Raising Children Bilingual: The Ultimate Guide

My three sons speak English and Spanish fluently. Raising children bilingual is ridiculously easy if you have two languages already, but even if you don’t, you can ensure that your children grow up bilingual. First, though, we need to look at why it’s such a good idea for kids to have multiple languages.

Why Raising Children Bilingual is a Good Idea

There are so many advantages to being bilingual. As someone who had to learn a second language as an adult and really struggled with it, I highly recommend that you give your children the gift of multiple languages. Here’s why:

Ease of Learning Additional Languages

Kids who speak a second language from a young age tend to pick up new languages much faster, thanks to their brain already being wired for it. When they’re older, if they need to learn another language for travel, work or pleasure, it will be a simpler thing for them than if they didn’t have that connection.

More Earning Power

These days, with a global market, bilingualism is in big demand. Companies tend to look for people who can cover more than just one demographic and language. That’s only going to expand as the world become smore connected, so your child having a second language can only improve their earning expectations. It will also help them land jobs that might be harder to get for monolingual folks. Add to that a bigger retirement fund and you have the makings of success, all because you decided raising children bilingual was worth it.

An Evolved Brain

A study of two brains, one monolingual and one bilingual will show some significant differences. Kids who are raised with more than one language are better able to switch between tasks and can usually filter out extra information with ease. They are also more likely to do better in school and to learn better in general. Who doesn’t want that for their kids?

Better Understanding of the World

When you raise bilingual kids, they have a bigger vocabulary and are better able to grasp new concepts. One of the biggest benefits is the ability to understand more culture. Since another language will have a different way of saying things, it can help you understand the world a little better. For example, some feelings and actions are expressed in another language, yet cannot be accurately described in English. The ability to express themselves properly grows with the child’s understanding of the new language.

More Travel Possibilities

Have you ever traveled to a foreign country and found it difficult to get around because you had to rely on your phrasebook? Your child will be able to travel to the countries where they speak the language without any of that hassle. Traveling will be far more immersive and exciting for them. It’s far easier to get into the real culture of a place when you can chat with the people who live it. In addition to this, bilingual kids will have a better chance at studying abroad when they already speak the language.

Better Mental Health

Studies have shown that bilingual adults are less likely to develop dementia than those who speak only one language. The constant exercise of the brain seems to help build cognitive memories and keeps the brain functioning better for longer. The earlier your child learns another language, the bigger the benefit.

These are all excellent reasons to get your child into a second language, but now you need to figure out what to teach them. Which language will help your child the most?

Which Language Should They Learn?

In some cases, it’s obvious which language your child will learn. If you speak more than one language, it makes sense to turn that second language into your child’s second language. For example, parents who are from Italy, but live in the U.S. could speak Italian and English in the home. My children speak English and Spanish, since we live in Guatemala, but I’m from Canada.

But what if you and your spouse don’t speak any other languages? Is it still possible to teach your child a second language?

The answer is yes, but it’s going to be a bit more difficult. That shouldn’t stop you, though! You have the choice of any language in the world to get your child started. However, a few things will make bilingualism a little simpler.

First, look at languages that:

  • Are spoken by a relative or someone who is around your child frequently
  • Most common in your area
  • In demand in the work force
  • Are becoming more and more popular
  • Can be found in your area

While Spanish and French are two of the biggest languages in the world, Chinese and Japanese are the up and coming languages of business and are less likely to be spoken by business people. However, you may have specific reasons for wanting a certain language, such as a grandmother who speaks Russian or a family friend that is fluent in Portuguese. Check out this video of a 4 year old polyglot.

You may also want to check into bilingual or language immersion schools in your area. If there is a French immersion school, for example, it may make more sense to teach your child French than a language that they will never hear or have any access to.

How to Raise Bilingual Kids with Bilingual Parents

The first rule of thumb with raising children bilingual is to start as early as possible. Babies can learn any language without effort, so ideally, you’ll begin at birth. That being said, you may have a toddler or preschooler at this point and you’re wondering if it’s too late. The truth is, while it’s best to start early, any small child will pick up a new language without too much stress.

