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How To Raise Bilingual Kids: Give the Gift of Language!

Updated on September 7, 2014

Raising a bilingual child: an adventure for the entire family!

Are you planning on raising your child bilingual? Are you already raising a bilingual child but have met some unwanted snags along the way? Perhaps you have a bilingual success story you want to share? If any of these is the case, I heartily welcome you to this article where we will discuss the various facets of raising a bilingual child.We will speak about how to raise bilingual kids in the fastest, most effective and cost efficient ways. Likewise, we will cover the various methods parents and teachers use to facilitate the comprehension and use of a foreign language. Finally, we will touch upon issues in the bilingual education of children, such as resentment towards the new language.Keep in mind that the road to picking up a foreign language is long and far from easy, especially if the language you are trying to introduce is not your own. Language teaching and learning requires perseverance, patience and understanding on both the behalf of the teacher and the student - they simply are not learned overnight!This being said, bilingual education is also extremely entertaining and rewarding for all parties involved. As a language teacher myself, I can tell you that nothing compares to that shiver of pride you'll feel running down your spine when your child first begins to interact with foreign language speakers as if there were nothing to it!On this note, I hope you enjoy this article, and please do not forget to leave a comment at the end to tell me what you thought.

Photo courtesy of DFID - UK Department for International Development on Flickr

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Flickr

1. The 'One Parent, One Language' Rule

How to raise bilingual kids

Many bilingual parents believe that having one parent speak two languages to their child - most commonly, the majority language of the country where they live, and a minority language - is an effective way of fostering bilingualism. However, this method is a proverbial double-edged sword. Let's explore why.It may not always appear so, but children are habitual beings. They enjoy and depend upon consistency and routine, from the knowledge that mum and dad will be there to pick them up from school at four o'clock to the understanding that nine o'clock means bedtime. Not surprisingly, their love of routine applies foreign language learning as well. That is, children feel more comfortable consistently speaking the same language to the same person.Consequently, when a parent begins to switch unpredictably between two languages, he or she is more likely to instil in the child feelings of confusion, resentment and dislike towards the minority language. The child may even refuse the language completely, expressing his frustration through temper tantrums and rebellious actions. Needless to say, that is the last reaction any parent wants from their child.On the other hand, if you have no other way of introducing the minority language at your disposition, you may have no choice but to speak both languages with your child. This is often the case with a parent who has the responsibility of teaching not one but two minority languages to a child. (Imagine a French-Italian mother living in England with her English husband.) If this is the case, try choosing specific moments during the day when you use one language or the other, and stay consistent. Doing so will give your child the sensation of routine. He or she will know that story-time is always in French, and bath-time is always in Italian, for instance.No matter what you decide to do in the end, keep in mind the 'One Parent, One Language' rule. Speaking in one language to your child will help him associate you with that language. He won't even think to question why you speak to him in this way because, for him, it will be the most natural thing in the world.

Photo courtesy of s.s.minnow on Flickr

What if my child refuses the foreign language?

The problems parents can face in teaching a child a foreign language

In answer to this question, I'd like to tell you two short stories.

Story 1

There once was an British lady who moved to Italy. She married an Italian man and they had a child together. From day one, this lady always spoke in English to her child. One day, her child decided that he was fed up with English. Not having any English speaking peers, he felt unbearably different. He would even throw temper tantrums in public and start saying "Stop speaking in that way, mommy!" From that day forth, the lady never spoke to her son in English again.

Story 2

An English mother decided that she wanted her six-year-old girl to learn Chinese. She hired a Chinese tutor to come in once a week to teach Chinese to her child. As time went on, her child became increasingly disinterested and stressed. She would cry whenever she had to go to a lesson. She would constantly ask the tutor when the lesson would finish. After a year, the mother decided to throw in the towel.

