Families are raising bilingual children all over the world. So, when you are expecting a baby and you or your partner speak more than one language, it can seem like a relatively simple project. Let’s raise this baby bilingually!
First and foremost, you are about to embark on a beautiful journey which will at times be ‘laugh-out-loud’ funny! Bilingual kids rock! However, there may also be set-backs, moments when you doubt yourself or need support. I know this to be true as I have been there and still am.
In 2010, we welcomed our first child into the world and now have three bilingual children. Papa is French and Mummy is Scottish. We are both bilingual ourselves having studied languages and lived in both France and the UK. I am also the founder of Mini Languages®, courses and classes for young children learning French & Spanish. This has given me the opportunity to work with thousands of bilingual and monolingual families who are teaching their child multiple languages from a young age.
Over the years, I have evolved my approach to bringing up my own bilingual children and also my teaching methods. I have learned, through joy and frustration, several important lessons which I believe can benefit other families.
So, here are 5 Things I Wish I Had Known About Raising Bilingual Children 10 Years Ago. Having this knowledge helps me to raise my three children with strong foundations in both languages, and crucially, with a positive attitude.
I also use these beliefs about raising bilingual children as the core ethos of my language programmes.
1. Bilingualism has many definitions.
Despite studying French, including courses in linguistics, it wasn’t until I was bringing up bilingual children FOR REAL that I fully appreciated that there are different types of bilingualism. Most importantly, there is no ‘perfect bilingual’ meaning someone who has two mother tongues in which they are able to communicate equally well.
When my eldest was about three, I started to panic that he was showing a preference for English. Instead of focusing on the AMAZING PROGRESS we had made in French, I had a sinking feeling that we were failing. Once I accepted that one language will always be stronger, be it written or spoken, I was able to adjust my goals for my children accordingly. My mantra is now “I am doing a good job even though they are, and may always be, stronger in English.”
2. Lots of people have an opinion about raising bilingual children.
Ha! Yeah, let’s chat about this one. Despite lots of amazing support, I have also been exposed to a plethora of varying advice from people about raising bilingual children. I should point out that most of it is well intentioned but not all of it is useful and some of it is negative.
“You should be using the One Parent One Language method.”
“You should be teaching them one language first.”
“They’ll be slow to start speaking.”
I used to deal with unsolicited advice by entering into a debate or defending my position. Now, I nod and say something like “Perhaps”. I am like the penguins from the Madagascar films: “Smile and wave boys. Smile and wave.” My advice here is to use reputable sources for advice and carve your own path.
3. Your “heart language” will play a part.
I think one of the biggest eye-openers for me when I became a parent was how much my pesky emotions would try to mess with my plans.
A Family Language Plan (FLP) is recommended. This could simply be a regular discussion with your partner about your strategy and progress. Or it could take the form of a more complex timetable to ensure that the minority language is being nurtured. Either way, a regularly revised plan is a great way to keep you on track to reach your bilingualism goals for your child.
My personal story here is that my husband worked away from home Monday to Friday for the first year of my son’s life. Since we were living in the UK, ‘Papa’ being away five days a week meant we were concerned about our son’s level of exposure to our minority language. So in our original FLP, we decided that I would be speaking primarily French during the week with the baby.
I actually did a fabulous job in that first year balancing the two languages (remember to praise yourself!) but I had underestimated my inner drive to interact with my son in English. I have a Scottish heritage and felt the need to sing and play using vocabulary from my own childhood.
So, what does this experience tell us? Languages are not only about communication, they are for bonding and passing on complex aspects of our culture and experiences. We have, what is often referred to as, a “heart language” with which we are deeply connected. As I did, you may feel your heart pulling you in one direction and your Family Language Plan pointing you in another. How you deal with that is personal but know that it is normal as we are not robots we are human. And humans often speak with their heart.
4. Be prepared for pushback.
You know the advantages of bilingualism, I know the advantages of bilingualism, but your child won’t always be all that bothered about bilingualism. Sorry.
