How to raise a bilingual child

You may be reading this because you are already raising your children to be bilingual or because you are thinking about raising your children to be bilingual. The UAE is no stranger to households raising children who speak more than one language. Bilingualism is an amazing opportunity for children to maximize their language learning potential from an early age and provides the child with cognitive and academic advantages. Bilingualism also allows the child to maintain cultural ties with their parents heritage.

When is the best time to teach a new Language?

Many linguists believe there is a ‘critical period’ (approximately from birth until puberty) during which a child can easily acquire any language that he or she is regularly exposed to. Under this view, the structure of the brain changes at puberty, and after that it becomes harder to learn a new language. The elasticity of a child’s brain allows them to incorporate the different sounds and syntax of the languages, meaning that they will develop a more natural sounding accent, be more fluent in their transition from one language to another and produce unusual sounds with ease. This means that it is much easier to learn a second language during childhood than as an adult. Additionally, children tend to develop more native-like pronunciation when bilingualism begins before adolescence

How to get started

Teaching a child more than one language is not something that happens overnight. Raising children to master more than one language requires careful planning and learning about bilingual development. Having a language plan should be the first priority. Parents who take the time to carefully consider how their children will develop more than one language, and those who make the necessary commitments to aid in bilingual language development tend to be more successful in raising bilingual children.

It is also important to understand how bilingualism is defined in your family. Are you trying to teach the child to speak, listen, read and write in another language or do your family want to teach the child to only talk and listen in that language? It is not uncommon for children to speak only one language but have listening comprehension in two or more. You need to figure out what your language goals are for that child and use the appropriate language strategies that allow this development.

When children are learning two or more languages at the same time as parents, you need to work out language strategies that emphasize boundaries between the languages. For example:

  • One parent, one language. One parent consistently speaks one language while the other parent speaks another language.
  • Both parents speak one language in the home and a second language is used at school.
  • One language is used in the home and at school and the second language is used in the community.
  • Both parents speak both languages to the child but separate the languages according to speaking situations or alternate days.

Recommendations for parents

Here are a few basic dos and don’ts that are important in raising children with more than one language.

Provide the right environment

Do what comes naturally to you and your family in terms of which language(s) you use when, but make sure your children hear both languages frequently and in a variety of circumstances. Create opportunities for your children to use all of the languages they hear. Be good listeners and good language models by introducing rich vocabulary and varied conversations. Providing books, music, and even videos in both language is also important.

Have a fixed pattern

You need to be consistent with the style you use and stick to it! It may seem chaotic trying to teach your child more than one language but if you use consistency it will make your job and your child’s a whole lot easier. Once a young person starts to grasp the pattern it can be disruptive if you break it.

Don’t talk in different languages to your children

If your child has other siblings, it is very important you talk to all your children in the same way. For example, do not use one language with the eldest child and a different one with the youngest. Language is tied into emotions and if you address your children in different languages, some of your children may feel excluded which in turn may adversely affect their behaviour.

Don’t flip-flop with your primary language

Avoid abrupt changes in how you talk to your children, especially when they are under six. Don’t suddenly decide to speak French to them if you have only been using English.

Don’t force your child to do more than they can

Children should not be forced into bilingualism if it is making them very unhappy. If you feel strongly about your children using one particular language with you, encourage them to use it in all of their communication with you. Try to discourage their use of another language with you by asking them to repeat what they said in the preferred language or by gently offering them the appropriate words in the language you want them to use. Some children may really struggle to establish what their first language is and therefore struggle with both their understanding of words and their expressive language. This may create a situation where the child demonstrates a language delay and intervention is necessary.

Research has highlighted that when a child in a bilingual home environment is struggling with their language development, it is important for that child to be able to develop a consistent first language.

Don’t make bilingualism a chore.

It does not have to be hard work for either you or the child. Incorporate both languages into everyday family life and then it will start to come naturally for the child and they will grow up to enjoy being bilingual. The more you can make bilingualism seem like a natural and normal part of family life, the more likely you will succeed in keeping both languages alive in the home. Whatever you do, do not punish the child for using or not using a particular language. It takes time for them to learn and it should in time become effortless.

Don’t compare your child to other children even their own siblings.

Every child is unique and you must be aware of individual difference among children. Each child learns language at their own speed. Many factors can have an influence over how quickly the child grasps the second. This includes things like the length of time the family remains in the community that used the second language, their relationships with the family member who speaks the second language, and attitudes toward each language expressed by the parents, school, community and especially the child. Both languages must be given importance and a sense of worth in all aspects of the child’s life.

Don’t worry

Children may jump from using one language to the other within one sentence. They are basically processing their languages and selecting the easiest version of the target word they are looking for. This does not necessary indicate language confusion so do not worry if your child switches back and forth between languages as this is quite normal to observe in bilingual individuals.

Which language do I select if my child is struggling to acquire either language?

Historically, it has been recommended that the family stop using their mother tongue to focus on the language they want the child to be educated in. However, research has again shown that cutting out the first language had a detrimental effect on the child’s emotional well-being and sense of belonging within the family. Therefore, it is more commonly recommended now that the families do not cut out their first language completely but focus on learning and exposure in the language they are being educated in and family chat and terms of endearment are maintained in their first language.

Parents of children with learning difficulties or language impairments sometimes worry about the impact of a second language on their child. New research is emerging that is suggesting that bilingualism is possible for these children and it is important for parents to remember that it is indeed possible for some children with learning difficulties to be bilingual or even multilingual.

If you are interested to read more about Bilingualism, “A Parents’ and Teachers guide to Bilingualism” is a great book that mixes theory with practicality. The book is laid out in a question and answer format to make it easy to understand and apply.