5 Key Ingredients for Raising a Bilingual Child
It would be so great if our kids saw the value of talking in a second or foreign language without any convincing from us, wouldn’t it? The reasons to learn a second or foreign language are very well-researched and substantially outnumber the reasons for not learning a second or foreign language. Some of the research-backed reasons for learning a second or foreign language include:
- many others
After reading the reasons above, even this toddler could not believe how lucky he would be to learn more than one language…
Ok… if only it were that simple. As many parents will know, getting our kids to talk in a second or foreign language (despite technical differences, for simplicity, we will simply use the term second language to refer to both from now on) is far from easy sometimes. This applies both to parents who are native speakers themselves of the language(s) they want their kids to learn and to parents who are not native speakers of the languages but would like to give their kids the gift of bilingualism or multilingualism (referred to as simply bilingualism from now on for simplicity) from a young age. Whether you are in the former or latter group, kudos to you on your initiative to raise your kid(s) to know more than one language. You are giving them an amazing gift for life!
Kudos to you on your initiative to raise your kid(s) to know more than one language. You are giving them an amazing gift for life!
Linguacious®, our humble language learning company behind the Linguacious® vocabulary flashcards, was started by my wife and I as a way to get our son Dylan excited about our languages. Since his first day of life, he has not heard anything but Portuguese from me and Russian from my wife. Ok, let me better qualify this statement. My wife and I talk to each other in Russian about 10% of the time and in English about 90% of the time, but we have never used English to talk directly to Dylan. Whenever we talk to him (or to our recently born daughter), we always switch to our native languages.
Dylan started learning English at 11 months of age, when we sent him to daycare, and now at almost 3 years old, is quite fluent for his age in all three languages. Although we consider him to be a balanced trilingual, that is, one who has similar proficiency in all three languages, his proficiency in a given language goes through small fluctuations depending on the current amount of input. For example, when his Brazilian grandma (my mom) is staying with us for a couple of months, we notice that his Portuguese develops by leaps and bounds, whereas his Russian may develop a little more slowly then. However, when his Russian-speaking Ukrainian grandma has a long stay with us, the opposite happens. In the end, it all balances out, but a little unbalance at a given time is perfectly normal and to be expected, especially when a child is dealing with three languages instead of two. Further down in this post, we will talk about some of the techniques we use at the Linguacious home to make sure that all three languages are always developing and that our child has plenty of opportunities to use them.
A little unbalance at a given time is perfectly normal and to be expected, especially when a child is dealing with three languages instead of two.
We have had people over from Brazil who have said Dylan speaks better Portuguese than most kids his age in Brazil. The same applies to Russian, with him being more fluent and accurate in his language than many kids his age from Russia or Ukraine. Regarding his English, it’s basically as good as his other two languages, since he spends most of his day at daycare and the medium there is English. At home, he gets plenty of chances to speak in Russian and Portuguese with mom, daddy, the grandparents who may be visiting, and some friends who also speak either Russian or Portuguese (more on this later).
So, how have we managed to raise so far a trilingual child who is, to a great extent, balanced in all his three languages? Is this a realist goal for other families, who would like their kids to learn more than one language? Well, it depends, but we certainly think that if parents are willing to put in the extra time and effort, that is perfectly possible. It’s very important for families to realize a few basic things about raising a bilingual child. Given my experience successfully raising a trilingual child so far, and given my readings and professional experience in the field of language learning, I would say there are five main ingredients in the process of raising kids to speak more than one language:
- Hard Work
- Good resources
In the next section, we will look at each of these five ingredients, one at a time. We will also offer some practical ideas and tips to help parents optimize their chances of raising their kids to speak more than one language, in a way that is a pleasant endeavor to both the parents and the kids.
Before we dive in, though, I would like to be quite open about something I strongly believe in. If both parents are native speakers of the minority language (i.e., the language that is not the dominant language in the society the child lives in), this is a huge advantage when compared to families where only one of the parents speaks the minority language (and let’s say, the other one speaks the dominant language in the society). The latter scenario, however, is still a great head start when compared to families where neither parent speaks the extra language they want the child to learn. This is what I call “the native parent advantage”. Now, let’s be clear. It is perfectly possible to raise a child bilingual even if neither parent speaks the second language. However, it does mean that the parents in this case will have to be extra creative, since they themselves cannot provide as much of that daily input that is so important, with such input having to come from other sources than the parents themselves. If the parents are native speakers of the language, they are themselves the most important resource ever in the child’s pathway to bilingualism.
It is perfectly possible to raise a child bilingual even if neither parent speaks the second language. However, it does mean that the parents in this case will have to be extra creative.
Ok, back to our five ingredients now, which apply in all cases, whether parents are native speakers of the language(s) or not.
