How to raise a bilingual child

In the modern world of easy travel there are many bilingual and multilingual families. Big cities like London and New York attract people from all over the world, so if you live in a metropolis it is very likely that your life partner  is from a different country than you. This is the case with Daddy and me – he is English and I am Polish.

 

It is important for us that Little F is able to use both our languages to communicate with both sides of the family. Apart from mastering the language I also want him to be aware of cultural differences and similarities, legends and wise proverbs, special foods and customs, all those things which are obvious if you were raised within the culture, but may be exotic if you come from outside. Through bilingualism I want to foster a wider understanding of the world.

 

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ADVANTAGES OF BILINGUALISM

Contrary to common belief, that you get your language ‘for free’ if you are raised in a bilingual family, raising a child with two strong languages requires work and inventiveness.  Here’s a few advantages, which will hopefully convince you that it is worth it.

 

1. Closer relationship with parents – I have lived my childhood using Polish and so I only know Polish baby talk and nursery rhymes. These are elements of language I associate with maternal love. English nursery rhymes bring to my mind English lessons, not what I want to think about when cuddling my son! Being able to express feelings and thoughts in your stronger language improves general communication as well.

 

2. Tolerance – being a part of two cultures is likely to make a child more tolerant to cultural differences.

 

3. Improved job prospects – fluent bilinguals are a great asset for international companies. Being bilingual and biliterate will give your child an advantage in the job market.

 

4. Easier to learn 3rd language – children who grew up with two languages are more aware of language components and construction. Seeing those language bricks makes it easier to breakdown and learn any further languages.

 

5. ‘It doesn’t have to be that way’ attitude – things are done differently in different countries, this is true on social (how and when we meet friends and family), political (system of government) and economic levels (gap between rich and poor). I grew up thinking what I saw was the only way things could be done, only when I left Poland my eyes opened to multitude of possibilities.   Raising a child in two cultures automatically shows them that there are many ways of dealing with the same issue and gives them a more flexible approach to solving problems.

 

HOW TO RAISE A BILINGUAL CHILD

 

SPEAK TO YOUR CHILD

This is obvious, but it is also crucial. Speaking to your child in your mother tongue teaches them words, pronunciation, construction of sentences and how to interact. Whenever you do something tell your child what you are doing – ‘Mummy is doing the washing. I am squirting liquid into water to make bubbles.’. It may seem silly and pointless when your child is a newborn, but already at that stage they learn about languages.

It may be the case that your child will start speaing in the majority language and will also use it to reply to you. Take heart, it does show he can understand what you are saying. A trip to your country or meeting more people speaking your mother tongue should help. You can only encourage your child, you can not force them. Too much pressure could make things worse, as it will associate language learning with negative feelings.

 

READ TO YOUR CHILD

Reading to your child from birth is an important tool in language development, regardless of the number of languages the child will be expected to master – one or many. Books are a fun way to introduce your child to new vocabulary. Your child will naturally learn about things in the house and their surroundings, as you talk about them every day. It’s a different story when it comes to farm animals (unless you live on or near a farm) or pirate ships. Books take you out of your everyday surroundings and take you into a different world, full of new objects and activities.

 

HAVE A LANGUAGE PLAN

It sounds a bit serious, but it’s just a question of taking  a few decisions and being consistent with them. The most popular system in bilingual families is OPOL (one parent one language). For example, I speak only Polish to Little F, while Daddy speaks only English. This helps to create a clear line between the languages, and makes it easier for Little F to organise them in his head.

Sometimes a more complex plan is needed when certain languages are used in certain places. For example, English at the nursery, but minority language at home.

When planning language exposure it is important that both languages are given equal time as much as possible. This can be difficult if the parent with minority language is working away from home. Below are a few ideas how to help develop both languages equally.

 

MAKE SURE IT’S FUN

Putting too much pressure on learning the language will prove off putting to any child. Ideally learning should be done through fun. Playing a word game, reading, going to see a theatre performance (or a puppet show), visiting a minority language friend. Parents really need to show creativity here!

Some months ago I came across a wonderful idea on a blog (I wish I saved the link!). Mother drew little comic strips and placed them around the house in the evening. The kids loved finding them in the morning and were eager to read more every day.

 

MEET OTHER PEOPLE

Each nationality communicates in a different style (think Italians vs Brits!). Your child should be exposed to styles of conversation in both languages. Visiting friends and relatives is a great way of achieving that. Sometimes organised groups or Children’s Centres bring together various language speakers, it’s worth having a look online.

It also shows your child you are not the only crazy person speaking another language! It would be wonderful if your child could meet other minority language speaking children, to speak with someone on their level of language acquisition, and not just adults.

 

USE PROPS

To make things more fun use books, videos and songs to help your child’s language development. If you are not around, and you are the minority language speaker, ask your partner/childcare provider to play certain cartoons or songs to your child. You can also record yourself and ask your partner/childcare provider to play the recording.

I like to use puppets, as this way I can invent stories and introduce new vocabulary I would not normally use at home.

 

Have a look at my Pinterest board: Raising a Bilingual family, for more tips.

 

Are you a part of multilingual family? How do you encourage your child to speak both languages? I’d love to hear from you, so do leave me a comments!

 

Main image: Photo credit: Connor Tarter / Foter / CC BY-SA with my modifications

 

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