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!