Raising Bilingual Children: What You Need to Know
So, you’re a two language family - i.e. you and your co-parent have different native languages - and you’re hoping for your child to be able to communicate equally well in both. And why wouldn’t you be? The list of benefits offered by bilingualism is a hefty one and, of course, you want your child to be able to talk to both their parents in their native respective languages. You may also be a single parent who is bilingual themselves and wants to pass both languages to their child. Whatever your motivation, we can all agree that bilingualism is a worthy goal.
It’s easy to assume that the mere fact of having two different languages spoken in the household will mean your child automatically picks up the language. But, unfortunately, it doesn’t quite work like that. If you want your child to have a pretty balanced grasp of both languages, it’s important to take an active approach fuelled by conversation and strategy.
In your effort to maximise the exposure your child has to both languages, you’ll need to think about factors such as the language that will be spoken by the primary caregiver, ways of varying vocabulary, the language they will be speaking at nursery and school, etc…
Raising a bilingual can be challenging and it won’t always be a predictable journey. It’s common for parents to get caught up in expectations for their child that may not be fulfilled but it’s important not to become disheartened. The best thing you can do is ensure you’re as informed as possible about the various strategies that exist and choose the one that’s appropriate for you. There are different options for raising a bilingual child but once you’ve decided on one, consistency is key. So let’s explore the most popular methods.
OPOL (One Person One Language)
OPOL is probably the most popular set-up in bilingual households. In OPOL families each parent speaks to their child solely in the language they are the most comfortable in, ideally their native language.
This requires perhaps the highest level of consistency as it’s important that parents don’t deviate; the child must get into the habit of speaking to each parent in a specific language or they may end up more often than not reverting to the majority language.
A potential disadvantage of OPOL is that, if the minority language is spoken by a parent who is not the primary caregiver, the child may not get as much exposure to it. For this method to have maximum success, both parents must be equally involved in the child’s day-to-day life.
MLAH (Minority language at home)
MLAH households speak only the minority language at home (the clue’s in the name). That is to say, the child will speak the other language in the wider community and at school and both parents will do the work of maintaining the minority language outside school. This method is generally the most successful when it comes to helping the child hold onto the minority language long-term.
However, one thing to be aware of is that this method requires the child’s two languages to be introduced at different stages. So, the minority language will effectively be the child’s first language, meaning that when they start school they will often be behind their peers language-wise. This will generally clear itself up if the child is well integrated but it’s a good idea to be prepared and perhaps liaise with teachers or private tutors to ensure the smoothest transition possible.
The Time and Place (/Context) Method
The time and place method puts a system in place whereby parents speak in both the majority and minority language at different times, but within a carefully planned out structure. So, children are encouraged to use the two languages according to the situation they’re in. For example, the language switch might be dependent on the people they’re with or the friends/family they’re seeing.
Or parents might use time as their base, speaking one language in the morning and the other in the afternoon, for example. Some parents get very creative with this, for instance, having separate rooms in the house devoted to separate languages. Experiment - see what works for you. Many parents choose this if they are raising their child solo and want to speak to them in more than one language.
A potential downside to this method is that it can lead to confusion and will only really work if parents are very disciplined about it, otherwise the child likely won’t respect the structure for long and will likely lapse into their preferred language.
2P2L (Two People Two Languages)
2P2L is when both parents communicate in both languages at various times so it is similar to the Time and Place method in that the child will switch between languages except that there is little to no prescribed structure. This is a less disciplined approach, which some parents will understandably prefer, but it can sometimes end up leading to the child opting out of speaking the minority language.
This is because as the child gets older, they will often be keen to exclusively speak the language their friends and peers are speaking, and if they haven’t grown up with the structure that OPOL or MLAH provide, they may well end up becoming a passive bilingual (meaning they understand the minority language but are unable to speak it). While this isn’t in and of itself a problem for the child, it may well not be the outcome you’re looking for, so make sure you’re prepared for this possibility if this is the route you choose.
All these methods are valid and, whichever one you choose to go with, remember that language acquisition is not an immediate process; don’t expect to see results straight away - just persevere and keep at it!
You now have the basic go-to strategies used by parents trying to raise bilingual children, but you probably still have a fair few questions about how the specifics work. For example…
When should I start my child on their bilingual journey?