Though the result is the same (both children stopped learning the foreign language), Story 1 is very different from Story 2. In Story 1, the input-giver is the mother, the child's main caregiver and reference. In Story 2, the input-giver is an outside influence who only sees the child once a week. The answer to our question, interestingly, lies in this very difference.In Story 1, the mother should have persevered. She should have explained to her child that English is a part of daily life, much like eating vegetables or cleaning one's room, not a choice. The child might have continued to complain, but with time, he would have eventually come to accept English as a part of his mother's identity, and thus, his own as well. On the contrary, if a mother leaves her identity open to debate as the lady in our story did by giving in and speaking her child's dominant language, she will never be able to convince the child to pay attention to the second language.Story 2 is a very different matter. In this case, the language is being taught by an outsider (the tutor), and it is a language that has no significance to the child or her family's identity. Furthermore, the child had very little exposure to the language. In such a case, it is better to let the child give up if no visible progress is being made after a given period of time. To continue would simply cause the child to suffer, waste the tutor's time, and drain your wallet.

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Flickr

2. Hire An Au Pair or Foreign Nanny

How to raise bilingual kids

Hiring an au pair girl or nanny who speaks a foreign language can be an extremely fruitful way of teaching a new language to your child.What is an au pair, you might ask? An au pair is essentially a young girl, usually under 25 years of age, who lives with you and your family. Her main responsibilities are to: help you with basic chores that concern the children and speak to them in her language. An au pair girl usually remains with a family from three months to an entire year, depending on her situation.Having been an au pair myself, I can confirm that hosting an au pair girl in your home is one hundred times more effective than sending your child to expensive language classes or playgroups a couple of times a week. Why is this? It is because children must be exposed to the target language for at least 30% of their waking hours to become truly fluent. This kind of high exposure cannot be obtained unless the person providing the input is constantly in their company. This makes au pairs and nannies ideal.Moreover, the long-term cost of an au pair is minimal compared to the amount you'd have to spend on private lessons, both during your child's early years and later on. In fact, most families do not spend more than 3600 euros in 'pocket money' for an au pair over the course of three years, the average time required for your children to become fluent.

Photo courtesy of Ed Yourton on Flickr

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Flashcards For Teaching Foreign Languages - The most flexible teaching material on the planet!

Flashcards are an indispensable resource for teaching children foreign languages. They represent nouns, actions and descriptive words that children may not be able to experience frequently in the real world. (As a simple example, think teaching the word "snow" in Africa!)These cards can be used for a number of foreign language games. To see a small list of my favourite flashcard games, read on below:

1) Hop Over The Lava

In this game, you lay the target flashcards on the floor. Tell the child that the floor is lava and the only way to escape the lava is to step on the "stones" (flashcards). Each time a child jumps on a different card, she must say the word on the card. Make the game more challenging by having her reach an objective, such as a card on the other end of the room.

2) Guess The Card

This game involves you flipping over all the target flashcards so that the child cannot see the pictures. Pick one card at random, hide it behind your back, and have the child guess which card you chose. Then, let the child pick a card and have you guess.

3) Switch!

If you are working with at least six children at a time, this game will work well. Hang a flashcard around each child's neck and have them stand in a circle. Yell out two random flashcards and have the children holding them switch places in the circle. This game works great with children five years old and up.

Spanish Flash Cards
Spanish Flash Cards

These flashcards were made for English children learning Spanish, but they can easily be used to teach any other language as well, as long as you don't look at the writing on the cards. Just make sure you or somebody else knows the terms, and you're set!

 

"A man who speaks four languages is worth four men."- Madame de Stael

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Flickr

4. Have Your Child Attend An Immersion School

How to raise bilingual kids

Immersion schools have become popular all over the world, from Canada where French immersion schools populate much of the English-speaking provence of Ontario, to Italy, where international schools exist in the dozens.Having your child attend an immersion school will allow him to learn his subjects in the foreign language while still taking classes in his native tongue. He will be able to make friends with native speakers of the foreign language. What is more, he will learn to read and write in the foreign language, an aspect which is often forgotten especially for languages with complicated writing systems such as Chinese or Arabic.

Photo courtesy of Tetra Pak on Flickr

Do you think teaching a second language should be mandatory in schools?

