How to Raise Bilingual Children

I am sure you see bilingual and bicultural families in the United States everywhere you go. Many bilingual parents want to carry on their native language and cultural traditions with their children and are unsure how.

The questions that many bilingual parents get stuck on are:
How can I teach my language to my kid?
Should we speak to them in several languages?
Will we confuse our child?

Those are all valid concerns and important things to consider when starting your children down the ‘bilingual’ path.

In the world we live in, mastering a second language is very helpful and will often give you more employment or career opportunities. AND obviously will also enable you (or your child) to communicate with many more people and in more circumstances.

It is important to teach our children to learn another language from a young age (or birth). Here are nine (9) tips to help you raise bilingual children:

1. Each parent could speak to the child in their native language
If you are a family made up of parents from different nationalities, each could speak to your child in their native language. Children will not get confused by being spoken to in more than one language. The human ear can differentiate between different languages, so if you speak to your child in your native language they will not get confused. Your child will become familiar, recognize and learn it. Once your child is able to speak they will ‘code switch,’ or be able to change speaking and understanding between each language effortlessly.

2. Ask and answer in the same language
To learn each language it is necessary that children know how to express themselves correctly. If you speak to your daughter in Spanish, she should answer in Spanish, the same if you speak to her in English or in any other language. Train your children to stay in one language. This will help your child become “fully bilingual” later. It is important that you give your child the opportunity to practice all language learning modalities (listening, speaking, reading and writing) in both languages as they get older.

3. Speak only one language at home
There are also cases of whole families of the same nationality, who for different reasons must move from a different culture and language. This is often the case in Europe or parts of the United States. Often families choose to speak the ‘minority’ language at home. This would be the language that the child is exposed to less, depending on where you are living or what language schooling or education is done in. It is often beneficial, to maintain both languages (that of your home country, and where you live). In this case, families often speak their native language at home and in public the majority language.  Your children will learn the “majority” language at school, with their friends and from the people who surround them, so it is important that at home you reinforce your families native language so they do not forget it.

4. Strengthen the weakest language
Many times children do not want to be different and do not fully understand the benefits of being bilingual if they are often surrounded by monolinguals. This is why there will always be a language that they speak less or prefer less. This also may vary from child to child in the family or where you are (if your family travels or moves often).
Often there is no use forcing your children to speak in their weakest or least preferred language because they might end up resisting it. You can, however, make friends that speak the weaker language, watch movies, or do enjoyable games or activities in the weaker or less spoken language to encourage practice.
As a pair, you could talk with your partner in the weaker language, so they will listen and learn new words and phrases in a comfortable setting.

5. Travel/Spend Time Abroad
Another option to help to raise your children to be bilinguals is by going on vacation or spending an extended amount of time in places where they speak your child’s less dominant language.
We do this by spending summers (teacher perks!!) in the Dominican Republic, so our children can continue to develop their Spanish language acquisition and they are able to spend time with extended family.

6. Do Fun Activities
Learning a language should be fun. Read books, watch movies, listen to music, do arts and crafts and play sports in the target language that you are teaching your child. The more activities you do, the more vocabulary they will be exposed to and comprehend. Don’t try to make your child learn a second language by memorizing vocabulary lists or verb charts. That’s not fun. They can learn by doing and through their experiences.

7. Schedule/Plan for Each Language
Another strategy you can use is to associate moments of your daily routine or life with certain a certain language. For example, at breakfast we speak Spanish, at lunch in English, at bedtime we speak Spanish, etc. This helps children to program their brain and both languages are always present in their daily life.

8. Have (or Create) a Supportive Community
You can use social networks and acquaintances to connect with families in the same situation as you. There are many groups for bilingual parents and families and/or language specific groups. All families may not necessarily be teaching the same languages or using the same strategies but, by having bilingual friends you will be able to support your doubts, create new strategies and continue to experience new things to implement (or try) while raising your bilingual children.

9. Hire a Native Teacher
This tip is for parents that want their children to learn a second or third language, which they do not speak. For example: Maybe your child is enrolled in a Spanish or French immersion school and neither of the parents speaks that language at home nor is that language spoke in public.
In this case, it would be beneficial if you could hire a native speaker as an occasional babysitter, nanny, tutor or teacher. This person could help your child learn or use their ‘academic’ language in a new informal setting. There are also programs where you could connect with international students, host an exchange student, or an Amity or international teacher in your home. If financial able, this is a great investment to ensure your child is able to learn their second (or third) language.

I hope these nine tips have helped you. Remember there is no manual to raise children and much less bilingual or multilingual children. It is important to try different things and find what works best for you, your child and your family. If you implement some of these tips you will see significant progress in your child’s second language learning or acquisition.