Newborn to three is the best age bracket to start transmitting a second language. Speaking to the child in both languages from birth (or even from when they’re in utero) is highly advisable if you’re hoping for them to develop a balanced mastery of both. However, a child’s brain is still incredibly adaptable between the ages of four and seven, so if you didn’t introduce the second language immediately, it’s not too late!
How does bilingualism affect children’s language development and learning?
Mostly it doesn’t; the idea that raising your child bilingual will slow down their overall learning is a myth. In fact, it may even give them an advantage as bilingualism comes with cognitive benefits, such as multitasking skills, better working memory and creativity.
However, if, say, parents have decided to go with the MLAH method, the child may be a bit behind when they get to nursery or school as they won’t have had the prior exposure to the majority language that the other children will have had.
How important is TV/audio material?
If you are the principal source of the minority language, remember that what your child learns will come mostly from you and what you choose to expose them to. So it is important to compensate for the vocabulary they might be lacking in day-to-day conversation with you by exposing them to different media and input.
Play them videos and music in that language, read books with them in that language. However, don’t come to rely too much on televisuals because direct interaction is, and always will be, the most important part of language acquisition.
What if my child mixes up their languages?
You might notice your child beginning a sentence in one language and ending it in another. Language mixing is very common in young bilingual children. Their brains haven’t quite conceptualised the notion of separate languages; they just experience what is being said around them as a communicative tool and will take what they need. This will sort itself out in its own time. Feel free to correct them if they start mixing frequently but you don’t need to do it every time.
What language will my bilingual child think in?
Children who are raised with two languages will develop the ability to think in both depending on the context they find themselves in.
How should bilingual parents raise their children?
It’s all very well discussing the ways of bringing up bilingual children but how do the guidelines change for parents who themselves were raised bilingual? Though it is of course possible to communicate with your children in both your languages from birth, many bilingual parents choose to introduce their weaker language slightly later, often when their child is a toddler.
There are a variety of possibilities at this stage. A lot of parents favour the ‘talk twice’ technique where they repeat the same sentence in both languages to ease the child in. Others use the Time and Place technique, introducing various contexts in which to speak the two different languages (see above). These methods are often used in trilingual households; in these set-ups there’s a lot going on but, with a bit of organisation, there’s no reason why your child can’t learn to master all three languages!
Hopefully we’ve answered the main questions you may have about raising bilingual children. It’s an enormous topic with a wealth of research available, which we encourage you to explore thoroughly.
While it is important to be organised in your approach you won’t be able to control everything on your child’s bilingual journey. As they grow up, children will decide which language they feel more comfortable speaking regardless of the measures to put in place to encourage them to speak your language.
For example, in MLAH households, siblings might develop the habit of speaking the majority instead of the minority language at home and there’s very little you can do about it. This is simply how it works and not something to stress over. The best thing you can do is remain consistent with your strategy and your child will decide from there.
Even if you plan your child’s language exposure down to a T, one language is still very likely to be stronger than the other. But that’s ok! One of the great myths about bilingualism is that it requires an equal level of fluency in both languages. But this simply is not the case. Bilingualism comes in many different forms, and if your child has an accent in one language or perhaps doesn’t know as many words in one as in the other, you haven’t failed! Your child is an official bilingual at the point at which they use two or more languages in their everyday life, whatever form this may take.
Simply being exposed to a second language from childhood is an enormous gift, and one that will give your child the upper hand over their monolingual friends - it might just take them a while to realise it! With time your child will be incredibly grateful to have knowledge of a second language without ever having had to study it. So, however you’re choosing to raise your bilingual baby, just know you’re doing great!
Bilingual Family - When you have a spare afternoon, check out this wonderfully detailed breakdown of everything you need to know if you’re thinking of raising your child bilingual.
Bilingual Kidspot - Bilingual Kid Spot is dedicated to answering questions parents may have about bilingualism, providing a wealth of information and recommended resources broken down into easily digestible content.
Storyberries - Storyberries was founded by a bilingual mum committed to sharing her love of stories and facilitating reading time for parents and children. The site offers an enormous selection of reading material, arranged meticulously by age group and topic to allow maximum choice, and even provides stories in both French and English!