Raising your child to be bilingual used to be a controversial matter. Educators felt it would cause confusion, stunt language growth, and even lower IQ. Even today, well-meaning family and friends will ask, politely or otherwise, if you are doing the right thing by your child by teaching them a 2nd language.
Yet a bilingual child is also someone who attracts attention. People often say, “Ooh, is he bilingual?” when they hear my husband speak French to our 5 year old child and watch him obediently follow commands. (Well, sometimes obediently, anyway).
We adopted my son from Ethiopia. This meant he arrived to our French-English household with 2 previous languages under his belt: Amharic and Afaan-Oromo. We manage to retain some Amharic with a few words and he understands Amharic when spoken by our Ethiopian friends. But we wanted him to be comfortable in English, and in French, with a whole new crew of cousins across the English Channel waiting to meet him.
Raising a bilingual child just begins with talking to them. Our local speech therapist advised to keep the French for one parent and English for the other. Just as well, knowing the quality of my French. My son quickly understood everything spoken to him in both languages and somehow never seemed to stumble.
How do children learn language?
Babies are able to hear their mother’s voice in the womb and are born with the ability to distinguish between their mother’s language and another. All the world’s languages consist of about 800 sounds of which around 40 belong to each language.
Between age 6 and 12 months, babies are already more attuned to the sounds belong to the language of their caregivers. Infants of bilingual households are already tuning in to the sounds of each language and becoming less sensitive to the others.
Children learn language through interaction, meaning talking to them. If they are only left to listen to the radio, they will not talk.
What are the benefits of raising a bilingual child?
Research in babies exposed to 2 languages has shown the neural networks required to develop attention span develop more quickly. By having to switch their attention quickly between the languages spoken at home, babies were found to learn new rules quicker. As attention forms the basis of cognition, this could potentially give your child an advantage in later life.
Bilingual children are strong, creative story tellers, using as many words as their monolingual peers. The cognitive flexibility acquired from switching between languages enables them to switch between games with different rules whilst maintaining accuracy and reaction time.
Being bilingual means better emotional bonds with family fluent only in the second language. Understanding French means our son can freely play with his cousins. Expressing himself doesn’t seem a challenge for him when it comes to children’s games.
Bilingual children have a better awareness of other cultures. This can extend to being better at tolerance and understanding of other persons. Several studies have shown that bilingual children are better at understanding others’ perspectives.
Having a 2nd language can mean they have another skill that makes them more employable when older. Even if refusing to speak it now, it leaves them only a short leap to hone up their talking skills. Many parents encourage their child to speak the 2nd language by taking them on extended summer holidays to the relevant country, enrolling them in schools where the language is spoken, or engaging a tutor.
Working memory has been found to be better in bilingual children, meaning memory that holds and processes information over short periods of time. Working memory also plays a role in reading and doing mental calculations. Memory advantages extend to later life when being bilingual may reduce the risk of dementia and delaying cognitive ageing. This applies even if you are an adult studying a new language so it’s never too late to learn.
Bilingualism is the gift that keeps on giving. Having a 2nd language under your belt makes it easier to learn a 3rd or even a 4th language. Neuroscience shows that the brain is not compartmentalized; rather, activation of another language leads to easier activation of others.
My child understands everything but refuses to speak a foreign language
Persuading your precious one to speak a 2nd language is another story. This being London, our area is full of bilingual and trilingual families. You can take them to Baby Mandarin (that really was a thing here, pre-COVID) all the times you want, but they are not going to speak it unless they encounter a situation where they need to speak the language to meet an essential need.
Our son is restricted to expressing certain words in French (think: ice cream) and enjoying surprising people with the rude ones. He can freely play with French children for hours, but when it comes to tiredness or needing something like his comforter, he is suddenly there needing translation and behaving like we abandoned him to the lions.
How can you help your child learn to speak another language?
It’s thought that 1/4 of children in the US speak a different language in the home than in school. Although exposure to 2 languages can mean speech is slightly delayed, children should be on track with all their other milestones and will soon catch up.
Speech therapists recommend limiting the 2nd language to different settings, e.g., Turkish at home, but not in school. Another option is for one parent to speak English and the other to stick to the 2nd language of choice. Dad speaks only French to our child at home. I stick to English, knowing all too well how ready bilingual children are to point out the poor quality of my French accent.
We’ve chosen also not to speak much Amharic, given that we’re not native speakers (and thus pronounce the sounds badly). This can make it harder for them to re-acquire the language later on.
Including influences from the other language such as food, stories, and history can also foster a sense of pride in children regarding other cultures. In a busy world, making time to converse is essential; in fact speech therapists often use the concept of “special time” where the parent makes themselves available for 10 to 20 minutes twice daily for child-lead play.
Children’s TV series are widely available in different languages. (Did you know you could change the language setting on Netflix?). In a globalized world, there are now books, online tutors, apps, and language learning games. Bilingual pre-schools and schools are also common in the world’s bigger cities. Parents are also getting together and forming Saturday schools to teach the culture and language of heritage: in Yoruba, Tamil, or Japanese.
The choices of ways to enhance your child’s learning have never been greater.
The world’s the limit for bilingual children
There’s something miraculous about young children having more than one language under their belts. How can their tiny brains navigate multiple tongues with such ease when the grown-ups are grappling with language apps and wondering if they speak enough Spanish to order a glass of wine while on holiday? Research now shows multiple advantages to your child learning 2 languages at once.
In a globalized world, more and more children who are trilingual and beyond are on the rise. Several households in our neighborhood have 3 or even 4 languages on board with English only spoken at school. Right now, the possibilities are limitless. Start speaking another language to your child today, even if they are still in the womb.