Bea Sieradzka is a Polish mother living in the United Kingdom and raising a bilingual and biliterate son, now almost 7 years old. Based on research studies in bilingualism and her own background in linguistics, she introduced two languages from the time he was born: her native Polish and her second language, English. She is now supporting him in learning a third language, Chinese.
At her blog, Born Bilingual, Bea shares information and ideas to help immigrant families succeed at nurturing their children’s bilingualism: introducing the community language from birth, along with their heritage language, and fostering good ability in both languages.
Even before my son was born, now seven years ago, I knew that one day he would be bilingual. Born in the United Kingdom to Polish parents, he had the opportunity to learn two languages at the same time. The question we asked ourselves, though—like so many other parents who have immigrated to the U.K. and speak English as a second language—was how to actually manage the process of his bilingual acquisition.
The downside to a common method
The conventional wisdom in this sort of situation is to speak to your child in your mother tongue, and allow them to learn the majority language out in the community. This is a common strategy known as the “minority language at home” approach. It sounds, at first, like the perfect solution.
The problem with this approach is that simultaneous bilingual acquisition only works if your child is regularly exposed to both languages for a sufficient amount of time. Research that includes The relation of input factors to lexical learning by bilingual infants (Barbara Zurer Pearson), The relationship between bilingual exposure and vocabulary development (Elin Thordadottir), and A Short Guide to Raising Children Bilingually (Fred Genessee) indicates that children need to be exposed to each language for a minimum of 20-30% of their waking hours, and ideally even more than that.