5 tips for raising a bilingual child

This is a guest post by Eve Bodeux. Eve is mother of two boys, married to a Frenchman. She lives in the Denver, Colorado USA area and blogs at bloggingonbilingualism.com

Parents the globe over have bilingualism (or multilingualism) as a goal for their children as they realize the value this advantage provides in our ever-smaller world. Mixing traditional approaches with modern supplemental activities allows enthusiastic parents to encourage their children in learning a second language. Here are my five top tips for success!

1. Start early

Introduce your child to his or her second language as soon as possible. Immediately after birth is not too soon! Don’t be discouraged, though, if you are introducing your child to a bilingual environment at a later age. Any linguistic input you are able to provide your child in a second language will propel him or her on the path to successful communication and contribute to his or her enthusiasm for learning about the world as a larger global community.

2. Encourage regular conversation

Have your child engage in conversation often with a native or proficient non-native speaker. This can be one or both parents, but if you do not speak the language you are targeting, this could be a relative, a good friend or a visitor from abroad for the summer, for example. The more time a child spends in exposure to the language, the more fluent he or she will become.

3. Take advantage of new technologies…

Nothing replaces human interaction, but use the tools at your disposal in today’s fast paced world. Does your son love his Nintendo DS? Then buy him games in Spanish to teach him new vocabulary without him even noticing as he zaps the bad guy. Does your daughter love her iPod? Download hip songs in Italian or German-language videos from the iTunes store or YouTube to watch on the go. DVDs used wisely can teach children new phrases and vocabulary as well as exposing them to cultural information that goes hand-in-hand with their second language.

4. …but don’t forget about books

Books are key to your child’s success in becoming fluent. They provide rich vocabulary input as well as develop literacy. For children just being introduced to a new language, feel free to use dual language texts side by side to encourage your child’s growing confidence. However, do not underestimate your child’s ability to learn quickly and, especially if your child is not reading yet, go for full immersion. Acquire monolingual books in your target language and your child will quickly begin to recognize new words, concepts and grammatical structures.

5. Demonstrate practical benefits

Show your child the practical side of the language. No one wants to learn a skill that isn’t used for anything. Does learning Italian help him to communicate with his Grandmother in Rome on Skype? Does understanding French let her be an email pen pal with the cute exchange student from last summer? Consistently use your second language when participating in a special activity with your child such as skiing or cooking.

Know that bilingualism is a journey and there will be highs and lows, but stick with it and you and your child will reap the long-term benefits. In addition to the obvious linguistic benefits, bilingualism encourages problem-solving skills and contributes to making your child a true world citizen.

What are your experiences with raising bilingual children? Do you have any tips to add to the list?

Read more:
A truly Spanglish couple: learning Spanish in Cancun, Mexico
Bilingualism in expat couples
Resources for multi-cultural families

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7 Comments

  • Thanks again for this post Eve. Knowing more than one language is such an asset and these seem like very practical and achievable tips to help children get there. I’ll be passing it on! Wish you all the best with your own bilingual family.

  • Especially for a small child (see the “start early”) it is important to have a clear relationship language-person. Each partner should only use his mother tongue to talk with the child, so the child has it easier to talk in the right language. Our child is now nearly 5 and she can do well in both language, though now German dominates a lot due to kindergarten.

  • My 17 month old hear Spanish at home and English in daycare. It is taking longer for him to start to speak, but I am 100% convinced the wait will pay off when he is able to cmmunicate in both languages!

    Great post, Eve!!!

  • Thanks for the feedback! Andy, I do not necessarily agree. Consistency is good, but in our own family, we have been successful at having me speak French and English to our boys. (My husband is native French and only speaks French to them.) We felt that they needed more French input for them due to our dominate US-English environment that was squeezing out the French. I still speak English too at times, since it is my native (and most comfortable language). Our two boys are pretty balanced bilinguals for living in the US and also read (and write some) in French. I think that each family has to carefully assess their own needs rather than following someone else’s prescription regarding who speaks what and when. Thanks again for the comments!

  • @ Gina – my kids both spoke later too. The science says that bilingualism does not lead to delays, but it sure seems like a lot of people observe this, so I’d agree with you. The children do have two setts of vocabularies to sort out, after all – double what a monolingual kid learns! But, in the end, it all works out and it is so great to have both languages!

  • What a wonderful post. Thank you for sharing this.

    Tip #5 hit a soft spot for me: I am the child of Italians (my mother was born in Italy, and my father was born in Montreal, though both sets of grandparents speak Italian exclusively). I was never taught Italian, so, in essence, I never knew my grandparents since we could not hold a conversation.

    I started studying Italian seven years ago and I now know my grandparents. It’s a wonderful thing, and I don’t want my future children to lose their roots via loss of language, so I plan on speaking to them exclusively in Italian.

    All that said, I appreciate this post :) Thanks for sharing these tips. I’m only 23, but I do plan on putting these to use in the future.

    All the best,

    Christina

  • Txaro

    I am a teacher of English as a Foreign Language, trilingual myself as I was born in Spain and brought up in the US, where, despite my parents’ efforts to bring us up speaking Spanish, I can’t say I really spoke the language fluently until I moved back to Spain after graduating from high school. 4 years of high school French and 7 years living in Paris, as well as 22 years living in a small French city on the border with Spain, have made me fluent in French as well. My children were brought up speaking Spanish at home, French at school and with friends, and English was taught to them as a third language in a very natural way, since I ran a language school. English was a natural part of their upbringing since I used to take them with me when I accompanied students on summer programs to the US. From a very young age they spents summers with friends in the US. My eldest eventually fell in love with an American young man at the age of 18 and moved to the US to finish college. She became definitely trilingual after living in the US for 7 years. I don’t know how “trilingual” the other 2 would be considered, are their degrees of trilingualism?? All I know is that they are capable of communicating without any problems in the three languages, although as a teacher, and a bit of a perfectionist, I feel they need a 1 or 2 year “bath” in English to become truly trilingual.

    I too think it’s important to speak to the kids in your mother tongue, leave the foreign language to a native speaker and expose them to as much of the foreign language as possible during their lives, cartoons when they’re young, series and movies as they get older, music, exchanges, traveling…. because the most important tip for successful language learning is feeling that learning that language is useful, and this anecdote explains it all. During our first summer in the US we stayed with a friend of mine and her family. My son was 3 at the time and was just starting to distinguish Spanish and French, when he was immersed in an English-speaking environment for a month. At the end of our stay we went shopping for souvenirs and when we got home and started packing, my friend’s sons came to see what we had bought. One of the boys picked up a baseball bat that I had bought for my son to look at it, and immediately my son snatched it from him, looked at him in the eye and said…”it’s MINE!!!!” How many times must he have heard that sentence during the month until he was finally able to use it himself. He didn’t need to study the possessive pronouns. He just needed to find the language useful!