More and more we are hearing of bilingual children – kids who speak 2 languages. This is largely due to immigration and parents of different cultures getting married or living together. Approximately 22-25% of American children speak a language other than English. In Australia, it is around 19%. But even the word “bilingual” or “bilingualism” can have different meanings depending on who you talk to. For some families, it means the children can understand both languages but only speak one. For others, it means that the children both understand and speak 2 languages. If you are thinking of raising bilingual children, you need to know which definition you will follow…..and does it include reading and writing?
We are a bilingual family. My husband is German and I am Australian. We always knew from the beginning that we wanted the girls to fully understand and speak German as well as English. As they are getting into school age, I now desire them to also read and write German. For us, it is important that our girls can communicate freely with their Opa and Oma, Tantes and Onkels, and cousins. Right now the girls fully understand both languages, but they prefer to speak in English – though there are certain words they will only say in German. Until just recently they didn’t realize they spoke and understood two languages. For them, they “just speak” and only now they have started asking us “Did I speak English oder Deutsch?”
BENEFITS OF BEING BILINGUAL
Did you know that it was once considered a disadvantage to being bilingual? Assimilation into the native language of the country (if you immigrate) or picking one language for home was strongly encouraged. Science shows that there are some amazing benefits of being bilingual. For children, being bilingual can make transitions easier and they quickly adjust to change in language, etc.
ADVANTAGES OF BEING BILINGUAL
Here are some benefits and advantages:
- It can mean a better attention span and can multi-task more efficiently. There are other cognitive benefits too.
- Those who speak a second language are more likely to be less distracted and more focused at school.
- There are many employment benefits, and having a second language can be a great bonus. Many employers considered it a priority.
- Knowing more than one language can help you learn other languages.
- Bilingual people are better at reading others and being empathetic.
- Increased recovery time from a stroke, and other neurological benefits.
Raising bilingual children certainly has advantages and even some disadvantages.
DISADVANTAGES OF BILINGUALISM
It is generally agreed that the benefits and advantages of being bilingual outweigh any disadvantages. But there are some, usually expressed by bilingual speakers.
- One language is usually stronger than the other, especially if your second language is not the native language of where you live. You tend to use one more than the other.
- It can be difficult to express yourself in one language, especially if you are trying to talk to someone who doesn’t speak your second language.
- Idioms, certain words, and expressions don’t usually exist across languages and you tend to make them up, or use an expression in a second language that doesn’t work.
- When people find out you are bilingual they tend to ask a lot of questions, many of them annoying questions.
LEARNING TWO LANGUAGES AT ONCE
We are all wired to learn languages. From our birth, we are hearing what is going on around us and our brains start to sort out sounds and tones. It has been said that all babies babble the same worldwide, but as they hear a language they start to cut out sounds that are not used in that language. Children who learn two languages at once go through the same processes as children who only learn one language. It is approximately at the same rate. I know that there are studies that say there will not be a language delay in bilingual children.
From my experience, and from hearing from friends who are raising bilingual children, there might be a slight delay, but it is nothing to worry about. I remember a speech therapist friend calming me down when I started freaking out because a girl who was born at the same time as my girls had an advanced vocabulary, but mine were barely talking. Of course, I knew the studies and anecdotes, but I did as many first-time parents did and forget all that and worry! My girls also did have a twin language.
When they started talking they easily switched between German and English, though they did have certain words that they only said in German. I had to make a chart for babysitters to say what different words meant. This came about from one evening when friends were watching the girls and she said they weren’t listening to “No”. She stopped and asked herself “What does Michayla say?” They looked it up, saw that “no” was “Nein” in German, and when that was said to the girls they totally stopped because they were told no in the word they knew to respond to.
Children who are bilingual will initially have moments where they speak half-and-half sentences or will substitute a word, but before too long they know who to speak what language to. When they use a word from the other language it is usually because they don’t remember the word in the spoken language. It is also because they are learning two languages at once, two languages as the first language, which uses the same part of the brain, so the word is the same and they don’t differentiate between the two until later. My girls still do this. They are drawing on the language resources they have. They might still mix up the grammatical structure (though I do that too) but that will also quickly right itself as they continue to speak both languages and learn to read and write in them.
ADVICE FOR NEW PARENTS
You will need to decide if you are going to be raising bilingual children or not if you speak more than one language. It is better to start off with how you plan to continue. Your children will pick up both languages whether or not they start at birth, but it is a good practice to have.
There are a few methods you can use to teach your children another language. Some experts prefer one over the others, but again you have to do what works for you and your family. There is honestly really no right or wrong way.
One Person. One Language.
This is the one that the experts tend to lean towards. This is where one parent will speak just one language. So this for our house would be, Carsten will only speak German to the girls and expect responses in German. I will only speak English and expect responses in English. A disadvantage is if the minority language (in this case German) is not heard all the time as the speaker is not the primary caregiver then it becomes a passive language – they understand but respond in English. There are adaptations you can make to this; it is ultimately doing what works best for your family and where you are living.
Language at Home
This is where the second language or the minority language is spoken at home by the whole family and the second language is spoken at school, in the community, etc. For our house that would mean that we all speak German at home but English elsewhere. The drawback to this, for us, is that I am not fluent in German.
Ultimately it comes down to being consistent with using the different languages and doing what you can to support your children. With streaming services and online resources, there are great technological ways you can assist your children in language learning. We utilize YouTube a fair amount to watch children’s programs in German. We have also set the girls’ Netflix profile to German so that any show that can be in German is. I find this beneficial because I am not fluent in German and this allows them to hear it more during the day. Sometimes I will put the subtitles on as well, as this helps me in my language learning.
Here are some good tips for raising bilingual children:
- Speak your native language with your kids
- Try to introduce the other language as early as possible, though it is also ok to start teaching it later
- Try to be as consistent as possible
- Don’t compare your children with others who only speak one language. There will be differences and that is totally ok.
- Use what approach works for your family – whether one person/one language or one language in the home, or whatever mix you have. Change it up if you need to. It has to work for you – not just because you have been told “This is the only way”.
- Use television and movies to help your children but don’t rely on it only
- Read books to your children, especially in the other language
- Do not freak out if your children will only speak one language, but do understand both. They will most likely speak the language they are hearing the most.
- Do not worry if your children mix up the two languages, especially at school. It will correct itself. Just gently guide with the correct words or phrases.
- Don’t listen to the misconceptions of bilingualism – the benefits far outweigh any negative thoughts about it
- Introduce your children to others in your area that also speak the other language and encourage conversation
- Buy books, music, audiobooks, etc that will help your children learn the other language
- Have fun with it
- Encourage your spouse/partner to also learn some of the other language if they don’t know it (this has helped me when out in public – I can correct the girls’ behavior with a smile on my face and no one knows what I am saying unless they also speak German).
- Travel and let your children use that language in its native environment
- Explain to babysitters, teachers, other minders that your children are bilingual and might mix things up a bit (especially if younger). Provide key words and translation if needed.
Here are some great resources for raising bilingual children, specially designed for parents.
I hope raising bilingual children is fun for you. It certainly is for us, keeping us on our toes and challenging each other to learn. Do you have funny anecdotes about your bilingual kids? Let me know in the comments. Or if you have any questions, I would love to help.