Tips for Raising Bilingual Children

Although I didn’t grow up bilingually I had friends who did. I always felt a twinge of jealousy when I heard them speak Spanish, Laotian or Tagalog so I decided that if I learned to speak another language I would raise my children to be bilingual. After getting married I devoured about four books on the subject, the best one being Australian linguist George Saunders’ book Bilingual Children: Guidance for the Family.

Teaching Your Children Your Second Language

Dr. Saunders did not grow up speaking German but decided that he wanted his children to. This was partly to see if a non-native speaker could teach his children to speak the second language in a society where that language was not common at all. Dr. Saunders was successful. He even taught in Hamburg for a semester, took his family with him and enrolled his two boys in regular German schools. Their grades dropped a little bit but that also could have been due to the move and living in a very different environment. They made friends with their classmates, wrote essays, learned new math concepts and even gave class presentations about Australia, all in German. The documentation of his children growing up speaking German, as well as his many references to other case studies, has given me lots of food for thought for when I have my own children.

Don’t Embarrass Them

One of the first mistakes parents make when they raise their children to be bilingual is that they show them off to their friends. Occasionally you come across an outgoing kid who likes the attention but most kids hate it. I once read a case about a British/French family showing off their bilingual kid to some British neighbors. When they asked the child to say something in French he responded, Non. The way the child perceives the language is very important so don’t make it seem like something embarrassing or uncommon. These children should be shocked when they find out that everyone isn’t raised with both languages just like they might be shocked that not all children are tucked into bed in the same way that their own mothers tuck them into bed.

Strike a Balance

I read about two minority groups in Australia that were unsuccessful at passing their language onto their children. One was an aboriginal group that was overbearing. They corrected their children’s and grandchildren’s native language so much that the kids ended up not wanting to speak the native language at all.

The next group consisted of Japanese immigrants. Many of the kids in the study said that they would have liked to have learned better Japanese but their parents didn’t really do anything other than speak to them in the language. Since the kids had no instruction and were not encouraged much to respond in Japanese they were embarrassed to use the little they knew with new immigrants or other Japanese speakers.

The trick is to encourage the kids to speak in the target language without being overbearing. Dr. Saunders did this by playing with his children in German and then, when they went to school, he gave them very short homework assignments in German that were appropriate for their age. He would also watch German movies with them. There were a couple of times when the kids got frustrated trying to express something that happened to them in school in German so he told them that it would be alright to tell him in English and then switch back into German. If this happens to your children a lot then don’t correct them on the spot. Wait a while and then think up a fun activity to do that will teach them the expressions that they are lacking in a natural and entertaining way.

Immersion

The case studies with the most success were those that included children who would regularly go places where the second language was the norm. This usually included vacations abroad. Especially as the kids get older, they are going to need to see a reason to use the language other than to talk to their family. If going abroad isn’t an option (at least not a regular one) what you need to do is take your kids to festivals, religious services, stores or neighborhoods where they only hear the target language. Do it as often as possible. If knowing the target language well means making friends, getting a girlfriend or boyfriend, being able to buy cool things, participating in a fun dance festival, etc. then the kids will make sure they can still speak the target language even into their preteen and teenage years.

One Parent, One Language

This seems to be the most effective way to do it. If you mix the languages when speaking to the child then the child will most likely lose the minority language on the first day of school. It is amazing how fast kids learn languages but what studies show is that they forget them just as quickly. In mixed families each parent should speak his or her native language. In families like Dr. Saunders’, one parent should speak the majority language and the other should speak the minority language. Period. If you are inconsistent the children will always revert to the majority language and at best become receptive bilinguals (understanding two languages but being able to speak only one).

Relax and Have Fun

I believe that the greatest key to Dr. Saunders’ success was that he made German a fun bond that the children had with their father. The movies, the bedtime stories and games were all enjoyable. Even Dr. Saunders admits that their English is much stronger than their German but his observation is that that was okay. If his kids ever wanted to live in Germany, get a job in Germany, do business with Germans, get married to a German or read a book in German then they could do so in spite of the fact that they grew up in an English speaking country and neither one of their parents was a native German speaker. The fact that their command of the language was about 75% as good as that of their peers in Germany was almost beside the point. The point was that being a competent bilingual, as opposed to a perfect bilingual, was much better than being a simple monolingual.

Do you and your spouse speak a foreign language? Are you starting a family? Give your children the gift of bilingualism! Even if the two of you aren’t fabulous at both languages, give it a try! As with most important family matters, your family will find it difficult to do and maintain but you will all be extremely glad that you did it when your children are adults.

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14 Responses

  1. I am in a similar situation, being a non-native Spanish speaker trying to bestow the skill upon my two-year old daughter. I worry about our success, because I am generally her only exposure to Spanish, and I’m not consistent like I know I should be.

    Still, she is definitely a receptive bilingual already. She speaks several words in Spanish, as well. I’m thinking that eventually, a bilingual immersion school might be the best way to make her a perfect bilingual (hopefully). I guess I always hope, though, that I can find ways to get the Spanish done myself and use an immersion school to add a third language. At any rate, she’s still a few years from kindergarten, so time and effort will tell.

    I’ve been subscribed to the bilingual families mailing list since before my daughter was born, and I wanted to mention it here, as I’m sure there are plenty who might be interested. I believe sending a blank email to the following address will start the subscription process: biling-fam-help@nethelp.no

    Most of the advice and comments on the list are anecdotal. However, there are often links to studies, articles, and other items. It’s generally a good resource for those interested in bilingual parenting.

