How to Raise a Child Bilingual
Every parent wants to provide the best opportunities for their child to succeed later in life, and in an increasingly competitive and globalized world, raising them bilingual can be one of the greatest head-starts you can offer. Bilingualism provides advantages when being considered for schools and jobs, not to mention more holistic benefits such as giving children sharper cognitive and problem solving skills. While the effort involved may seem daunting, there are plenty of techniques and tips you can follow to make sure your child absorbs as much of a second language as they can when they’re still young.
First of all, parents generally choose one of two main strategies when raising a child to be bilingual; the one person-one language method involves each parent speaking to the child in his or her own native language, which provides a solid exposure to both languages and allows the parents to communicate in their preferred language. However, it can become awkward when it comes to the parents communicating with each other, especially once the child realizes they can both speak both languages.
The second strategy is to speak only the minority language at home, assuming the child will learn the majority language once they enter school. This can be effective in teaching the child the minority language thoroughly, although possibly stressful on the parent who is less skilled in speaking it. Both of these strategies have their advantages and drawbacks, but the important thing is to choose one and be consistent with it.
Once you figure out which language you will be speaking with your child, the most important thing you can do is to read aloud with them. As little as fifteen minutes a day can form the habit of reading independently, as well as create a strong foundation of speaking and listening in the minority language. Picture books, storybooks, fairytales, or poetry are all fair game — anything to teach your child a love of reading that will encourage them to keep reading without you! Other bilingual activities you can perform with your child include board games, looking through old family photos, visiting the zoo or aquarium (which provides a great opportunity for practicing animal words,) a trip to the park or an art museum, writing stories, performing puppet shows—basically anything you can imagine can be used to engage in speaking and language practice.
The more your child is immersed in the target language, the better, so if you can find opportunities to have them interact with people other than you and your partner, that would be ideal. One way to do this is to send your child to an immersion school, or to hire an au pair who speaks the target language. Of course, both of these can get expensive, so more realistic options may be to hire a high school or college student fluent in the target language to converse with your child, or to enroll him or her in an international pen pal program.
Raising a child to be bilingual is certainly a challenge for everyone involved, and it takes a great amount of perseverance. Be sure to keep your goals realistic and remain flexible—everyone learns at a different rate, and if your child isn’t reading and writing bilingually at the age you had hoped, don’t feel defeated. They may just be demonstrating language skills at their own pace, and the important thing is to keep encouraging and interacting with them. Remember that being bilingual will provide them twice as many opportunities later in life, and they’ll thank you for it!
Is your family bilingual? Do you have any strategies that worked for you in raising your children?