When you decide to raise your children with more than one language, you will often hear things like “They will be confused!” or “They will not learn either of the languages well!” and “They will have speech delays“.
Some days you will feel doubtful about the whole bilingual thing. You might start wondering if you are doing the right thing.
But here I am to help you out. How?
I am a bilingual myself, raising my twins in a two-language household PLUS I have done extensive research to take those doubts out of your head once and for all!
The Reasons, the Myths, and the Benefits
Let’s look at the benefits of being bilingual, the myths that often surround the unknown, and some tips and tricks for raising a bilingual child.
Why raise a child bilingually?
Despite all the benefits that have been supported by extensive linguistic and psychological research, there are still some people who ask this question.
The real question should rather be, WHY NOT?
I have never seen or heard anyone complaining about their ability to speak two or three languages, have you?
Far more often though we meet people who say they wish they learned another language while they were young.
A bit of science
Children are better language learners than adults.
During the first years of life, baby’s brain makes an enormous amount of neural connections until about age five, when so-called pruning occurs.
And that’s not all. As ¹Barbara Pearson in her book Raising a bilingual child says “What may be the biggest boost to language-learning ability in children is the extra blood flow and metabolic activity in their brains. Their brains are working twice as hard as adults’.”
For this reason, with bilingual upbringing, we give our children an opportunity to learn a foreign language painlessly and with ease.
In cases of bilinguals from birth, it doesn’t even feel like learning. It happens naturally.
Have you heard of Charles Berlitz?
As a child, Charles was raised in a household in which (by his father’s orders) every relative and servant spoke to Charles in a different language: he reached adolescence speaking eight languages fluently!
In adulthood, he recalled having had the childhood delusion that every human being spoke a different language, wondering why he did not have his own language like everyone else in his household.
His father spoke to him in German, his grandfather in Russian, and his nanny in Spanish6.
Raising bilingual children can be done even in families where parents don’t speak a second language. Read more about methods Kayla from Parenting Expert to Mom is using with her toddler son.
The myths about bilingualism
Let’s look at some misconceptions about being bilingual:
1. Bilingualism is rare
On the contrary, actually. It has been estimated that more than half of the world’s population uses two or more languages in day-to-day life².
2. Bilinguals speak two languages equally well
It is more common among bilinguals to have one dominant language.
They might even speak the second language very well but without the ability to read it or write it!
My mom’s cousin is a great example. She’s lived in Australia since the 80s. Up to this day, she struggles with English writing and grammar.
This is, even more, the case with languages that don’t use Roman alphabet such as Russian or Chinese.
3. Bilingual child will have speech delay
“There is no scientific evidence to show that hearing two, three, or more languages leads to delays or disorders in language acquisition,” say Drs. King and Mackey³.
The normal range, in which children say their first word, is from about 10 to 18 months. Most of the children fall into this timeframe, bilingual or not.
For more information about language development, read my earlier article Toddler language development.
For this reason, we have no way to tell if the child was raised with only one language, she would start speaking earlier. There are many factors to take into consideration when dealing with speech delay.
4. Bilinguals don’t have accent
Many people expect bilinguals to speak like the natives would. That would really take many people out of the “bilingual” category.
Benefits of being bilingual
Understanding language: Linguistic benefits
Bilingual children understand an abstract knowledge about language earlier than their monolingual peers.
What does that mean?
They recognize the fact, that words are arbitrary symbols and that there are many words in different languages for the same thing.
Not surprisingly, since they get to practice this on a daily basis while choosing which language to speak to what person or in which situation.
They are also better aware of the structure of language – letters and syllables, and phonemes – sounds that each letter produces.
This is called phonemic awareness and it is a HUGE predictor of successful reading and writing at school. It also helps them to learn other languages more easily.
Staying connected: Family benefits
If one of the parents is a foreigner, staying in touch with the extended family and creating meaningful relationships is important.
Many minority parents say that speaking to their baby in the mother tongue feels more natural. And it makes sense. Emotions in our native language have more color and depth. Expressing such deep love as to one’s child would not be the same in a second language.
Therefore speaking to an infant in the language of her parent is simply a natural way of bilingualism in multicultural families.
For the brain: Cognitive benefits
Bilinguals seem to possess greater mental flexibility, mainly in tasks that require the ability to come up with many different solutions to a problem.
For instance, imagine you have to name as many uses of a cardboard box as possible within a minute. This is called divergent thinking and is a part of creativity.
Mark Leikin4 in his study of young bilingual children found out that early bilingualism, as well as early language education, have a significant influence on general and mathematical creativity.
The ability of focused attention is enhanced as well.
Basically, when bilinguals are presented with a confusing or complex task, they are able to select the important aspect of the task and suppress attention to others. This comes handy at school and in workplace.
Some research of bilingual children has also pointed to higher intelligence.
