Bringing up children in a bilingual environment

This article concerns a very interesting topic – bringing up children in a bilingual environment. If your native tongue is not English, this is a topic which you may be giving quite a bit of thought. This is a controversial topic with many opinions and disagreements. The ability to speak more than one language is a gift, and one that should be cherished. I would like to share with you my experience which, I hope, will encourage your children to be bilingual, or better still, multilingual!

I imagine that the Airst question you are asking is “Is this something I should concentrate on, or will it slow my child’s development?” I believe that bringing up a child in a bilingual household is a fantastic opportunity, not just to preserve a native tongue in the next generation, but also to instill a love of, and respect for, the stories and traditions of your culture.

The question is, how do we do this intelligently, without pressure or compulsion, using the love and understanding between a child and their parents? How do we avoid getting the reverse of what we intend?

Let’s start from the earliest days. Your child’s Airst cries are an announcement “Here I am!” Of course, in those Airst happy moments, and even later, it is more natural for many parents and other relatives to communicate with the baby in your native tongue. For some parents, and many grandparents, it is only in their Airst language that the full range and complexity of emotions can be expressed. I believe that immersion in that environment from birth achieves great educational results. And however sad it may be to admit, in time your native tongue will become your child’s secondary language. Living in an English speaking country, we must expect that its language, culture and traditions and educational system will cause your child to transition to English as their main language.

So how do we help our child develop bilingual skills? My advice is to only speak the foreign language at home. Try to make your speech grammatical and elegant, try to avoid replacing foreign words with English ones. Ultimately, your child’s language development rests on your shoulders!

It is even better if the child’s parents speak two different languages. Your child will have the potential to transition from being bilingual to polylingual faster than their peers. In such families the mother can speak to her child in her native language, and the father in his. When the child is older, you can suggest a “game”: spend a week speaking one language and the next week the other.

So after your child’s Airst words and the delight they bring, the question arises “what do we do next?” The more we communicate, speak and read, the more solid the language foundation we build for our child, and the bigger the child’s vocabulary.

One key decision is whether to send your child to childcare before or after the age of 3. There are advantages and disadvantages in both approaches. IF you do decide to send your child to childcare before the age of 3, you must remember to keep speaking your native language at home. However hard this may be, do not switch to English in a misguided attempt to help your child.

In child care your child will be immersed in English, though of course if there is a child care worker who speaks your native tongue, there is the opportunity to make this process smoother, as well as developing vocabulary in two languages.

In this situation some parents may be concerned about their child’s development. Experience shows that a child learning more than one language at the same time is capable of absorbing more information than his or her peers. In any educational process, it is very important that the child is psychologically comfortable. Generally, a child who starts attending childcare from before 3 years of age (and ideally from around 8 to 10 months) experiences less stress when encountering different languages. The process of learning a different language becomes a natural, ordinary event.

Often parents, comparing the vocabulary of their child who is learning more than one language, notice that the vocabulary of their child’s peers who are learning one language seems to be larger. This is not a cause for concern, because if you consider the combined vocabulary of both languages being learned by the child, your child is not lagging behind. Your child is actually absorbing more information, and any perceived deAiciency in their English vocabulary will soon disappear. Whether they can maintain their vocabulary in both languages will mainly depend on you!

In my view the subject of bilingual education is quite complex, and I intend to revisit it in my next article. Thank you for reading and please let me have any thoughts about the topics we are covering in these articles.