So you want to raise bilingual children. That's understandable!
Research has consistly demonstrated that it's advantageous to be bilingual. Some of those advantages are obvious: it's more convenient to travel if you know another language, for example, and you also have access to more job markets. Some of the advantages are less visible: bilingual people are also less likely to suffer from dementia, are more empathetic, and generally demonstrate better cognitive function. (We may be biased, but being bilingual is pretty cool, too.)
Unfortunately, most of us have no idea how to go about teaching a language.
Never fear—this post will briefly introduce what are recognized as the most effective methods to raise bilingual children.
Why raise a child in more than one language?
Overwhelmingly, parents raising bilingual situations find themselves in one of two situations:
- International marriages: You speak one language, your spouse speaks a different language, and both of you would like the child to speak your language. (Perhaps you married someone from a different country.)
- Immigration: You're raising a child in an environment where the local language differs from the one spoken at home. (Perhaps a couple moves for business purposes and they end up raising a child in a different country.)
These sorts of situations are so common because of the necessity that comes along with them. A child must learn the local language to get through school, so it's pretty much guaranteed that they'll learn that one. From there, if a parent only speaks to their child in one language, the child will need to figure that one out, too. Generally speaking, this two-pronged necessity leads to bilingualism.
While it's not impossible to raise a bilingual child if you don't find yourself one of those two situations—perhaps you're both from New York but think knowing Mandarin Chinese would give your child an advantage in the future—things do become more complicated. A child needs regular opportunities to use a language in order to learn it, and creating those opportunities can be difficult you have no connection to the culture where the language is spoken.
Won't kids get confused being around multiple languages?
Simply put, no.
While this concern is beyond the scope of this blog post, know that the developing brain is an incredible thing and that bilingual children figure things out just fine. Especially young children (toddlers) likely will initially mix words up between their languages, but they learn to separate those languages surprisingly quickly and will intuitively come to understand that some people understand language A while others understand language B. Billions of people around the world grow up bilingual (or even multilingual), and they become perfectly functioning adults.
If this is a major concern for you and you'd like to explore the topic in greater detail, I recommend starting with this article from Polyglot Parenting.
Strategies to raise bilingual children
Different things might work better or worse for different people, but generally speaking, most approaches will fall into one of three categories.
One parent, one language (OPOL)
One of the most common approaches to raising bilingual children, OPOL is exactly what it sounds like: parent A speaks language A with the child, and parent B speaks language B with the child. This approach is especially popular with mixed families (in which parents are from different countries and/or have different native languages) because it lets each parent use their native language.
Coined as a term in 1902, this method has stuck around because it is effective. Roughly 75% of children whose parents take this approach end up bilingual.
Parents taking this approach should remember to:
- Be consistent: It's important to respect the language boundaries you set up, especially if you're the parent responsible for passing on the minority language. To emphasize this point, a 2006 study of Japanese mothers in Australia found that only the children whose mothers insisted on speaking Japanese with them grew up capable of speaking Japanese well as adults.
- Maintain your language abilities: Actively seek opportunities to use your language in daily life. In addition to helping you to keep your own language skills sharp, this additional exposure will show your child that there's an interesting world worth exploring in your language.
- Expand your circle: If children grow to feel that a language is useless, they might become reluctant to speak it. Try to connect with others who also speak your language, and encourage family members to speak to your child in their respective language (whether A or B).
Your child will definitely acquire the local language, so extra effort should be spent to "protect" time spent with the minority language. (For example, if a Greek/French couple are living in France, extra effort should be taken to help the child acquire Greek.)
Minority language at home
Popular amongst expats and migrants, the MLAH/ML@H approach is commonly taken when the entire family moves to a separate country. Just as the name suggests, it involves both parents speaking to the child in only the minority language at home. For example, if a Swedish couple moved to England, they would speak only Swedish at home, then trust that the child would acquire English as a natural consequence of growing up and being educated in England.
This method has an advantage over OPOL in that it is simple and stable. There are no awkward situations for families to navigate in which the child is bilingual but the parents aren't (which language do you speak when everyone is together?) and the double dose the child gets of the minority language makes them more likely to acquire it to a good level.
Parents considering this approach have two main hurdles to figure out:
- Delayed acquisition of local language: If only the minority language is spoken at home, it means that the child will enter preschool not yet confident speaking the local language. This isn't actually a problem—the child will pick the local language up all on their own without trouble, and surprisingly quickly—but it's understandable that parents worry. If you're especially concerned, look for opportunities for your child to go on playdates with local children before school starts.
- Embarrassment of minority language: If parents speak to the child using the minority language when at home but in the local language when out and about, the child may come to feel that the minority language is a "shameful" thing that isn't good enough to be spoken outside of the house. An inversion of the same problem, some children may feel embarrassed to use the minority language in public, as it demonstrates that they're different from their peers.
In contrast to the rigity of the above two methods, natural mixing doesn't impose any barriers on child or parent. Parent and child speak either language as the need or whim strikes them—whatever feels natural at the time. Sometimes they might even start a sentence in one language and end it in another. This approach is more common amongst families of second-generation immigrants, as the parents are likely both bilingual and have grown up mixing their languages on a daily basis.
This approach contains potentially significant pros and cons.
- Relaxed: There is no pressure to maintain boundaries, worry about schedules, or "force" the child to speak a language—everyone is simply doing what feels natural to them.
- Modeling bilingualism: Parents serve as a bilingual role model for their children.
- Flexible: The child will still receive exposure to both languages even if one parent ends up being busy / not around as much.
- Initial confusion: Until 3–4 years of age, the child likely won't realize that they're juggling two languages. They will naturally learn to separate the languages all on their own, but expect some initial growing pains as they learn to interact with monolingual people.
- Preference: Devoid of structure, the child may end up defaulting to the language they prefer—almost certainly the local one, which will be spoken by their peers, thus leaving the minority language to decay and eventually fall away.
- Passive bilingualism: Related to the above point on preference, children might not gain a full command of the language's grammar. Instead of being pushed to improve in their minority language they can simply switch to the local language when struggling to express an idea. Over time, this creates an imbalance of proficiency and may ultimately result in passive bilingualism, in which the child can understand both languages but can only speak the local language.
The bottom line
People have succeeded with all of the above strategies, and indeed with many more that we didn't get into, such as the time and place approach. Instead of fretting over the "best" way, take the time to think about your familiy's personalities and situations, then choose an approach that feels natural for you. Odds are, if you wish for it, your child will end up bilingual.