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How to raise a bilingual child

By Fabrice Jaumont, Ph.D.

What parents can do at home to promote their child’s acquisition of multiple languages and retention of child’s heritage language

Bilingualism opens doors to a wide range of cultures and communities that would have remained otherwise closed off to a monolingual person. As one might expect, a multilingual life is extraordinarily rich, diverse, and full of possibilities. As geographical barriers continue to dissolve in this era of globalization, borders no longer restrain the spread of ideas and cultures throughout the world. Moreover, the complex identity of the bilingual is more relevant today than it has ever been, and will continue to play an increasingly important role in the future. However, monolingual parents and parents who already speak a language other than English, through their heritage or through their education, and wish to pass that gift on to their children, often ask how they can best raise their child in two languages and what they can do at home – in addition to or in the absence of formal schooling in the second language. Here are some of the frequently asked questions.
What can I do to help my child become bilingual?
To raise bilingual children, parents need to start early, and preferably before the child sets foot in school. The importance of early start is also recognized by educational experts, that is why most bilingual programs already start in the Kindergarten or even earlier. Moreover, to achieve a good level of bilingualism, the support of families is crucial because language is rooted in traditions and culture. Building an affinity for the culture behind the language is something that requires a lot of motivation for new language learners. The more the language can be rooted in the cultural experience—for example, through exposure to native speakers or the linkage between traditions and vocabulary words—the stronger the mastery of the language is. Parents can read books aloud, purchase age-appropriate books and subscribe to magazines, listen to songs, watch cartoons, play board games, or download applications that can help foster interest in the target language and culture.
In what language should I speak to my child?
In the language acquisition process, it is natural for children to model their speech off the individuals they hear speak most often—notably their parents. This can pose a problem if parents decide to speak to their children in a language they are not necessarily fluent or comfortable in. Research shows that it is more constructive for parents to speak to their children in their native language instead of in broken or grammatically-incorrect English (in the case of the United States). Each child’s linguistic base must have a strong foundation—whether it is in English or in another language—that is derived from parental and familial communication at a very young age.
Will bilingualism cause speech delay in my child?
Some parents believe that bilingualism leads to language delay. This assumption, however, is not born out by the ever growing body of research. While some bilingual children may experience slight language delays, this is only temporary. Because bilingual children use their languages in different situations, domains, and contexts, they may well have different vocabularies in two languages. If all the family, home, and play vocabulary is in one language and all the school and academic vocabulary is in another, it is no surprise that children can develop a non-identical lexicon in each language. Research indicates that when you consider the ensemble of both vocabularies, bilingual children have much richer and varied repertoires of lexicon and other linguistic means of expression than their monolingual peers.
What if my child refuses to speak our home language?
Some children, at one point or another, do not want to speak their parents’ language anymore. This can accompany youth and adolescent periods of rebellion, or develop as a result of peer pressure and wanting to fit in, among other reasons. In these situations, it is best to try to find an alternative way to motivate the child, one which takes into consideration his or her personal identity. It is imperative to take a child-centered approach by listening, engaging, and expanding on the reasons each child gives for wanting or not wanting to continue a specific language. In this way, the child can take ownership of their own learning and re-develop an interest in the language on their own terms. Another important factor is community influence and the question of language status. If a child perceives the language spoken at home as having a lower status than the dominant language in their community, he or she may not want to be associated with it and may abstain completely from communicating or interacting in that language.
What is the best way to support bilingualism at home?
The motivation and desire to speak another language can be influenced by many different factors. Some come from the family environment. There are indeed families that achieve bilingualism painlessly thanks to a stimulating child-centered language experience at home. However, that is not always the case. For example, it is very common for bilingual parents to put too much pressure on their children to learn their own native language, sometimes even forcing a language to be spoken in family interactions. This desire might not be shared by the child. As a result, this approach often does not yield successful outcomes, for the parent or for the child. For home immersion to work, children should be surrounded with positive reinforcement so that they derive pleasure from learning the language and improving upon their skills. Perseverance is key: keep the long-term paybacks of bilingualism in sight, create bilingual rules and habits around the home, celebrate bilingual highlights with your child, and partner with other families who want their children to become bilingual just like you do.
What if I don’t speak the language that my child is learning in a dual language program at school?
Even if you don’t speak the language your child is learning you can still help in multiple ways. One of the most important steps is to read to and with your child in the language that you do speak: strong literacy foundation in one language will have a powerful transfer effect on the acquisition of another. Understanding how one language “works” and how it helps us communicate with others creates mental scaffolding that is applicable to all languages. Second, promote positive attitude towards the school and dual language teacher(s): when students see that their parents are interested and engaged in school activities, they are more prone to do well in school. Take interest in your child’s homework in the second language; have them explain to you now words and concepts that they have learned; have them teach you some new vocabulary, songs or poems from their class; read together in the second language, see the meaning of how many words you can guess!
What can schools do to support my child’s bilingualism?
Over the last two decades, the American approach to education has gradually shifted away from the mastery of one language to the goal of bilingualism, language enrichment, and the preservation of heritages and cultures. As a result, more and more schools offer programs that support a child’s bilingualism. In public schools across the United States, dual-language education is rapidly becoming very popular. Parents can – and often do – create these programs in their local schools by organizing parents, building a case for a dual language program, and convincing school administrators and teachers about the advantages of bilingualism. Many children in heritage language communities also attend weekend cultural enrichment programs, as their families seek out additional opportunities with emphasis on their home country’s literature, culture, and history to foster a sense of belonging and pride as a member of that heritage group.
Fabrice Jaumont FJ

Fabrice Jaumont, Ph.D. is international educator, researcher, and author of The Bilingual Revolution: The Future of Education is in Two Languages (TBR Books, 2017).