Inside: 13 facts that parents who want to raise a bilingual child need to know. You can also find different bilingual parenting approaches.
If you have landed here, I am guessing you are in an interethnic relationship/marriage and are interested in raising a bilingual child.Or, maybe you are a first/second/third generation immigrant and want to raise your child speaking your native tongue.
Or, perhaps you simply love languages and/or know the benefits of being bilingual and want to jump start your child during the early stages of their language acquisition years.
Regardless of your background, you are here because you want to know more about raising a bilingual child, and you have come to the right place.
Today, I am going to share 13 facts parents who want to raise a bilingual child need to know.
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Related posts you might enjoy:
- Seven Ways That I Teach My Toddler Spanish as a Nonnative Spanish Speaker
- 10 Misconceptions About Raising Bilingual Children
- Strategies to Raise Bilingual Children
First, let me tell you a little bit about my bilingual parenting background.
I was born and raised by monolingual parents in the United States. As a requirement, I started learning Spanish in high school. I had no prior interest in learning languages.
When I was 15, I traveled to Nicaragua on a mission trip where I fell in love, not only with the language but also with the culture. It was a real amor a primera vista (love at first sight).
Never in my life had I felt so passionate about something. I felt on fire, and I wasn’t going to put out that flame until I conquered the language.
Later. I went on to college, and even though my mom wanted me to study business, I was not interested in anything but learning Spanish and traveling. In college,I studied abroad in Panamá. After that trip, I decided that Spanish wasn’t enough. I wanted more. So, I started learning Portuguese and Italian.
Then, in 2011, my life came to an abrupt halt when I met my Salvadoran partner, Carlos.
Carlos fascinated me, especially his Spanish. I was always listening for new words, and I loved hearing the different tones of the Salvadoran dialect.
Meeting Carlos is when my “bilingual beginnings” began. I was able to put all of my education and experience into everyday use. After the first few years of our relationship, I realized that I no longer needed to think before I spoke in Spanish, which was a triumphant feeling.
I couldn’t wait to raise a little Spanish-speaker.
Lennox is three now and speaks more Spanish than me!
Since birth, we have raised him bilingually using the Minority Language At Home (MLAH) approach. That means that we use Spanish at home and out and about as a family as much as possible.
*Updated September 2021: Now we raise Lennox using the Mixed Language strategy! This strategy is a little bit different than MLAH, but we still nurture the minority language as family!
Raising Lennox in my nonnative language has been far from easy. As fluent as I consider myself in Spanish, they don’t teach you nursery rhymes or onomatopoeias in Spanish class. Un perro hace wau wau, not woof, woof.
Hence it has been a learning process for me as well.
Related: Free Spanish Printables for Kids
To quit boring you with my background, I hope to shed some tips on you if you are in the process or plan to raise a bilingual child. These tips are not meant to discourage you from your bilingual parenting journey.
As Kevin Wong states: “ though raising children is often a thankless job, bilingualism is a gift that they will undoubtedly thank you for one day.” If you stick with it, you will never regret it.
Leave me a comment below with your experiences with bilingual parenting, and make sure to subscribe for weekly bilingual parenting tips and advice.
Bilingual Parenting Fact 1: Raising a bilingual child requires a lot of hard work
Raising a bilingual child is not easy and requires a lot of research and planning about how you are going to raise your child bilingually.
There are multiple approaches to raising a bilingual child. Two of the most common are
- One Person, One Language (OPOL). With the OPOL approach, one parent speaks one language to the child, and the other parent speaks the other.
If I used this approach, Carlos, who is a native Spanish speaker, would speak to Lennox is Spanish, and I, a native English speaker, would talk to Lennox in English.
Using this approach, children get used to hearing both languages on a daily basis. I read a recent article that says that this approach is the “most effective and successful” way of raising a bilingual child.