Depending on your circumstances your child may push back against the minority language in one way or another. This is relatively common but a bit of a surprise the first time your sweet compliant child suddenly makes a stand!
Small set-backs may occur like quiet refusal to reply in the minority language or you may find yourself in a full-on battle-of-the-wills. Further to that, it has been shown that bilingual children can relatively easily identify which languages someone else speaks and will choose the most efficient, or easiest, communication route. They may not be replying in their majority language to be deliberately antagonistic but simply as they know it will work.
From my research and discussion with other parents, there is no clean-cut solution. You can nudge and encourage but you cannot force someone to communicate in another language. All we can do as parents is be consistent in our approach and to create an environment where languages are seen as positive and not a chore. I have never used shame or anger as a tool to coax a child to speak French. Your child is creating their own identity. Above all, we tell the children regularly how proud we are of them.
There may also be prejudices surrounding your particular language as unfortunately language snobbery exists. So, language rebellions may arise as our teens navigate their world. My approach will be to persevere and continue to foster positivity showing them the importance of their languages in the world.
5. It’s all about maximising exposure.
If you start to look into academic research regarding bilingualism, there are several models (or strategies) cited for bringing up a bilingual child. It can make your head spin. However, they all have one goal in common: maximising exposure to the minority language.
So, the answer to the question “How do I raise a bilingual child?” is really a simple one: maximise their exposure to those two languages.
*Get plenty of resources – books, videos, mp3s, printables
*Make it fun so that they self-select books in the minority language
*Locate a community of people where you can communicate in your chosen languages
My message today is that this is your family journey. Take advice but be creative. Make a plan but be flexible. Be determined for your child but be a positive influence.
I hope that by sharing these learnings I might help other families to take a deep breath and dive into the wonderful world that is raising a bilingual child with their eyes wide open!
That’s such an interesting article. I love the FLP idea!
I totally agree with the “heart” part – as a English woman living in France for over two decades I was amazed how happy it has made me being able to use my mother tongue at home -I feel I have rediscovered my language and it’s liberating to play and sing in it. We use English at home and I can never thank my partner enough for accepting to communicate with his daughter in his second language.
Thank you for this!
Very interesting article! I am at the beginning of the wonderful journey of bilingualism with my wife and my little baby (who is just 10 days old at the moment!). I can’t wait to put in practice all these suggestions!
I love this article, but one thing I’d like to comment on is the idea that one language will always be stronger. That is absolutely not the case with my 10 year old son, who I feel absolutely confident in saying, is bilingual and bi-literate in English and Japanese. We have put a huge amount of time, effort (and money!) into achieving this outcome, and it’s an ongoing process still. I’m in no way saying that it’s a negative thing if bilingual or multilingual kids do have a stronger language, but it does bother me a bit when people suggest that’s impossible to be a balanced bilingual. It really isn’t, but a lot of things have to come together for it to happen, with the child’s own preferences being one of the most important! I know a few children besides my son and also a few adults who I would say are genuine, balanced, 50-50 bilinguals, equally as comfortable in one language as the other.
Well done on all your good efforts to foster strong ability in both languages! I would agree that multiple languages can have more or less balanced ability, at least in terms of general proficiency. At the same time, when each language is considered more specifically, there will naturally be certain strengths in this language or that language, like vocabulary known in one language but not the other and vice-versa. And as you mentioned, it’s a fluid process, always evolving, which means that the specifics of this balance will inevitably tip back and forth over time. So I guess what I’m suggesting is that there’s a lot of nuance involved when it comes to the idea of a “balanced bilingual.”
In our case, I would say that my children’s bilingual ability in Japanese and English was more balanced when they were younger, but naturally enough, since they’re now older (17 and 14) and have only been attending Japanese schools, Japanese has become their stronger language. But, of course, this could change again in the future if they go to college overseas, for instance, and become immersed in an English environment instead of a Japanese environment.
