking once my toddler starts talking, but there’s more to exposure than simply time on task, or one-parent, one-language.
  • Raising a bilingual child might make you self-conscious. Especially if you aren’t accustomed to using the language in public, it is easy to get self-conscious at the store, or the park, or at play dates. My husband constantly feels eyes on him when he talks to our children in Spanish. But it’s crucial that the child hear you use the language in public, so they don’t develop feelings of shame or embarrassment. Language is inherently social, but if you’re not using language in social settings, children will abandon it completely.
  • Raising a bilingual child means you’ll need new friends. My husband and I were raised and schooled in English. All of our friends are English-speakers. All of our social interactions, apart from our nanny, are in English. My in-laws speak to my kids in Spanish, but we see them once a year, for a few days. We know many Spanish speakers, but we don’t necessarily socialize with them. Yikes! How will our children ever place value on Spanish if they never speak it with anyone under the age of 10? It may feel contrived, but we’ll be posting to our listserv soon, “¡Favor de ser nuestro amig@!” [Please be our friend!]
  • Raising a bilingual child means you’ll need thicker skin. People have opinions. About everything, but mostly, about your parenting. Bilingualism is an easy target because there is a lot of stigma surrounding bilingualism in general, and some minority languages in particular. Let the bad advice and doubting comments just roll off your back. Virtually every language study that has ever been done has found favorably for bilingualism. (The only exception to this is that young elementary students tend to have smaller vocabularies in English than their peers when they start school, but they always catch up… and ultimately, have double the vocabulary size because they speak two languages!)
  • Raising a bilingual child is rarely a bad choice. Like exercising or drinking more water, bilingualism contributes to vitality. It promotes mental rigor, empathy, and problem-solving for your child. Plus, it adds a new layer of fun to your interactions because you have double the music, books, movies, jokes, puns, and word games available to you. (True story: we have watched the same movies twice, in English and Spanish, just to compare how phrases are translated.)

What would you add to this list? Next week, I’ll talk about my other favorite post from Multilingual Parenting.

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