Ingredient #1: Hard Work
Some parents may think that all that is needed for a child to learn another language is to give the child exposure to that language. For example, simply let the child watch cartoons in the language and the magic will happen. Any of us who have tried that or heard from others who have tried it, will know that this is not the case. That would be just too easy to do and then everyone could become bilingual! Wouldn’t that be great? Yes, having a society where everyone is bilingual would indeed be great.
Being bilingual, however, requires more hard work than that, of course. The good news is that it requires less hard work on the children’s part than it does on the parents’ part. Raising bilingual kids can be seen as an award, or prize, that is given to those parents who are willing to put in the time, effort, and hard work necessary to raise bilingual kids.
Raising bilingual kids can be seen as an award, or prize, that is given to those parents who are willing to put in the time, effort, and hard work necessary to raise bilingual kids.
Another piece of good news, though. If the parent is a native speaker of the language himself or herself, the most precious resource they need to give their kids is simply time. Time to speak to them in this other language, as much as possible, in as many occasions as possible. Yes, this does mean that some nights, instead of enjoying that TV show you like so much, you will have to sit down and engage your child in play in the second language, read books to them in the language, and ask them questions about their day in the language so that you can ensure they are learning useful vocabulary that they actually care about. One of the things that can cause a child to want to speak less in a second language is if they start lacking the vocabulary needed to talk about things they want to talk about, such as what happened in school, what they saw when playing with their friends and so on. So, what is the best way to make sure that does not happen? It’s simply to take the time to talk to the child and know what is going on in their lives or school at the moment.
Is your child at daycare? Make sure to talk to the teachers often and ask the kinds of activities your child is doing in the classroom. If your daycare uses a system like Tadpoles, an app that allows teachers to inform parents of all the daily activities in the classroom and also send videos and photos, make sure to read all notes in order to bring up those topics in the second language as well when the child comes home. Go the extra step and ask the director for a copy of the syllabus or program for the month, so that you can make sure that you cover the same concepts in the second language, ensuring that your child can actually talk to you about things that matter to them without having to often revert back to the first language for lack of vocabulary.
Make sure that you cover the same concepts in the second language, ensuring that your child can actually talk to you about things that matter to them without having to often revert back to the first language for lack of vocabulary.
Need to drive your child to and from daycare/school every single day? Excellent! Turn off that radio and make the time to talk to your child in the second language. Ask them questions about what you see out the window, what’s happening on the road, or what their hopes and expectations are for the day. Just make sure you are talking about things they care about, not things that you care about. Making time is not as hard as many think it is. You may currently not be taking advantage of precious time that you could be using to engage your child in the second language. Regardless of their level of knowledge in the language, there is always something you can do to increase exposure to the language. And by exposure I mean both input (having the child listen to the language) and output (having the child try things out in the language).
If the parent is not a speaker of the language, then things are a little different. In addition to making time to spend with your child engaging in the language, your hard work will also involve doing a good deal of research regarding good resources to use with the child in the language, how to make sure the child is being exposed to a good model of the language, how to provide for opportunities for them to speak in the language, and much more. These are things that even a native-speaking parent needs to think about, but it is indeed harder (albeit perfectly achievable) for parents who do not speak the language themselves (or may speak to only a more basic level).
Ingredient #2: Perseverance
Raising bilingual kids is a marathon, not a sprint.
As Adam Beck, from Bilingual Monkeys, notes, raising bilingual kids is a marathon, not a sprint. It is the daily, consistent work that will add up, little by little, to achieving that dream of raising a bilingual child. Becoming bilingual is an exercise just like any other. It requires constant practice, a good coach here and there (the coach in this case may be the parents, a care-taker, songs, videos, and most likely a combination of all these), and a gradual increase in the level of the language (exercise) the child is exposed to so that the child’s linguistic development does not plateau.
In order not to give up on the bilingual dream, it is very important that parents commit to not being embarrassed to talk to the child in the second language when in public. So what if you are the only one who is not talking in English (let’s say) at the park or school? Think of it this way. If you have decided that you want to be healthier and eat better, would you throw your yummy and nutritious salad away just because everyone around you is having a hamburger? I hope not. If you know you are working towards a laudable and very healthy goal such as bilingualism, then you should not be concerned with what others may think or with looking or sounding different. If you do, I am sorry, but bilingualism is not for you and you can stop reading this post right now.
If you know you are working towards a laudable and very healthy goal such as bilingualism, then you should not be concerned with what others may think or with looking or sounding different.
So, if you are the type of person who is willing to carry on eating that salad when everyone else is eating their burgers, then read on. Bilingualism comes to those who care about it and understand what it takes to achieve it, not to those who just want it. It has to be earned.
