Parenting doesn’t come with a How To Guide. We’ve all got these grand plans and ideas of how we think it should go, but somehow it doesn’t always work out so perfectly. I’m learning to deal the curve balls and accept the “modifications” to the original plans every day.
Just like you, I want to teach my child to share, to be affectionate and compassionate, to be determined, polite, and patient. But we certainly have those days when few of those qualities are shining through. This parenting thing is really humbling, eh?
Turns out, there are so many things we can’t actually teach. We don’t teach our children to stand, walk, or run. We don’t teach them to smile, chew or develop those incredible food preferences. And guess what, we don’t teach them language. Language is acquired. Babies hear language, process language, and their brains just begin to understand and speak it.
The two most important things you need to consider before jumping on the bilingual train are (1) how much exposure can you offer in each language, and (2) that the child has a need to communicate in each language.
Okay, okay… so what does that even mean??
Of course a child needs to hear a language to acquire it. The more they hear, the better their chances are at full acquisition of that language. However, once a child begins speaking after 12 months, there must be a reason to use that language in order for them to develop proficiency.
So give me the goods! How do I raise my child to be bilingual?!?
- There’s no right or wrong way to do it.
There are six patterns of bilingualism (page 3) that explain each scenario to which a child is exposed to multiple languages. Even though you’ve probably heard that the “one parent – one language” system is the most effective, it’s not the only way. And it can be tricky too, especially if you and your partner don’t speak both languages. Your kiddo is bound to hear one parent speak both languages at some point!
The idea is that as long as a child hears the language (even if the language is mixed in with another!) they can learn it. It’s a pretty simple formula… the more words a child hears, the easier it will be to acquire that language.
- Be sure that your child is getting a good language model.
The biggest thing happening in the early years is brain development. Brains are wired to learn language, no matter what language they hear! Their brilliant brains are learning the sounds, structure, and vocabulary through exposure. More importantly, a good language model is a person… a human being… that speaks the language fluently.
You’ve got to see this video on how amazing baby brains are. The researchers looked at how babies learned a new language from either a person or just from TV. The results at minute 7:10 shouldn’t surprise you.
- If you don’t have great language skills, find someone who does.
Just because you took some in French college doesn’t mean that your child can learn French on the few words and sentences that you remember. Your broken, possibly misused and mispronounced French isn’t ideal for your baby’s brain. So instead… find someone who can truly speak the language fluently.
Some families opt for hiring a caregiver or nanny who speaks a different language. Alternatively, you can create your very own playgroup (maybe there are other parents in your hood that are interested in having a bilingual kid), and hire someone who is a native speaker and likes kids. Singing songs, reading books, and good ‘ole fashion floor time play are great ways to expose baby to more of that second language.
- Create a need for the language to be used
Taking your babe to an Italian music class once a week probably won’t do the trick for full acquisition. Remember that once baby starts to say words (around 12-14 months), you have to create a need for them to use the language. Perhaps a playmate that “doesn’t understand English,” (which could be you, or Grandma or anyone!). Or you can create need by making certain rooms in the house “the Cantonese only room.” Maybe certain times of day are reserved for using that language, like meals or bath time.
Of course if you’re using the “one parent – one language” model, then the need will be there. Encourage (and later on maybe insist?) that your child use the language other than English. I always tell parents that somehow, English becomes “the cool language.” It’s what they hear their friends at school speak, kids at the park, grocery store, etc. It will be more challenging to create the need to use the other language, so you may need to get creative.
- Be patient
You know what? Parenting is hard. Turns out that parents of monolingual children have doubts too. This stuff is never easy and of course there will be many comparisons to other children in your future. Just remember that you can’t compare the language development of a monolingual to that of a bilingual child. It’s like comparing apples to oranges (for lack of a better metaphor). Get on the same page as your partner so you’re both in agreement of who, what, and how much. Most importantly, whatever you’re doing has to feel good to you. If you’ve got a good gut sense, just roll with it.
You’re already doing an awesome job!