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5. Organize Playgroups With Other Foreign Language Speakers

How to raise a bilingual child

Though it isn't as effective as hiring an au pair or asking a nanny to speak in her native tongue with your child, organising a playgroup with other children who speak the foreign language will help both in terms of language growth and increasing feelings of solidarity.Believe it or not, children are some of the best language teachers in existence. They are harsh critics ("You don't say it that way, silly!") but also very forgiving of mistakes. In fact, very young children rarely let language barriers get in the way of having a good time. By playing with young foreign speakers, your child will learn important vocabulary and expressions he would probably not learn with an adult.Even more importantly, he will take comfort in the fact that he and you, the language teacher, are not the only ones who speak in "that strange way." This will raise his confidence, make him more willing to speak the foreign tongue, and give him an increased sense of solidarity with his new linguistic group.

Photo courtesy of Strocchi on Flickr

Secret Tips and Tricks for Teaching a Second Language!

The 'Listen, Repeat' Method

How to raise bilingual kids

A somewhat sneaky method of giving your child the necessary input she needs to learn a new language is to use the 'listen, repeat' method. This method consists of the input-giver (you) listening to what the child has to say in her native tongue, and repeating it back to her in the new language. Here is a simple example of a dialogue that could occur between a child and her input-giver.

Child: (In native language) Today, I went with my friends to the playground but Emma wasn't there.

Input-Giver: (In foreign language) Ah, you went to the playground but Emma wasn't there. That's a shame.

As you can see, the input-giver has repeated exactly what the child has said. You can either decide to repeat the entire phrase back to her as in the previous example, or just the parts for which she is lacking the necessary vocabulary. For instance, let's say the child does not know the word "playground." You will want to make sure the word "playground" is repeated back to her so she learns the new vocabulary item.

Input-Giver: Ah, you went to the playground? The playground, right? Too bad Emma wasn't there.

Generally, this method works only works well with very small children, as older children will start to find you boring and repetitive. (After all, it isn't the most natural way of speaking!) With older children, there is a different method you can use to give them hints to what you are saying. Read on below to find out!

The 'Vocabulary Sprinkling' Method

How to raise bilingual children

I tend to use the 'Vocabulary Sprinkling' method with older children who are just starting out on their language learning journey. The principal is to say very simple phrases using the grammar and vocabulary of the foreign language, sprinkled with the occasional vocabulary item from the child's native tongue. Doing so will:

1) Instil confidence in the child. He will be under the impression that he completely understands what you are saying, even though you are speaking in another language.

2) Gradually teach new vocabulary items without explicit explanations.An example dialogue can be seen below between an Italian child and an English input-giver.

As you can see, the English input-giver sprinkles the occasional Italian vocabulary item into her phrases to aid comprehension. She also repeats the English word twice, once before the Italian word and once after, so the child knows that the English word is equivalent to the Italian word.

Input-giver: Do you want to go to the park parco park?

Child: (In Italian) Not really.

Input-giver: Where dove where do you want to go?

The 'Foreign Language Phrase' Method

How to raise bilingual children

A method I love to employ at my nursery school, where my one-on-one time with the children is limited, is the 'Foreign Language Phrase' method. It consists of teaching a set phrase the children must always say in the foreign tongue.For instance, if the children want me to draw them a picture, they know they must ask in English, otherwise they will not receive a drawing. The set phrase I have given them is:

"Can I have a ______, please?"

By using this phrase, they have not only learned the grammar "can I have" but they also continually increase their English vocabulary by asking for different drawings, from princesses to ballerinasto images of outer space.Other set phrases you could use to get your kids started are:

"May I go to the toilet, please?"

"Can I have a drink, please?"

"Can I go wash my hands, please?"...and so on.

Excellent Books About Raising Bilingual Children - Follow the advice of the experts in bilingual language study!

Raising a Bilingual Child (Living Language Series)
Raising a Bilingual Child (Living Language Series)

Lots of advice for parents about how to create a positive bilingual environment for kids. Full of inspirational stories told by parents who have raised bilingual children with success.

 
7 Steps to Raising a Bilingual Child
7 Steps to Raising a Bilingual Child

A wonderful book rich in personal narratives. After reading this book, you will definitely be convinced that teaching your child a second language is the right choice!

 

Which Foreign Language Should I Teach My Kids?