You will find many challenges along the way of the bilingual path, that’s for sure. Think of these challenges as a way to test how much you, as a parent, deserve to achieve this dream together with your child or children. You must persevere and keep the advantages of bilingualism (see beginning of this post) in mind. Visualization is very important here. You must actively imagine what it is like to be bilingual and all the glamour that comes with it. Ok, maybe people will not be rolling out a red carpet for your bilingual child to step on every time they speak in more than one language, but think of the amazing gift you are giving your child by allowing them to be bilingual.
Ingredient #3: Fun
The exercise analogy goes only so far with kids. Whereas adults may be willing to commit to a goal even if it is not easy or fun at all to go through the steps in order to achieve it, kids are not like that. If kids are not having fun with the language they are learning, forget about it; it is not going to happen. As many parents reading this may have experienced, forcing a child to speak in a language they do not want will only make things worse. If parents do that, not only will the child not want to speak in the language, but they may also dislike the parents for forcing them to do so and may develop a negative view towards the minority language, which they may carry with them for life. This is definitely not what we would like if we aim to raise kids to speak more than one language and to admire and enjoy both the language and the culture associated with it.
If kids are not having fun with the language they are learning, forget about it; it is not going to happen.
I developed the Linguacious® flashcards for my son Dylan exactly because I wanted him to have fun with our languages. Since I could not find any flashcards in the language learning market that both followed solid principles of vocabulary learning and that had native audio instead of English-based spelling of the words to serve as a good model of pronunciation, I had to get creative and invent my own. That’s why kids (and adults) can play over 10 different fun games with the Linguacious flashcards in order to learn and practice common vocabulary in over 25 different languages, including LCTLs (less-commonly -taught languages) such as Yup’ik. Kids love scanning the QR code on each card to listen to the pronunciation of the word by a native speaker of the language and it’s a fun and safe way to introduce use of technology to kids 2 years old and older. The Linguacious scanning app has no ads or anything like that, so it’s 100% safe and child-friendly; just point at the card and listen to the speaker.
Some of the games are more appropriate for toddlers, whereas others are more appropriate for kids ages 5-8. The point here is that it’s a fun way to introduce a language to the kids and once they learn those words through the games (each card deck includes 52 flashcards/concepts), they can start using them in their daily life. Now, not only is it fun, but it is also useful, which optimizes the chances that the child will care about it and enjoy the process.
In the same way, parents have to think of how to make learning fun for their kids. What makes it fun for one kid may turn out not to be fun for another. For example: does your child like cartoons and usually begs to watch them after dinner? Excellent, let’s get creative. Tell them you have a deal that will allow them to watch their precious cartoons. They can watch it as long as it is in the second language (this is actually one of the golden rules at the Linguacious household!). They may resist a little bit in the beginning, but after a little while they will start seeing that the new language can actually be fun. And of course, children will prefer to watch a cartoon in any language than watching no cartoon at all! Further down in this post, we offer some nice resources to help with this.
In the same way, parents have to think of how to make learning fun for their kids. What makes it fun for one kid may turn out not to be fun for another.
Does your kid like plush toys? Great! Buy them a new one and tell them that their new friend can only speak Mandarin/Russian/Vietnamese/Hindi (insert your language here) from the get-go and does not understand other languages. This will be fun for your kid, since they will be playing, but you are being creative and setting subtle rules that will put the child on a good path for being open to speaking in the second language.
Know of a girl who is a friend of a friend and only speaks the foreign language and no English? Fantastic! Invite her to play with your child in the second language! This extra fun will make your child realize that there are other people out there who also speak this language and that it is possible to have fun with it, just as with their first language! If you are saying “yes, but I may have to spend money for that…”, you are completely right. Being bilingual will often not come for free. You must make time and also be willing to spend a little bit of money here and there to make sure your child has the right opportunities to engage with the language, be it by hiring a babysitter who speaks the language, purchasing toys or games in the language that may come from overseas, paying for books in the foreign language that you can read to the child or have someone read to them, and so on. Remember, bilingualism has to be earned. Your commitment to the goal is being tested all the time.
Remember, bilingualism has to be earned. Your commitment to the goal is being tested all the time.
A few months ago, I uploaded a video to the Linguacious Instagram account where I was doing a shoulders and side workout by lifting Dylan up and down in a mesh basket, while having him count in Portuguese with each repetition. Silly? You bet! Effective? You bet! He loved it and engaged in Portuguese the whole time. Why? Because he was having fun. You can click here to watch that video, if you would like.
