3 Key Lessons for Raising Bilingual Children

Do you want to share your language with your child? Have you wondered if you’ll be able to teach your kids your own language despite living in a foreign country? You absolutely can and there are benefits. Many studies have shown a cognitive benefit to bilingualism and it’s a great way to strengthen the bond with your child throughout their lives. The question is how will you be able to do it?

Despite living in the US and having English be our shared family language, we have been partially successful in teaching our children three different languages. They are now in elementary school and speak Chinese with me (yes, there is a little English mixed into the Chinese, as I am not a native speaker either), fully comprehend their Dad who speaks only a European language to them, and speak English everywhere else.

I consider this result to be “pretty good,” given that our need for and exposure to these non-English languages is minimal. We parents, speak English to each other as we don’t speak each other’s respective languages (at least not well enough). It’s not convenient for our children to attend a language immersion school, but we do try to have weekly home lessons in Chinese. 

Many people ask us how we have managed to be able to teach our children so much fluency, especially when English is the dominant household language. Based on our experience, I feel that there are misconceptions about what it takes to create fluency and the amount of resources that you need to support it. Here are the 3 most important things that we did:

Lesson #1

Be persistent and consistent – you cannot give up. This can be hard to do, but it is so important. Firstly, we had to be consistent in having each parent speak a single, different language to our children (also popularly known as one parent, one language, OPOL). We began this at birth. This may feel awkward at first, but in a week, it becomes a habit and you no longer have to think about it.  

Delaying English was easy at first when they had not encountered the rest of the English-speaking world, but when they learned English at preschool, it became challenging. For many of our friends, this was the turning point. When your kids begin to speak English back to you, you cannot give up and speak English back. 

At this point, I read many online sources that cautioned insisting too hard about the language and creating resentment in the child towards the language. I was fearful of that and I did receive pushback from my children, complaining about why they had to speak another language. I would back off, and then I would insist again the next hour, or the next day, etc. The way I viewed it, they would be linguistically the same whether they became resentful and didn’t want to speak the language as they got older, or if I just gave up and they never had the chance. I figured being pushy and insistent was worth it. And it worked. In both my children, we got over that “turning point.”

Since then, there is an ebb and flow in the mix of Chinese-English that I hear, if it seems like too much English is being used for words they also know in Chinese, I remind them of the Chinese vocabulary that they can also use. I consistently point out the advantages of their ability to speak another language fluently. As they are older now, they can appreciate the coolness of that.

Lesson #2

Relax your expectations – this really helps with adhering to lesson number one and not giving up. I guess this also really depends on your goals and how flexible your goals are for your child’s language learning. If you are flexible, then you won’t be as likely to give up when you see that they are not speaking back to you in your chosen language. It’s not an “all or nothing” proposition. There can be a huge range of fluency and any amount can be beneficial:

  • Don’t be discouraged if their accent is not perfect or if they use the language incorrectly. 
  • Don’t think that it’s useless if they can only speak the language but cannot read or write it. 
  • Don’t believe that a school with language immersion is the only way to learn the language 
  • Don’t expect that they’ll learn the language better if they go on language playdates (most likely they’ll only speak English!)
  • Don’t think that your mastery of the language is necessary for them to learn it, too. You can’t be a beginner, but you don’t need to have 100% fluency either.
  • Don’t feel like everything you say to them has to be in that language. If something is easier (say math concepts) in English, just do that instead of getting frustrated. It’s not all or nothing!
  • Don’t require that every word has to be in your language (let them mix in English if they need to)

For example, my kids rarely speak back to their dad in his native language. He didn’t want to push it during that “turning point,” that I mentioned above. But that hasn’t stopped him from continuing to speak in his language to them their entire lives to this point. Their vocabulary continues to grow even while they don’t vocalize it. On occasion, when asked to greet their European grandmother, we are surprised at the amount of language they are able to verbalize! If they want to learn to read/write another European language in school someday, they’ll be off to a great start. Think of the free gift that you are giving your kids without them even realizing it!

Lesson #3

Talk a lot and repeat yourself. This is crucial, particularly if there aren’t others around in your home or community who speak the language you are trying to teach. This shouldn’t be a whole lot of extra effort either because you have to talk to them all the time anyway, right? Recognize yourself as the key, and possibly only resource. Your kids have to hear the language a lot.

Have conversations about anything and everything and use words that adults use, not kiddie language. Kids may not catch on at first, but they are in the window of language development where their potential is sky high, and they can pick up a lot more than you realize with your use of repetition. You have to give them the vocabulary to talk to you in the language you want them to use. In the earlier days, you may find yourself frequently repeating back in your language what they say to you in English, so that they can learn the words they need to express their thoughts to you.

Do you have lessons to share about bilingualism? I would love to hear them. My chief concern now is how to continue to keep the children’s language skills (even if they never learned more at this point) as they go through a monolingual education. Someday I hope to share tips about that as well!

Resources

A good resource about raising multilingual children:

Articles and talks about the benefits of bilingualism (there’s tons of these, here are just a few):

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