Bilingual Style

Is It Too Late For My Child to Become Bilingual?

October 22, 2013

Is it too late for my child to become bilingual?

Recently, I’ve gotten several messages related to this question, so I thought I would try sharing my thoughts on the subject and open up the discussion to all of you, through your comments. (If you missed the lively discussion in connection with What Language Should I Speak in Public with My Bilingual Child?, I highly recommend a good look at that page.)

For me, there’s a short answer and a long answer here.

The short answer is…

No, it’s certainly never too late. Your child has the potential to become bilingual at any age.

The long answer is…well, the long answer is a lot more involved.

The “easiest” way

First of all, I should emphasize that the “easiest” way to foster bilingualism is generally by providing ample exposure to the two languages from birth and permitting the inherent power of the child’s brain to naturally turn that exposure into a firm foundation for bilingual ability.

Recent research in The Journal of Neuroscience, as reported by the BBC, seems to reaffirm that the brain has a special window for language development “before the age of four.” If this is roughly the case—and I believe it is—by aligning with nature and being proactive during the child’s earliest years, nature itself will back your efforts and fuel your child’s bilingual growth.

At the same time, let me stress that this “window” certainly doesn’t slam shut after the age of four. A child can become bilingual at any age, but I do suspect that the window is widest during the early years, then closes incrementally as time passes.

The point is, the same efforts will likely yield a more productive result if undertaken while the child is younger, as opposed to older. In fact, I would even argue that it can ultimately take greater efforts at a later age than it would have otherwise if those efforts had begun from birth. This is why starting early is “easier”: working with nature is the “Zen approach” to bilingual parenting.

Let me add that starting early is also a form of “preventive medicine” (as I discuss in What Frustrates Me About Raising Bilingual Children), because the often difficult challenges and choices of fostering bilingualism in later years can then be avoided.

Four basic options

If your child is a bit older, though, and you wish to begin or boost bilingualism, what can you do?

If you haven’t already read What to Do When Your Bilingual Child Won’t Speak Your Language, I encourage you to view that post. It discusses, in detail, the two key factors of need and exposure—your child must have some organic need to use the target language as well as sufficient meaningful exposure to that language. It also attempts to provide possible remedies.

Expanding on that post, let me now suggest four basic options for promoting an older child’s bilingual development.

1. Relocate to a new country or region
I’m not kidding. In fact, I heard from a family the other day who have done just that. They were in England, but their concern over their children’s development in French led them to decide to move to a French-speaking part of Switzerland. And the results, in the year since their relocation, have been impressive, with very solid gains in the children’s French.

I realize, of course, that this more dramatic option isn’t possible for everyone, but if it’s feasible—and if the bilingual goal is deeply important to you—then such a move could make all the difference in your child’s language development.

2. Send your child to a minority language school
Again, this option may not be available to you, because of cost or location, but schooling in the minority language is a highly effective way of increasing both need and exposure, and elevating a child’s language level.

Over the years I’ve worked with many bilingual children who attend Hiroshima International School—first as a teacher and now as a private tutor—and the success rate, in terms of their eventual bilingual proficiency (though naturally at varying levels), is 100%.

3. Change your work situation
More than a few parents have changed their work situation so they could increase the amount of time—and the amount of exposure to the minority language—that they give their children.

In my case, the newspaper company I work for downsized my position into a work-from-home role when my kids were smaller, saving me from having to make this decision myself. But the truth is, I would have eventually headed in this direction, anyway, because my work hours there, and my bilingual goal for my children, just didn’t match. The fact that I work from home, and can spend chunks of time with my children each day, is a huge blessing when it comes to supporting their minority language.

4. Pursue a major “intervention”
This final option involves rethinking and remaking your life as a family. In order to foster active bilingual ability, the child’s need for the minority language, and exposure to that language, must become among your highest priorities. There has to be a rock-solid commitment to your bilingual goal, which translates into conscious, proactive efforts to reshape your daily lifestyle and home environment.

The actual changes required will naturally depend on the particular circumstances and greater aims of each family, but these actions could include such things as: spending more time with the child, reading and interacting; building up your home library; establishing a homework routine; hiring babysitters or tutors; enrolling in lessons or clubs; and arranging trips abroad. (Again, see What to Do When Your Bilingual Child Won’t Speak Your Language, as well as 96 Things You Can Do Today to Boost Your Child’s Bilingual Ability.)

It’s always possible

Beginning or boosting bilingualism, after the majority language has gotten a large head start, can be a significant challenge, demanding considerable sacrifice and effort from the family, but it’s always, always possible.

It’s true, of course, that some families must contend with more difficult circumstances than others, but gradual progress can be made even in the toughest situation if there is one thing: undying determination to address the obstacles to the best of your ability.

How about you? What are your thoughts, or experiences, when it comes to fostering bilingualism at a later age?

See value in this post? Please share it with the universe! (There may be aliens raising bilingual kids, too, you never know.) Then add your thoughts below. Thanks!

Subscribe to our mailing list

* indicates required Your First Name * Your Email Address *

1 Jana October 25, 2013 at 4:14 am

Thanks for the post Adam. I’ve met a few people through my website recently who for one reason or another didn’t expose their child to Czech from birth and now regret it. They feel awful when they go back home and their kids can’t communicate with the other members of the family. That’s when they start to wonder if something can be done. Your point 4 is always my advice – I’m glad I haven’t been telling them rubbish :-) It’s just common sense, I guess.

Reply

2 Adam October 25, 2013 at 6:54 am

Jana, yes, I’m afraid the regret you describe is all too common for many parents. This is why I persistently advocate starting strong, right from birth, if fostering bilingual ability is an important goal for the future. As I stress in Warning to New Parents Who Dream of Raising a Bilingual Child

The dreams of many parents have been dashed because they realized too late that raising a bilingual child demands a lot more time, energy, and expense than they originally imagined.

Reply

3 Jun Han October 29, 2013 at 4:31 pm

Hi I am Jun from Korea.

I am a father of 3 and trying to raise my kids bilingual. This is a great resource for me.

Is it possible to interview you for 20 mins.? I just started podcast and it would be honor that if you join as a guest.

Thank you.

Cheers,

Jun Han

Reply

4 Adam October 29, 2013 at 5:00 pm

Jun, welcome! I’m glad Bilingual Monkeys will be useful to your efforts at home. Best of luck with your bilingual journey, and with your fun-looking site! (Your kids are very cute!)

About an interview, could you please contact me directly, by email, with further details? Thanks!

Reply

Comments, please! (Your email address won't be displayed.)

Previous post:

Next post: