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Separating Fact From Fiction When It Comes To Raising A Bilingual Child

Speaking more than one language is such a useful skill.

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Speaking more than one language is becoming an increasingly valuable skill as the world becomes more globalized. As a result, more parents are curious about how to raise a bilingual child — and whether or not teaching a child two languages at once could hinder their overall language skills. It seems there are quite a few misconceptions about not only what it means to be bilingual, but also how children process learning two languages at once. If you have questions, rest assured you’re not alone, and we have the answers you need to make the right choice for your family when it comes to raising your child to be bilingual.

Let’s start with the basics: A bilingual person is someone who is fluent in two distinct languages. Usually, people who are bilingual either grow up with one or more parents who speak a different language than the dominant language in their country (think a child with Spanish-speaking parents living in the United States), or they grew up in a country or area where the residents speak a different language than the one they hear at home (like a child with English parents who relocates the family to France). Additionally, some parents may choose to begin second language lessons early in hopes of raising their child to be bilingual even though they’re both English speakers living in an English-speaking community.

Interestingly, the last option could be the most difficult one if you’re attempting to raise a bilingual child from a very early age. If neither you nor your partner speak a language other than English, and you’re not living in a country or community where your children are naturally immersed in a second language, then your little one isn’t going to pick up a second language as quickly as a child raised within a bilingual household. And in that case, it might actually be more beneficial for them to wait until they’re old enough to take language classes in school.

Still confused? Read on for more tips on how to raise a bilingual child.

What is the best way to raise a bilingual child?

The best way to raise a bilingual child is whatever makes the most sense for your unique family situation. If you or your partner speak a language other than English, then the best way to encourage your child to speak that second language too is to talk to them as much as possible. According to Psychology Today, the more you speak to your child in any language, the more words they’re going to learn. Does your child have grandparents or other family members who exclusively speak the second language you want your child to become proficient in? Then enlist their help. The more exposure to the language from native speakers, the better.

Here are a few other things you can try in addition to speaking to your child in both languages at home:

  • Read to your child in the non-dominant language (the one they hear the least) as much as possible.
  • Talk to your child about things they enjoy, like a favorite cartoon or toy, using the non-dominant language, and encourage your other family members to do the same.
  • If you’re considering hiring a babysitter or nanny, consider choosing someone who speaks the second language you want your child to learn. You could also look into finding a daycare where the language is spoken for an immersive learning experience.
  • Let your child show you what works for them. For instance, if you’re trying the one parent-one language approach where one parent speaks exclusively in one language and the other parent speaks in another, make sure your child doesn’t feel frustrated by the process.

Overall, the best thing you can do is talk to your child in the non-dominant language as much as you can, and encourage other people in your circle who speak the language to do the same. Ultimately, children pick up the nuances of any language through listening, so it only makes sense that the more immersed they are in both languages, the more they will learn.

What are the advantages of being bilingual?

For many families, raising a bilingual child also means preserving their heritage. If this is your situation, then ensuring your child can speak to all of their family members with confidence and appreciate their culture is definitely an advantage.

Being bilingual could also lead to your child being a more well-rounded adult with excellent job opportunities in the future due to the job market becoming more global. Additionally, a 2016 study published in the Psychological Science Journal found bilingual people have better communication skills compared to monolingual speakers. Meanwhile, according to Psychology Today, bilingualism has also been connected to learning more proficiently and to long-term cognitive benefits. The same article reports that researchers have found bilingual people have a later onset of Alzheimer’s Disease and dementia compared to their monolingual peers, which means raising your child to be bilingual could have long-lasting benefits throughout their lifetime.

Does being bilingual improve memory?

Being bilingual has many benefits, including a boost in memory — research shows that children who have this skill have an easier time with memory tasks such as storing and processing information. And the better they are at developing and understanding their second language, the better their memory performance. According to the National Center for Biotechnology Information, bilingual children tend to have more substantial cognitive processes and comprehension skills.

What are the disadvantages of being bilingual?

The cognitive and social benefits of being bilingual are inarguable, but there some small linguistic disadvantages to learning two languages at once. Overall, bilingual children tend to have slightly smaller vocabularies in both of their languages compared to monolinguals’ vocabularies in their single language, according to a study in Science Direct. Bilingual people are also more likely to deal with that tip of the tongue feeling when you can’t quite find the right word.

However, none of these issues impact a bilingual child’s overall education, and the cognitive, social, and even economic benefits far outweigh the fact that your bilingual child may acquire words at a slower rate early on in life. (And just in case you were wondering, babies aren’t confused when their parents switch between two languages, no matter what you may have heard.)

If raising your child to be bilingual is important to you from a cultural standpoint, or simply feels like a way to set your child up for future success, then rest assured the benefits outweigh the negatives. Just remember, very few people are perfectly bilingual, so try not to put too much pressure on yourself or your child. Like with most things, learning two languages is easiest when it’s treated as an enjoyable experience for everyone involved rather than as an intense chore.

Do bilingual children have speech delays?

An article from the Linguistic Society of America notes some children may experience slightly slower language development compared to their monolingual peers. However, bilingual children speak at the same rate as monolingual kids and learn grammar at the same pace. Giving your child the opportunity to speak two languages doesn’t cause an incredible speech delay; it simply gives a kid more than one language to express themselves. It’s also important to remember that some babies may experience speech delays, but it rarely results from them learning two languages. Some babies take longer to find their words, but teaching them another language won’t hinder that process.

Can I teach my baby three languages?

It is possible for a baby to learn three or more languages; however, this requires more practice and exposure to each language. A baby may become more versed in one dialect than the other, but trilingual babies do exist. It may take more effort, but consistency is key.

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