Raising Bilingual Children

What is bilingualism?

True bilingualism can’t be taught; it must be experienced. Successful true bilingualism requires that both languages themselves be the medium of instruction, not just the subject of instruction.

Being ‘bilingual’ means being able to use two or more languages. Your decisions about raising bilingual children depend on your family situation and the languages you use at home.

Raising bilingual children: your family’s options

If you and/or your partner speak languages other than English at home, your decisions about helping your children learn to use your native languages will depend on your family situation.

Here are the main models for raising bilingual children.

Option 1 for bilingual children: one person-one language

If you and your partner speak different native languages, the one person-one language model for supporting bilingualism might be helpful for you.

For example, if your native language is English and your partner’s is Romanian , you speak English to your children and your partner speaks Romanian to them.

This model can work with more than one language other than English. For example, if your native language is Spanish and your partner’s is Italian, you each speak your own native language to your children at home. Your children also learn to use English at school and in the community.

If you want your child to grow up fluent in your native language, you and your partner must each consistently use your native language with your child – rather than swapping between languages. So if you speak French and you want your child to grow up being able to speak and understand French with a broad vocabulary, you’ll need to speak only French to your child.

The one person-one language model can help you both connect with your children in your own languages. Your children get to hear and speak both languages too.

It’s ideal if you both understand each other’s languages so neither of you feels left out when you speak your native language to your child.

Option 2 for bilingual children: minority language pattern

You might use the minority language pattern of supporting bilingualism if you and your partner both speak the same native language in your family home.

For example, you might have migrated from Iraq to Australia and speak Arabic to your children at home. Arabic is the minority language. Your children also go to school and speak English with their friends and teachers.

Another example is if you and your partner have hearing impairments and you’re raising a hearing child. Your child learns the minority language of Auslan at home, and English in the hearing community.

Or you might not be deaf, but you’re raising a child with profound hearing loss. Here your child is the minority language user. But you can give your child lots of exposure to the minority language by making sure your child uses Auslan with other signers in the deaf community. This will help your child feel a sense of belonging, self-worth and pride about identity.

The minority language model means that your children hear, speak and use your native language a lot at home, because you and your partner are using it.

If you feel pressure to stop speaking your native language with your children at home, it might help to know that raising bilingual children has many benefits. If your children know your native language and can use it well, it can make it easier for them to learn English as a second language.

How does bilingual education work?

The best chance for success

The best method of bilingual education “immerses” children without “submersing” them. Typical rules specify the use of many contextual clues (pictures, body language), separation of languages, and excellent coordination and planning among teachers that includes careful repetition of key vocabulary in both languages. For new children starting such a program at a later stage in their school careers, intensive tutoring is required in order to give the child a jump-start in the new language, and rigorous testing in the new language must be delayed for some time to allow the child a chance to catch up with the others (which he or she will certainly do).

Individualized learning

Many private bilingual schools give children the chance to learn at an earlier age, and at a pace that suits their individual interests, ensuring that the love of learning thrives throughout their school career.

Social advantages

Bilingual children also gain huge social advantages over their monolingual peers. These advantages are variously cultural, communication and personal. Balanced bilinguals are more comfortable in a multi-cultural environment and are more tolerant and open-minded towards people, cultures and languages. The child grows into an adult who more easily tolerates change, can instinctively attune speaking to the needs of the listener (language and vocabulary) and enjoys the confidence of being able to move freely in multiple environments.

Raising bilingual children: tips

Here are some practical tips for supporting your child’s bilingual development:

Play and games

Community activities

At home

Things to think about:

An early start - There is no “critical period” for language acquisition, as had been long believed, but there is an advantageous period for learning a new language. It is easier and quicker for a three year old to reach an age appropriate command of a new language than it is for a 13 year old. Research and experience have shown that children can enter a bilingual program any time before the age of 9 or 10 and still gain the same benefits as those who started earlier.

Age-appropriate language acquisition - You must allow two years to acquire age appropriate language skills when starting at a young age. A teenager will require 3-5 years to acquire age-appropriate language skills. Basic social competence comes quickly, but reaching native skill levels in comprehension, command of vocabulary and expression, takes an increasing amount of time the later a child enters bilingual education.

Language mixing - Very young bilingual children often mix their languages. This is perfectly normal and does not indicate language confusion. Nor does it indicate that the “primary” language is at a disadvantage. In fact, adult bilinguals also mix languages frequently – using the words that best fit the situation at hand as well as the communication needs of the listener. The child who mixes languages early during the process of becoming bilingual is using words that come easiest to his or her mind, but without regard for the limitations of the listener. Assuming that parents and teachers separate the languages, the child will learn to separate the languages and modify speech according to the communication needs of each person and situation.

Current language – ‘But my child is not already bilingual’: this is a concern expressed by many parents. In fact, most bilingual schools will take monolingual children up until primary grade 3, arranging extra support so that the children can catch up in the new language.

Too much for the child? – A bilingual education provides an interesting and valuable challenge for any child who shows normal cognitive and language development. A bilingual program is often the perfect choice for the gifted child, who might become bored in a monolingual program.

Learning difficulties – Children with diagnosed learning difficulties are usually overwhelmed when taking on the additional challenges of a bilingual education. Bilingual education is not recommended for children who have learning disabilities.