How to raise bilingual kids is a question more parents are asking, whether it’s because parents have different first languages or they want their child to grow up speaking two languages. All children have an innate ability to learn. Through play, though their senses, they are constantly learning and making sense of the world around them. Their brains are constantly active, and by three years old, their brains are, twice as active as an adult brain (Dr. P. Kuhl).
Just like learning in other areas, children also have an innate ability to learn languages. Provided with the right environments, language learning will take place naturally and organically. But what about learning two languages at the same time?
Many parents make the decision to raise their children with two or more languages. Reasons will be varied, but one thing they all have in common, is a desire to do it in a way that will be most effective for their child.
So how can parents achieve this? How do they know what approach to take that is right for their child and family? Let’s start with the research.
How to raise bilingual kids: the research
There is a good body of research into raising children in a bilingual home. Many parents however, have concerns with regard to the ‘best’ way to approach it and whether learning two languages will be harmful to other areas of their child’s development. The research listed below, will give you an overview of the findings by experts and reassurances on some of these concerns.
1. Dr. Kuhl, at the University of Washington, states that babies really are little Einsteins when it comes to learning a second language. She notes that babies can, discriminate all the sounds of all languages….and that’s remarkable because you and I can’t do that…we can discriminate the sounds of our own language but not those of foreign languages.
Research backing up this statement was carried out at the University of Washington. They measured electrical brain responses with infants in homes where one language was spoken and those who came from homes with two languages. The babies were between 6 – 12 months.
They found that at 6 months, the infants with one language spoken at home, could tell the difference between phonetic sounds whether it was said in the language they were used to hearing or one not heard before. But by the time they were 10 – 12 months, they were no longer able to detect the sounds in the second language, only the one they were used to.
The babies with two languages however, had different results. At 6 – 9 months, they were not detecting differences in phonetic sounds in either language. But at 10 – 12 months old, they could tell the different sounds in both languages.
The research concluded that the, variability in bilingual babies’ experiences keeps them open..they do not show..narrowing as soon as monolingual babies do. It’s another piece of evidence that what you experience shapes the brain.
2. There is no scientific evidence that being brought up in a bilingual home results in a language development delay or confusion.
Some parents become concerned that their child is confused by using both languages within sentences. Some research states that the ability to switch between languages, (code switching), is a, sign of mastery of two linguistic systems, not a sign of language confusion, (Lanza, 1992). See more on this below.
3. There have been many studies showing that bilingualism improves certain cognitive skills, such as a superior ability to concentrate, problem solve and focus. There has however, also been a backlash to this research, saying that bilingual individuals do not have different ‘executive functions’, (mental skills such as, attention, managing time and switching focus), to monolingual individuals.
E. Bialystok, a distinguished professor of psychology at York University in Toronto, who has carried out a wealth of research into this area, noted that:
..it is impossible to examine whether bilingualism improves a child’s school exam results, for example, because there are so many factors. But,…given that at the very least it makes no difference – and no study has ever shown it harms performance – considering the very many social and cultural benefits to knowing another language, bilingualism should be encouraged.
4. Research has shown that the use of digital media to teach infants and young children is not effective. They need face-to-face interaction, for both a first and second language.
Dr. Kuhl carried out research into why babies learn from people and not screens. The study showed that when English language infants in Seattle were spoken to by someone in Mandarin, the babies had the ability to discriminate Chinese language sounds. But when they were given the same amount of Mandarin by a television or audiotape, the babies didn’t learn anything!
You can see the research in action in Dr. Kuhl’s TED talk here:
5. As noted above, some research has suggested that being bilingual gives children certain cognitive advantages. T. Chapelton notes however, that although it can benefit specific cognitive skills for some children, it should not be viewed as an overall indicator of greater intelligence or as a predictor of hight academic performance (T. Chapelton, British Council, 2017).
Approaches on how to raise bilingual kids
One-person-one-language is a common strategy advised by experts to raise children to be bilingual. Research has shown that this approach can result in the child’s successful acquisition of the two languages, but doesn’t guarantee it.
K. Byers-Heinlein (2013), argues that there are other factors to consider to ensure that the child is successful is acquiring both languages. These include:
- The quality and quantity of the child’s exposure to the language matters. Quantity will be the amount of words the child hears every day in each language. The more words they hear, the greater the opportunity to learn the language.
- The child needs to have the opportunity to interact with a range of different speakers to build vocabulary, (Place & Hoff, 2010).
- A roughly equal exposure to both languages is most likely to result in the successful acquisition of both languages.
- Even providing a perfectly balanced exposure in the early years does not guarantee bilingualism later on. Often as the child gets older, they are exposed more to the language spoken in the community, such as in school. Experts recommend putting slightly more in of the minority langage, in the early years, and as much as possible, provide children with opportunities to play with other children who use that language.
Other approaches on how to raise bilingual kids include:
- One language at home and one outside the home.
- Alternating days of the week or mornings and afternoons.
- One parent always speaking to their child in one language even if they are able to speak the other language.
- Having a flexible approach without any fixed rules.
When considering what approach to take in raising bilingual children, it’s important to think about what is a good fit for your family. What would work best for you?
Parental concerns and questions…
As with many aspects of parenting, parents will have concerns and questions about bringing up their child to be bilingual. In addition to the ones stated earlier, here are three common questions asked by parents.
1. Will bringing up my child to be bilingual result in a delay in language development?
Research has shown that bilingual children are not more likely to have language delays or have delays in learning.
2. Will my child become confused learning two languages?
Some parents worry that when their child uses words from both languages in the same sentence, (known as code mixing), it’s because they are confused. Researchers suggests however, that when children code mix, they are often doing what the adults around them are doing. Studies have also suggested that the ability to code switch implies that the languages are being mastered.
3. Is it a case of, the earlier the better?
There is some disagreement amongst researchers about whether there is a ‘critical period’, for children to learn language. They do however, agree that earlier is better. As we get older, our ability to learn a language decreases (K. Byers-Heinlein).
How to raise bilingual kids can be a difficult decision to make and can also be difficult whatever approach you decide to use. For example, using the one-person-one-language strategy can be hard going if the parent can speak the other language. Similarly, using the time approach my be hard if situations arise where the other language is needed.
It would seem that the important takeaway from the research above, is that to be successful in raising bilingual children, parents need to ensure that their child is given plenty of opportunities to hear both languages spoken. And as much as possible, that the child gets a more-or-less equal exposure to both. As the child gets older and this becomes more difficult, parents can organise things such as playing with other children who only speak the language that needs more exposure.
Bilingualism is important to some families, and a necessity to others. But for those families that would like to raise bilingual children but are not fluent in one of the languages, the following important points are made by K. Byers-Heinlein/C. Lew-Williams (2013):
Where families are are not fluent in a second language, early bilingualism might be unrealistic. Here, it is important to keep two things in mind: 1) bilingualism is only one way to promote successful early development, and 2) second language learning is possible at any age. Language – any language – is a window to the world. It is better for parents to provide plenty of input and interaction in a language they are comfortable with, than to hold back because they are not fluent or comfortable in the language.
The Guardian has an interesting article on bilingualism. You can read it here