The second most common approach is MLAH, Minority Language at Home. In this approach, the non-dominant language is spoken only at home. This way, children get a solid foundation of the language at home, and in society, they pick up the dominant language.
This is the method we use in our household, and it is very effective.
Another less studied approach is the Time and Place (T & P) approach that is great for parents who might not be fluent in a minority language, or want to introduce a language to their older children.
There is also the mixed languages strategy which requires two bilingual caretakers of the same language. If done right, this strategy can be highly effective!
Bilingual Parenting Fact 2: Raising a bilingual child requires massive exposure
Raising a bilingual child requires constant and massive exposure to the non-dominant language.
In-home exposure through reading, singing, talking, music & play.
We also play different types of Latin and Spanish music, and we do a lot of in-home Spanish activities.
Sometimes, I need to tend to my motherly duties and do occupy screen time. However, I have changed all of our cable settings to broadcast in Spanish.
Even though technology might seem like a useful resource for language learning Perri Klass, M.D states that:
“in order to foster language development, the exposure has to be person-to-person; screen time doesn’t count for learning language in young children — even one language — though kids can learn content and vocabulary from educational screen time later on.”
Exposure outside of the home is valuable too. Spending time with family and friends that speak the target language. Going to cultural events and activities. Experts say that “If children are exposed to a language in a variety of circumstances with many different people from the time they are born, and if they feel they need the language to interact with the world around them, they will learn it.”
Related post: 9 Outdoor Language Learning Ideas for Kids
Bilingual Parenting Fact 3: Consistency is key
Whichever method you choose to raise your bilingual child, you need to stick with it.
This is difficult for me as a nonnative speaker, because sometimes, when I’m flustered or preoccupied, it’s just easier for me to say what I need to say in English. However, I try my hardest to always speak to Lennox in Spanish.
Bilingual Parenting Fact 4: Parents need to encourage the language
If parents do not push for a need to speak the less dominant language, it is very easy for a child to go from being bilingual as a baby/toddler, to only speaking the dominant language once they begin school.
Unfortunately, this happen too frequently among first-generation immigrant families, especially in the Latino community. I see parents who speak zero to little English and their children who struggle to speak Spanish.
Not only does this cause hindrance in family communication, but it impairs the child from learning either language to the fullest potential.
Bilingual Parenting Fact 5: The earlier you start, the better
It’s never too soon to start speaking to your child in the target language. In fact, the earlier, the better.
In second language acquisition research, critical period hypothesis states that the first years of a child’s life are the most important to acquire a second language when presented with the appropriate amount of exposure. After the first few years, it becomes more challenging for a child to gain full command of the language and grammar.
Bilingual Parenting Fact 6: Don’t forget about the culture
If you are not exposing your child to the culture behind the minority language, there is no point in trying to raise a bilingual child. Expressions are cultural, sense of time is cultural; everything about a language is cultural.
Brian Oaster states it perfectly: “ If we look at language as simply a network of words and phrases, language learning becomes lifeless and robotic. That doesn’t mean it’s impossible, but such an approach would omit layers of meaning behind the words.”
Besides language and culture being inseparable for language acquisition, exposing children to diverse cultures impacts the way they think, behave, and affects their relationship with others.
The Conversation has a great article that goes further in detail about the connections between culture and language. It is a topic I would love to research more in detail because, from my point of view, traveling and living in other cultures was the motor behind my language learning. It also made me more empathetic and understanding of the world and the reality that third-world countries face.
To this day, I still learn new cultural distinctions in the way Carlos talks, moves, acts, eats, etc.. For example, sometimes, when he is signaling something, he uses his lips instead of pointing as I would have done. This is a nonverbal cultural difference, and understanding it is just as valuable as understanding verbal and written communication.
Bilingual Parenting Fact 7: Be playful
Adopting a playful parenting approach will be very beneficial in language learning. I find that when I am on the ground, playing with Lennox, he is at his calmest. It is also a great time to talk in the target language, about anything and everything. Act out a car chase, play with barbies, build a house, etc.