However, it is necessary to take into account several factors when assessing children’s IQ.
It may simply be that children in bilingual families receive more stimulation in order to be exposed to two languages. Parents put extra effort into their children’s early experiences just for the sake of learning an extra language.
It would be difficult then, to conclude that higher intelligence is a direct result of bilingualism or rather a byproduct.
Another unexpected cognitive benefit was found in a Canadian study5. Researchers found that being bilingual delays onset of dementia by four years. As a comparison, there is no medication or pharmaceutical product that could do the same!
Higher paycheck: Economic benefits
Speaking a foreign language gives us an advantage in the workplace as well.
A bilingual is able to get into careers that would otherwise stay unreachable. Traveling for work is a dream for many young people and knowing another language opens the right door.
The advantage of bilingualism shows on the paycheck as well.
Even though, some languages seem to be valued higher than others (German, Mandarin, and Japanese to name a few).
Nevertheless, offering your language skills to your employer can bring unexpected benefits. In many businesses, speaking another language allows international reach and expands business opportunities.
For a better world: Cultural benefits
The ability to communicate with others in their own language gives us an insight into their culture, better understanding of their way of life and a feeling of closeness.
Relationships and friendships are strengthened and the level of connection deepened.
There is a lot of the cultural heritage that a language carries within.
Many words and idioms simply cannot be translated without losing their meaning. Same goes for poetry.
Therefore speaking another language is as if we were looking at the other culture from within. We change from being a spectator to a participant. We become a part of it.
Understanding other cultures makes us more open, tolerant and patient with others. We become more accepting and understand that there are other points of view than ours. Which are all valuable qualities in social interactions and today’s globalized world.
Certainly, there are some disadvantages to bilingualism. It is up to every parent to consider the pros and cons and decide whether bilingualism fits their family.
Raising a bilingual child doesn’t bring the same results to everyone.
It is very common that a child has a passive knowledge of the second language. It means she can mainly understand it. But she lacks the fluency in conversation.
I have seen it many times with my friends. When they speak their native language to their children, the kids automatically answer in English.
There are several reasons for this. But to mention one, the lack of opportunities to use a second language in a daily life other than with one particular person can result in passive bilingualism.
What also happens, however, is that once the child visits a foreign country for an extended period of time (let’s say summer break), after a few weeks of insecurity she is able to speak and communicate with ease.
As one researcher said it “we are as bilingual as we need to be”.
The wider experiences with the second language, the better are chances our children will speak it very well.
The more people who interact with them in the second language, the more time they spend abroad, the better the results achieved.
A decision to raise a child bilingually also means an extra effort on the side of parents.
It is a long-term commitment that requires a lot of work. We have to create enough opportunities to practice the second language, often look for new resources, and be extra supportive, patient and encouraging.
Tricks of the trade
There are many ways you can help your child become bilingual.
Whether you yourself speak the foreign language or it is only grandma or babysitter who does, consistency is the key.
Set realistic goals for your children and make a long-term commitment.
Make sure they understand from early on that speaking a foreign language is a priority in your family and it simply isn’t optional.
Ideally join in on this language adventure and try to learn (at least some) the desired language yourself. And make sure you check out my Resources page for useful websites and information.
There are several strategies that are commonly used in multilingual households:
One parent/One language
This strategy is very popular. Each parent always speaks one different language to the child. Let’s say mom always speaks Spanish and dad English. This strategy means that the child will get maximum exposure to both languages.
Minority language at home
If both parents speak the minority language, they can choose it to be their family/home language. This strategy leads to complete fluency, but also may bring some difficulties when interacting with the community outside a home.
If the child doesn’t receive enough of the majority language exposure, she might have difficulties adjusting to school.
Time & Place strategy
A family may choose several specific activities or places where the minority language is spoken. Let’s say dinnertime is always in French. This strategy requires strong motivation on child’s part.
I have actually been doing this while my husband is deployed. I speak the minority language to my boys all of the day. But a few times a day we read a book in English or sing an English nursery rhyme. There are just so many great books out there in English that I can’t resist sharing them with my boys!
The most important lesson
The biggest lesson I have learned while researching bilingualism is that it is necessary to have realistic expectations.
These have certainly changed for me. I’ve become more relaxed about it all. I know we are giving our boys a gift beyond the ability to speak another language and just for these reasons it is well worth it.
¹Barbara Zurere Pearson, Ph.D. Raising a bilingual child. A Random House Company, New York. 2008.
³Dr. Jenn Berman. Superbaby. 12 Ways to give your child a head start in the first 3 years. Sterling. New York. 2010.
Carey Miles. Raising bilingual children. Mars Publishing. Los Angeles. 2003.
4Leikin, Mark. “The effect of bilingualism on creativity: developmental and educational perspectives.” International Journal of Bilingualism, vol. 17, no. 4, 2013, p. 431+.