Figuring out which foreign language is best for your family

The foreign language you opt to teach your child is a very personal choice, and I cannot be the one to tell you which to choose. However, there are a few important things you may want to keep in mind before settling on a choice.

1) Do you know a foreign language or dialect fluently, or at least very well? If so, the language you know would make a logical first choice, even if you consider it a language with little value. Teaching this language will allow your child to share in your culture and history. He will have the opportunity to learn important expressions, jokes which only work in that language, and most importantly, the unique mentality of the linguistic culture to which you belong.

2) If you do not speak a foreign language, the next best option would be a language that is useful in the region where you live. For Americans of the south, this might mean Spanish or Mexican. For the British, Hindi or Urdu might make more sense. For Canadians, there is no doubt that French and Mandarin Chinese would make an excellent choice. Having your child learn a language that is frequently spoken in your area, or that is used often in trade, will give him or her an advantage in the job market in years to come.

3) If the two previous options do not appeal to you, you can always opt for a popular or chic language, such as French, Italian, or Japanese. Usually, when these languages are chosen, it is more for pleasure than any other motive as they do not give one a great advantage in business.

Watch a young American boy speak perfect Mandarin! - In only a few years, your child could be like him!

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Flickr

My Spouse Doesn't Speak My Language

How to involve your spouse in your child's language learning journey

A common motive for which many bilingual parents forgo the teaching of a minority language to their child is having a monolingual spouse. Imagine that you are a bilingual mother who speaks both German and Mandarin. Your husband, on the other hand, speaks solely German. You want to teach your child Mandarin, but feel it would be disrespectful towards your monolingual spouse, as he might feel excluded. Due to this fear, your child grows up to be a monolingual German speaker, and Mandarin, your mother tongue, gets left by the wayside.If you find yourself in a similar situation, have faith. Minority languages can be taught even if you have a monolingual spouse. All that is required is your complete openness and your spouse's willingness to learn.With regards to openness, it is vital that you and your child are always communicative with the monolingual spouse. If you are chatting away together in Mandarin, include him in the conversation by translating what you have said. Make sure he never feels excluded from the conversation.Just as openness is important, a willingness to learn is also required on the behalf of the monolingual parent. If he tries to learn the minority language along with his child, he will benefit much more from the experience. He will feel less ostracized and more motivated to participate in the child's language learning journey.

Photo courtesy of Gabe Photos

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Flickr

What About Raising Multilingual Children?

Learning how to raise a multilingual child is no harder than raising a bilingual child!

Once a child is already on his or her way to becoming bilingual, raising him or her to become a multilingual child is actually quite easy. This is because you already know the process behind language learning in children - the above-mentioned one parent, one language rule, the various input-givers you can bring into your family, and the multiple tactics you can employ. Moreover, you have probably dismissed the myth that learning more than one language can mentally harm a child.If you want your child to become multilingual, all you must do introduce a third party into your home who speaks that language. As with the second language, this person could be a grandparent, relative, babysitter, au pair, nanny, or friend. Make an effort to expose your child to that language at least 20-30% of his or her waking hours. This can be done with the help of technology as well, such as DVDs, music CDs or foreign language games on the computer. If there is a language play group in your area, have your child attend a couple of times a week for extra exposure. If possible, trips abroad to the country where the language is spoken can be a useful way of showing your child the practicality of the foreign language. And most importantly of all, remain positive and keep things fun!

Photo courtesy of viZZZual.com on Flickr

Who am I?

My experience in the field of second language teaching

My name is Heather Broster, a Linguistics university graduate and aspiring polyglot. Besides my native English, I know intermediate level Japanese and high-intermediate level Italian. In my free time, I dabble in French thanks to my Franco-Italian partner, and Welsh.For the past four years, I have been teaching English as a foreign language in Italy to children aged 2-10. The first two years were spent as an au pair for a lovely family consisting of three children who knew almost no English when I arrived. (I am pictured here with the youngest, Anna!) Would it surprise you to learn that all three children are now perfectly bilingual?Later, I was hired at the local European nursery school to teach ESL to preschoolers. This is the job I've been doing ever since, coupled with afternoon jobs teaching English through conversation to kids. I find both occupations extremely fulfilling, both in the satisfaction I get seeing a child learn my language, and in an academic sense. Thanks to these kids, I always have a sea of things to write about!