Karen Banes from Rose and Rex describes how playful parenting is beneficial in all parenting situations and that it has the following benefits; play fosters respect, lightens the mood, allows for the right type of attention, and sends a message.
Bilingual Parenting Fact 8: Code-switching is a thing
Code-switching is when you adopt words from one language when speaking another. A great example of code-switching is Spanglish.
Do not worry;
this is not a sign that your child is confused. Sometimes it is just easier to say things in one language, and it is the preferred word choice.
For example, Lennox has a hard time pronouncing gracias, so instead; he says, “tank you”. The same goes for por favor. He understands por favor and gracias; however, he has taken a preference for “tank you”, and “pwease”.
Related post: 10 Misconceptions About Raising Bilingual Children
Bilingual Parenting Fact 9: It may result in a delayed language development
Your child will be learning two vocabularies and cultures instead of just one, so this may cause delayed language development.
In Lennox’s preschool class, I would say Lennox is one of the quietest, verbally speaking. However, his actions speak way louder than his words. At a little past two-and-a-half, he is starting to form sentences that I can understand. From a bystander perspective, it might just sound like babbles. I had a friend ask me two days ago, “when is he going to start speaking?” This is a remark I get quite frequently.
*Update November 2020: Lennox never stops talking! He prefers Spanish but can easily go back and forth between languages. He also understands that he speaks two-languages and can compartmentalize each language.
Do not let a language delay discourage you from cotinuing your bilingual parenting. Some kids need a period of time to observe, but they are absorbing everything they hear.
Here’s some advice:
Be patient. Unlike monolingual children, bilingual children are learning two vocabularies and two cultures. Naturally, it is going to take more time to process and compartmentalize each language.
Talk, Talk, Talk. Talk as much as you can about everything. One of my favorite places to induce conversation is in the car. Lennox cannot run from me in his car seat, so I like to ask him about what he sees, or sing songs, etc. Find little pockets of quiet time throughout your day to talk.
Explain and Encourage. Due to delayed communication, some bilingual children will grunt, hit, or bite to protest. Get on eye-level with your toddler and explain the situation and encourage him to use his words to express himself. This tactic works to calm Lennox and to share his thoughts.
Repeat. Focus on different learning activities times and repeat the words over and over again.
Bilingual Parenting Fact 10: Your child might not be interested in speaking the target language
This is why it is vital to introduce culture and make the language learning experience fun. This will deter your child from loosing interest in speaking the minority language.
Establish norms around the house. For example, when Lennox says something to me in English, I celebrate his bilingualism, but I remind him that in our household, we speak Spanish.
I’m not sure what the future will entail, but I hope that he will follow my wishes and only speak Spanish at home. I will let you know in a couple of years.
Bilingual Parenting Fact 11: Siblings might not be as bilingual as the first born
Siblings might be exposed more to the dominant language through firstborn, which will then consequently cause the siblings to be less bilingual.
I have witnessed this phenomenon with my in-law’s children. Their oldest children speak Spanish very well, but once they start school, they bring home the dominant language and speak it around the younger siblings who are eager to emulate.
Bilingual Parenting Fact 12: You will receive pushback
There are so many myths and misunderstandings about dual language acquisition that you will get pushback from family, friends and society in general.
Don’t let this discourage you, let it add fuel your fire, and remind yourself of the many benefits of being bilingual.
Bilingual Parenting Fact 13: Lastly,
Thanks for sticking with me thus far. The last and best fact you need to know about raising bilingual children is that…
it will be the absolute best parenting decision you will ever make.
You are setting them up to be more successful, diverse, compassionate, and open-minded. They will grow up to be so thankful for your perseverance and dedication in their journey.
I am just so excited for you and want to take part in your journey. Please leave me a comment below with your thoughts/opinions/experiences on bilingual parenting, and don’t forget to subscribe to receive our weekly newsletter.