Bilingual children have many advantages over their single-language-speaking counterparts. According to Ellen Bialystok, a psychology professor at York University in Canada, children who listen to and use more than one language can better focus on pertinent information and tune out what’s irrelevant because they are constantly practicing picking apart information that comes at them in two or more codes. Bilingual brain development also has benefits that carry into adulthood, such as better focus during tests and more protection against diseases like dementia.
If you can raise a bilingual child, the benefits make the hard work well worth it. While it’s true that young children can efficiently acquire language naturally, this doesn’t necessarily translate into language ability in later childhood or adulthood. Erika Hoff, a psychology professor at Florida Atlantic University and an expert on language development explains that “acquiring a language requires massive exposure to that language… For bilingual development, the child will need exposure to both languages.”
Here are four tips that will help you raise a bilingual child.
Talk, read, and sing
Linguists and doctors encourage parents and guardians to talk, read, and sing as much as possible to their young children in the minority language (the language that the child hears less frequently). This will give your children much-needed in-person exposure to the minority language.
Throwing on a television show in a minority language will simply not have the same effect. For the first few years, human interaction is essential to language learning.
Video calls with friends and family
A seemingly obvious but overlooked strategy is to use your friends and family as an extra source of exposure to the minority language. Having regular calls, where you ensure that your child is present and involved, is especially important if the minority language isn’t spoken where you now live. These calls can be comprised of songs and rhymes, or relatives can engage your child by repeating familiar words and phrases or asking them about their day. It’s the regular exposure to native speakers in an immersive environment that helps children (or anyone) best acquire a language.
Home speaking strategy
Some parents will tell you that the best way to encourage bilingualism in your child is to divide languages between the parents. One parent exclusively speaks one language to the child, while the other will exclusively communicate with the child in the other language. This may work well in some cases, and it may be the only strategy available if both parents don’t speak the minority language. However, research has shown that families who adopted the “one person one language” strategy didn’t have a very high success rate, with only one in four children becoming bilingual.
Instead, if both parents can speak the minority language, a better strategy is to exclusively use the minority language at home. This will balance out the exposure to the majority language that the child experiences outside of the home. It also doesn’t matter much if the non-native speaker of the minority language is at a lower level. What’s important is for the child to hear and interact in the minority language as much as possible.
Successful bilingualism requires the child to be able to compare and contrast elements of the two languages to get a better idea of how each functions and the differences between them. This should happen naturally, but you can help it along through reading, talking, and sharing. For example, one parent may read a story in the minority language, and after, the other parent can ask the child to summarize the story in the other language or ask questions about the story in the other language. The idea is to create a “bridge” between the languages. This exercise helps boost the child’s awareness of each language and will support increased flexibility of language that will last into adulthood.