What are your thoughts on raising bilingual kids? - Against it? For it? Share your thoughts!

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    • Rosetta Slone profile image

      Rosetta Slone 4 years ago from Under a coconut tree

      This is such a wonderful, thorough resource. My toddler son is being raised multilingual - we use OPOL (except my husband speaks 2 languages, while I stick to english). At 18 months he speaks about 50 words, in all 3 languages. It's very fun to watch.I'm also an ESL teacher, teaching to kids from 3 - 15 and love it!

    • MayaIxchel profile image

      MayaIxchel 5 years ago

      I think it is great! My daughters are learning both English and Spanish!

    • elyria profile image

      elyria 5 years ago

      We are teaching our little one Russian, English, Chinese and French

    • profile image

      khatha0808 5 years ago

      I try to teach my sons easy vocab every day on their daily life like spoon, glasses, water, car, truck, dog, cat, and repeat them every day. It seem to work on increasing the vocab but it doesn't help conversation much as I expected.

    • Magda2012 profile image

      Magda2012 5 years ago

      Good information on raising bilingual kids, I am still learning how to do it. thanks for sharing.

    • MarcStorm LM profile image

      MarcStorm LM 5 years ago

      Great article! Back to the beginning....For the story one scenario; the mother could tell the child, if the child is old enough, that the language they speak can be their own secret language if noone else arounds them speak it & should help the child want to learn it. It can be a magical bond between them, to be able to speak a different language...... much like a kid using pig latin or a completely new language lol. As for story two, the parents or parent could have been tutored along with the kid. So that the kid doesn't feel on the spot about learning the language by him or herself and don't want to be alone with a stranger to learn something new & scary.All in all, great job! I enjoyed reading it. I love the fact that you can speak all those languages, as well as teach them & that you were an Au Pair.

    • anaisfraiche profile image

      anaisfraiche 5 years ago

      Thank you for this lens, I will bookmark it. I spoke 3 languages, 2 major and 1 minor (English, Malay, Iban) and my husband spoke 3 major languages and 1 minor (English, Malay, Mandarin and Kadazan). I speak in Iban (my mother tongue) to my child and my husband speaks to her in Kadazan (his mother tongue). But between me and my husband, we speak in Malay/English. Our friends speak in English to her. Sometimes I wonder if she will get confuse but so far she's doing good :)

    • profile image

      AngryBaker 5 years ago

      Love this, I spoke German before speaking English, since my parents are German, and there was no other way to speak with my relatives. Went to "german school" on Saturdays for 9 years, and studied in high school and college. I love having the second language. Dropped the ball with my kids though, they refused, and my husband was no help. Sad about that.

    • profile image

      BarbaraCasey 5 years ago

      For the first 2-3 years of my life, I was bilingual, speaking English and Finnish. Lost the Finnish vocabulary when we moved away from my Finn relatives and my parents stopped speaking it around the house. Wish I'd kept it up, though.

    • profile image

      sherioz 5 years ago

      This is an incredibly informative lens. I raised my children in Israel. They had enough opportunity to speak Hebrew without me mangling the language. Besides, I couldn't see yelling at my own kids in a foreign language. Many years ago I met an Israeli couple originally from Morocco who were living in Latin America. Their 4 year-old twins spoke fluent Hebrew, French and Spanish. When they couldn't figure out my accent and therefore didn't know which language in which to speak with me, they were puzzled. They refused to speak to me in anything but my native language, which they had not yet learned. Amazing.

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      anonymous 5 years ago

      An excellent article Heather. It should be very helpful to all parents raisinga bilingual child. I think you have covered everything!

    • CareNfashion LM profile image

      CareNfashion LM 5 years ago

      You choose very interesting & untapped topic.I came across this situation therefore I can imagine the adventure of raising bilingual child.

    • MarcoG profile image

      Marc 5 years ago from Edinburgh

      I agree with MiddleSister... I would love to speak multiple languages well

    • Joan Haines profile image

      Joan Haines 5 years ago

      To me, being monolingual feels like a handicap in this big, wide world.