If you and your spouse speak different languages, you have a few options for how you’ll teach your children both languages. I recommend choosing one of the first two options.

One language at home, one language outside the home. This method requires that you and your spouse, along with your children, only speak the second language within the home. Outside the house, your children will speak the language of the country. For example, if you live in the United States, you might speak English in the street and at school, but at home, you speak Japanese. This helps kids differentiate between the two languages.

One parent = one language. In this scenario, each parent speaks a different language. This is the method we use in my home. I speak English with my children and their father speaks Spanish with them. Between us adults, we speak Spanish. This is easier for bilingual parents, because you just have to focus on one language and kids quickly pick up which one to speak with when they switch parents. In fact, you’ll notice even toddlers will translate when talking to both parents!

Alternating language days. Some people swear by this method. They will speak English one day in their home and German the next, for example. Alternating languages like this can help kids switch back and forth, but it can be confusing to remember which day is which and you’ll need to make sure you have a system in place to remember.

Any language, any time. The most “chaotic” of the methods is just to try and blend the languages as best you can, mixing your use as you go. This tends to result in kids using a mixture of the languages, such as Spanglish, but they will eventually sort out which words go where.

When you don’t have two languages at home, how can you encourage kids to learn a second language? It takes a bit more work than if you already speak two yourself, but you can do it.

Monolingual Parents Raising Bilingual Children

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It’s possible to gift your kids the opportunity to learn a second language even if you yourself don’t speak another language. First, bear in mind that in order to learn it, they need to hear it. That means surrounding your child with the chosen language. You can do this in a variety of ways.

  • Hire a nanny or aupair to speak another language with the child.
  • Let them watch videos and television shows in that language.
  • Find a family that speaks the language and do frequent play dates.
  • Travel to another country and allow your child to play with kids in the other language.
  • Learn a second language yourself and use it.
  • Send them to bilingual daycare or school.

These methods can be very effective if your child has enough exposure to the other language and you may find that your child begins to speak the new language very quickly. Social proof can be a big motivator for toddlers and preschoolers and they’re more likely to speak the second language if they see others around them doing the same.

Raising children bilingual requires quite a bit of effort if you’re monolingual yourself, but it is still very rewarding.

Bilingual Problems: When Raising Children Bilingual Doesn’t Go Smoothly

While there are huge benefits to your child being raised bilingual, there are also some hiccups that may crop up. It would be poor form to write an article on raising children bilingual without addressing some of these common problems.

Bilingual Babies May Take Longer to Speak

One of the issues with raising children bilingual from birth is speech. Delayed speech is very common in bilingual babies. They will act like any other child their age, but without speaking. Bilingual babies will react and follow instructions (age appropriately) in either language, but may only grunt or point when getting your attention. They understand, but don’t yet verbalize. This is normal and bilingual babies do catch up.

My middle child was far more physical than his brothers and he only spoke a handful of words until he was three. However, he is now completely bilingual at age 10, so it does all work out.

Bilingual Kids May Prefer One Language

It’s not unusual for bilingual children to use one language more than another. It’s not necessarily the language they hear most, either. In our case, my kids prefer English over Spanish, despite living in a Spanish speaking country. Besides each other, I’m the only one they speak to in English, yet it’s their preferred language. This is pretty normal, but it can be annoying if your child refuses to speak their second language.

You can encourage your stubborn child to use another language by refusing to answer them in one language, offering rewards for using their non-preferred language, or by setting up playdates with someone in their non-preferred language.

Bilingual Kids May Mix Languages

This can happen to anyone who is learning another language, but it’s more likely when raising children bilingual. If they can’t figure out a word in one language, they’ll just substitute another word from another language. It makes sense to them. Small kids may not realize their sentences are confusing to others who aren’t familiar with both languages. Children do quickly learn to use only the appropriate language when speaking to monolinguals.

You can learn more about the challenges of raising bilingual children here. The end benefits far outweigh any issues, in my experience and it can be a wonderful way to give your kids a big advantage in life.

Are you raising children bilingual? What are your experiences?

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