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Raising Children to Be Bilingual

Updated on May 7, 2014
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Bilingual children are smarter

Many international couples face the question of which language their children are going to learn. As people are increasingly traveling and finding their partner abroad, this issue is becoming more popular. However, raising bilingual children is more complex than many might think and you need to do some careful research prior to opting for this type of education.

Learning languages at an early age has shown in scientific research, that it has positive effects on cognitive skills, problem-solving and the child’s intellectual and academic development. Research proved that in bilingual children, there are two language systems active in the child’s brain which are active even when the child is not using one of the languages. Beyond that, it was discovered that the executive function of a bilingual child’s brain is better developed than that of a monolingual child. Bilingual children were found to be better at staying focused and ignoring distractions. Their brain is more flexible and can switch attention from one thing to another more quickly. Bilingualism was also found to improve memory skills.


The different methods

It is essential to decide whether to expose your child to an environment in which he/she is simultaneously learning two languages or whether one language is spoken at home with the child while at school the child learns a second main language.

The child needs to be exposed to the languages spoken by the parents, relatives and the community. Some experts say that you need to establish boundaries between the languages through which the child will learn to distinguish between the two. This can be achieved by one parent consistently speaking one language with the child while the other consistently speaks the other language. Between each other, the partners can speak their common language. This has the advantage that each partner can use his/her native language which is in most cases the stronger language and be a native model to the child. A problem that may occur is that in most cases, the language the child uses at school and in the community becomes the dominant language as it is exposed to this language most of the day. For this reason, it is important to maintain consistency. Mixing two languages in the same conversation can lead to the child starting to mix the languages and creating a hybrid language. If you start to use the dominating language at home, the weaker language will eventually be replaced by the dominant language and the child might subconsciously develop an aversion against their second language.

Another strategy would be deciding to speak one language at home, which tends to be the minority language in most cases, while outside of the home such as in school and in the community, the child speaks the country’s official language(s). For instance, if you are a family where one partner is Brazilian and the other one German and you live in Germany, you would be speaking Portuguese at home and German in the community. However, this means that one partner must speak his second or third language at home which is in most cases his/her weaker language.

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Success factors

The learning progress of the child depends on a variety of factors such as how much time the child spends with each parent. If one parent is away at work all day and only gets to speak the father for a couple of hours at night, the child will most likely prefer speaking the mother’s language.

Another success factor is the quality of the language exposure. Parents should be good listeners and provide their kids with good language sources including music, pictures books, storybooks, pictures, photos and videos. As a ground rule, it is essential that you speak and interact with the children in both languages on a daily basis.

You have to be really patient when teaching your children multiple languages. You might wonder why your child is not speaking his multiple languages as quickly as other children are speaking their only language. It was a common belief for many years that the child will be confused when learning two languages at the same time or will be under too much pressure. But there is nothing to worry about. Even if your kids start speaking a bit later than its peers, studies have shown that the brain is being prepared for a bilingual environment resulting in a better memory, better cognitive skills and less distraction. There are countries where the whole population speaks at least two languages from birth such as in Belgium (French, Dutch and German in some parts), Switzerland (French, German and Italian) and Canada (French and English). These are very successful economies and the people have a great advantage in their lives.

If you decide to educate your child bilingually, do consider the above-mentioned factors and remember that the best way to teach children is to make them have fun learning. Children get bored reasily and sitting them down at a table for 3 hours to study a language at a very young age is hardly going to get the results you expect. Speak with the child, play games, do activities, look at picture books and encourage the child as much as possible. Avoid using pressure, as this might lead to the child rejecting the language you are trying to teach and last but not least, maintain a positive attitude towards both languages and treat them equally. The child must understand that both languages are of the same value.

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    • Jennifer Madison profile image
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      Jennifer Madison 5 years ago from Lohmar

      Yes, it is indeed enriching to be growing up with two different cultures and languages. I was not raised bilingually but have met many people in my life that learnt two languages from birth. They never had to take a look at any grammar books and had a major advantage in life.

    • soutienscolairefr profile image

      soutienscolairefr 5 years ago from Paris

      Very interesting and useful article! Indeed being bilingual can be such an incredible skill and tool for the children's future, professionnally, personally, now that frontiers are opened and the world is more and more globalized. And it is so enriching and must be a great feeling to be able to understand two cultures completely and be a bridge between the two, because beyond the words, there is the culture understanding.

    • Jennifer Madison profile image
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      Jennifer Madison 5 years ago from Lohmar

      Thanks Anna! Bilingualism is such an interesting topic and I am already looking forward to raising my future children to be bilingual :). Until then I will continue to do research on this topic. I just think it is amazing the way bilingualism has a positive impact on your brain functions and I think the earlier a kid starts learning a 2nd, 3rd or even 4th language the better. So many doors will open for them when they are older.

    • AnnaCia profile image

      AnnaCia 5 years ago

      Very nice and interesting topic. I am bilingual myself. In my family, our children attend bilingual schools from kindergarden to 6th grade. At home they speak Spanish, but TV programs are mostly in English. Thanks for the information.