So, to me, the idea of “balanced bilingualism” is kind of a moot point. I mean, as a general goal, I think it’s a worthy aim, but it really means simply supporting both languages as effectively as we can (particularly the minority language) so that our kids can make the most progress possible in their bilingual development over the years of childhood.
Thanks Adam for your thoughtful comments! I agree that “balanced bilingualism” is probably a moot point, but I often see people saying on parenting groups on FB that it’s impossible to be equally proficient in two languages, or that if someone is, then they are likely to be “half-assed” (excuse the expression!) in both languages, and I’d really like to say that that’s not necessarily the case, and that balanced bilingualism *is* an achievable goal. It would be sad if some people gave up on their dreams of raising a child who was a balanced bilingual because social media told them it was impossible!
Definitely my son has areas where he’s stronger in one language or the other- I’d say his English vocabulary is stronger than his Japanese vocab because he’s done a lot more reading in English, and that his Japanese written expression is stronger, because he spends 5-6 days a week at the local elementary school. Still I’m fairly sure that both are within the normal range for his age, and therefore I think I can say he’s a balanced bilingual!
We’re lucky that in Tokyo we have access to a lot of junior/senior high schools with advanced English programmes that are fairly easy for kids like my son to get into (to a point that almost seems unfair, but that’s another topic!) So I’m fairly confident that we’ll be able to keep up my son’s bilingualism going forward.
I also want to say, thank you for all the work you’ve done and the info you’ve provided. I’ve been following your blog and FB posts for many years now and it has been incredibly valuable to our family.
Your son is doing great! Kudos to the whole family on your rewarding success!
In terms of “balanced bilingualism,” the difficulty in communicating about this with others is that it’s a pretty loaded term and seems to be often discussed in a black and white way when the reality, as I mentioned, includes considerable nuance. Because of this, I’m not sure how helpful the term actually is when making the point that kids can have “two strong languages that they’re able to use comfortably and freely across a range of skills” (which I wholeheartedly agree with). Making the same point using other words may enable others, who get stuck on that term “balanced,” to more easily recognize the plain truth of this when it’s communicated a bit differently.
Just my two yen!
And thank you so much for your kind words about my work. I’m really happy to know that I could play a small part in your successful bilingual journey with your son.
I followed comments on this post with great interest! I also agree balanced bilingualism IS possible, but as you two mention, many factors need to come together. You also need to be patient, as recent studies suggest, our brain takes a lot more time than previously thought to fully develop, like more than 20 years! That is why we make huge mistakes in our teenage years…and if you do not give up, a lot of us can become bilingual/bi-literate I think. I can now read/write English so much better than, say, my undergraduate years, after I did my graduate studies and lived/worked in North America. Anyway, correct me if I am wrong but I also think that a lot of people in Japan think “real bilinguals” need to be “perfect” all the time, when, as a matter of fact, nobody is perfect, and that is why we have dictionaries. Many people are just not aware that professional writers and journalists consult dictionaries all the time. I know this because I also write, and have experience in translating news articles. Ditch perfectionism, and let’s just embrace all the varieties of our languages. Nothing stays the same like the water in the river, as Kamono-chomei said in Hojoki about 800 years ago! Japanese writers from long time ago said really cool things…
Yoko, many thanks for your engaging comment! I agree with everything you say! (But I wish I wasn’t such a good example of “huge mistakes in our teenage years”! It’s true!)
I think the unrealistic notion of “perfect” bilingual ability comes from those who lack experience in this area and thus don’t have a more nuanced understanding of what being bilingual actually means. But if they might reflect on their own monolingual ability, it becomes very clear that none of us have “perfect” ability in any language, whether monolingual or multilingual. (As you note, even those with an advanced level of proficiency in a language still regularly come across words they’re unfamiliar with and make regular use of dictionaries. In fact, that’s one reason such people are able to continue advancing to even higher levels!)
Kudos to you on all the success you’ve experienced with languages in your own life!