  2. A good friend of mine, who speaks English, and his wife, who speaks Portuguese, are speaking to their kids in English and Portuguese (although mainly he speaks in English and she speaks in Portuguese).

    As their daughter is around 2 1/2 years old, it’s really fun talking to her and playing with her because she can already distinguish between English and Portuguese in most every situation. She gets a little frustrated, too, when I don’t understand what she is saying — in order to help me understand she’ll say a word in both English and Portuguese!

  3. A great site for ESL students is AIDtoCHILDREN.com.

    AIDtoCHILDREN.com is a dual-purpose site for building an English vocabulary and raising money for under privileged children in the most impoverished places around the world.

    Check it out at http://www.aidtochildren.com

  4. Travis: Your ideas seem very sound. If she gets into an honest to goodness bilingual program at school then she will have a very good chance of becoming bilingual. Just the fact that her dad speaks Spanish (and enjoys speaking Spanish) will be a big plus for her. If it becomes “how I talk to Daddy” then she will love speaking Spanish.

    Jeff: Thanks for sharing your story. I’ve never met a bilingual English/Portuguese kid before. That would definitely be cool. The reason she speaks both so well is probably because her parents are pretty good about not mixing them.

  5. The tip about not embarrassing the kid is one that I can personally relate to, unfortunately!

    How did Dr. Saunders settle on German? (Maybe I should read the book to find out for myself!) I too have been thinking about raising our soon-to-be-born first child in a bilingual environment, just as I was many years ago. The question I ask myself is: Which language(s)? Does it have to be French, just because I speak French? Or should I be more strategic and pick Chinese or Spanish? We still have 4.5 months to figure it out, I guess.

  6. J: There are several factors to consider. The most important one is your wife. Does she speak one of those languages? Dr. Saunders’ wife was conversational in German and could get by in a German speaking country. She was also open minded enough to ask questions when, every now and again, she didn’t understand what was going on in German.

    The other factor I would consider is which language will your child probably be exposed to most outside of the home. If you have lots of French speaking friends then give that one a shot. If you have a large Chinese speaking population and could take your child to China Town often then that might be a good idea. One of the main reasons I’m choosing to raise my children to speak Spanish, over the marvelous Portuguese language, is that I have lots of Spanish speaking friends here in the USA. I know they will give my kids lots of exposure to the language which will reinforce what I teach at home.

    • Hi Ryan,
      Just wondering why you mentioned Portuguese. Do you speak Portuguese? I’m a single mother raising my 7 month old with English/Portuguese. Her dad’s family is Brazilian, but living in the U.S. it was a hard decision for me to make . . . as many people here speak Spanish and my Spanish is a little stronger than my Portuguese.

      • Sim falo. Gosto muito da língua de Camões mas, como você falou, é difícil encontrar oportunidades aqui nos EUA para falar em português.

  7. I teach Spanish to children ages 1-6 and their monolingual parents. Visit my site for Spanish learning activities, songs, games and more. “Monolingual friendly”

    http://www.wearelittleamigos.blogspot.com

  8. This is fantastic. Thank you so much for the tips and the comments are great too.

    I just started teaching my kids (kindergarten) spanish with bilingual books a little more seriously lately. We have always used words here and there. But, like I said, I have become more serious about it.

    The bilingual books have been great. One in particular is “Tim and Kim” by Kay Linda Nord. They love this book. Very popular. It has cute illustrations and the book is written in sentence structure in both english and spanish (mexican not castilian). It caught my eye too because Nord, the author, grew up in a bilingual home and wrote this book for her son. If interested, this is where I found the book: http://kaylindanord.com/

    So, it has been going well. I appreciate the information.

  9. Wow! Thsi is my deal. I raised my kids bilingual English Spanish and now they are dealing with it with their kids. Our kids went to school in Spanish in their home town in Bolivia, then in English in other countries where I worked, always speaking Spanish at home. Yet as adults, not all have kept up the language. Sure, all can talk it more or less well but some them (they are 5) really don’t like it. Why? Desire to fit in? Difficulty with adult vocabulary for their family/home bounded Spanish? Anyway, I, somewhat lke Dr. Saunders, have put down some of our experiences in:

    http://www.LeerEsPoder.com/comoeng.htm How To Get Your Kids to Speak Your Language and…

    http://www.LeerEsPoder.com/comospan.htm Como lograr que sus hijos hablen su idioma

  10. My mother brought up my sister and me as bilingual English/French speakers despite her not being a native speaker. She is a French teacher and speaks near-native French, basically all you can hear is a slight British accent from time to time, her grammar tends to be hyper-correct.

    Even though mum was non-native, she did have French friends with whom we had regular contact plus the occasional trip to France. I ended up working in Paris for a few years once I’d graduated from university and found myself a French wife, so my fluency in French would be equal with that of my English. I now speak several additional languages fluently (German, Spanish, Italian and some Afrikaans). We now live in South Africa with 2 multilingual children, with my wife speaking to them in French, me speaking to them in German, the housekeeper in Xhosa, with English and Afrikaans at school and with their friends. Bilingualism (and multilingualism) is extremely common here so it hasn’t been a remarkable experience for our kids.

  11. My husband is Australian and I am from canada but my first language is french. We live far from my family so I am the only person who speack french to our daughter but she listen to french tv and pick up words from there as well.

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