Ingredient #4: Information
Of course, as with many things in life, the more informed we are about something, the higher our chances to succeeding in that area. One of the best ways to increase your odds of successfully raising bilingual kids is to read what others who have been through the same journey have to say. There is a large number of people writing on this topic online. Some that I would personally recommend are:
The Bilingual Monkeys blog, site, and forum are the work of Adam Beck. Adam’s page is a must-check for parents interested in raising their children to speak more than one language. Adam is American and his wife is Japanese. He lives in Japan, has a background in teaching English in Japan, and his kids were raised speaking English and Japanese from the beginning. On his blog, readers can find the Bilingual Zoo forum, where his many readers can interact with and learn from each other on all things related to raising bilingual kids. He constantly publishes interesting and practical posts on bilingualism. He is also the author of the book “Maximize your Child’s Bilingual Ability”. His book is by far the first book I suggest to parents about to or already raising their little ones to speak more than one language. It’s packed with a nice touch of humor that only Adam can offer as well as very practical tips from someone who understand about the topic quite well, both theoretically as well as first-hand.
Language Learning at Home
The Language Learning at Home blog is run by Anne, who has a PhD in Spanish and is a stay-at-home mom raising her two kids bilingual in English and Spanish. Anne’s main focus is on helping homeschooling parents on their language-learning adventure with their kids, but her blog has excellent articles that make for great reading for all parents, whether homeschooling or not. The Language Learning at Home Facebook group is also a great place to interact with other parents teaching languages to their kids and to get your own questions answered. The community is super friendly and everyone will be quite willing to help you on your and your kids’ journey. Their FB group is a great way as well to be in the know about useful resources in your target language.
Ingredient #5: Good resources
Perhaps the most important key to raising a bilingual child successfully is making sure your child has access to a plethora of interesting (to them!) resources in the language you would like them to learn. As they develop in age, interests, and linguistic proficiency, you will naturally have to look for more advanced resources. In the beginning, however, as is the case at our home with our almost 3-year-old trilingual son, here are some of the resources we always have in our home and that Dylan loves using in our home languages (Russian and Portuguese).
Although cartoons should of course not be the only source of language input for your children, they can certainly be a great tool in your toolbox. Kids love watching cartoons, and having them watch them in the language(s) you want them to learn is certainly a fair compromise. In little time, they will get use to it and start acquiring new words and expressions they will be able to use in their own speech, in addition to becoming better listeners in the language. At home, we are big fans of cartoons that are family-friendly, have real, interesting stories behind them, and are full of rich language for kids. Our favorites are Peppa Pig, Masha and the Bear and Daniel Tiger. All of these are available for free and in many languages on Youtube.
One of the pillars in raising kids to speak more than one language is building a good library of books at home in the second language or even books that are language-neutral (can work in any language, as long as one of the parents speaks the language).
One of the pillars in raising kids to speak more than one language is building a good library of books at home in the second language.
For bilingual books, we recommend and own several KidKiddos Books. The stories are sweet, engaging, and are available in a large number of languages, including some that are much harder to find materials in, such as Serbian, Swedish, and Farsi. Oh, and their prices are quite reasonable as well.
We also have a large number of monolingual Russian, Portuguese, and English books at home. We purchase some of our Russian and Portuguese books online, but our favorite way of getting these books is by asking our parents to bring them for our kids when they come to visit. They usually bring them in dozens and we all love it and just can’t get enough!
Some other books we love to have at home are those “Look and Find” type of books where kids have to find certain things among a bunch of different objects, people, etc. These books are excellent for vocabulary practice and can be a lot of fun!
Kids love playing games, so if you can get your hands on games (whether card games, board games, or others) that can get kids to talk and engage in the second language, all the power to you! The Linguacious flashcards are (in a biased way, of course) our favorite way to start introducing new vocabulary in the second language, since kids can play over 10 different games with the cards, practice all four skills (reading, writing, listening, and speaking) while playing the games, and listen to a native speaker pronounce each of the words. At the time of this writing, they are available in Arabic, Bosnian, Chinese Mandarin, Dutch, French, German, Greek, Hebrew, Hindi, Hungarian, Kurdish, Italian, Irish Gaelic, Korean, Japanese, Polish, Portuguese (Brazil), Russian, Spanish, Swedish, Turkish, Ukrainian, Vietnamese, and Yup’ik.
As I hope has become clear from this post, it is perfectly possible to raise bilingual children, whether you are a native-speaking parent or not. However, it requires hard work, perseverance, fun with the language, availability of good information as to how to go about it, and access to great resources in the language(s).
We wish you and your kids an amazing time on this journey! We look forward to hearing from you in the comment section below about your own experience, tips you may have, resources you may have found useful, and anything else you would like to share with us! To get things started, here is a question for you to address in the comment section:
Are you raising kids bilingually at the moment? If so, how are things going for you? Let us know in the comment section!
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