Advice for raising bilingual kids

Healthy babies.
Healthy babies.
Image: Reuters/Fabrizio Bensch
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The list of benefits bilingualism brings isn’t getting shorter any time soon. Cognitively bilingual people are better able to switch between tasks, have increased problem solving capabilities, and can learn a third language more easily. For working adults, bilingualism can open more doors with jobs, and for the elderly can possibly delay dementia, including Alzheimer’s.

But raising kids to speak a second language is tough, even when parents bring a heritage language into the family home. For me, growing up in English-language dominated Hong Kong, my parents had to actively help me learn their native Korean. Later, when we moved to Seoul, the challenge became helping me balance using English with friends and at school (where I spent a good portion of my time) with speaking Korean at home and in public spaces.

Whatever your circumstances, here are a few tips on helping your children grow up bilingual, based on expert advice and personal experience.

Define your goals

Did you move to a foreign country and, as an expat, are trying to help your child learn the language of your new home? Are you an immigrant parent wanting your kids to retain your heritage language? Do you want your children to read and write the language as well as speak it fluently?

Focusing on your goals and clearly defining the parameters will help you determine how much of an investment you, as the parent, want to make in teaching your children a second language.

Start early

Some experts say that language learning actually begins when the baby is still in the mother’s womb. According to research by Christine Moon at Pacific Lutheran University in Tacoma, babies recognize their mothers’ speech patterns during the last 10 weeks of pregnancy and can demonstrate those patterns once born.

But don’t fret if your child is past the infant stage. Young children can pick up on languages quickly, according to Marty Abbott, executive director of the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages. Language exposure early on (before the age of 5) can help the child develop native-like pronunciation and intonation, and early opportunities allow kids to ”develop an openness to people who speak other languages,” Abbott tells Quartz.

And even though learning a second language does become progressively harder as you get older, especially after puberty, don’t let age be a deterrent. It’s never too late to become bilingual.

Create opportunities

Whether it’s with the help of money, time, or energy, you need to actively expose your kids to people and situations where the language can be used. Find schools or daycare centers that support early language education, and if you don’t have a native speaker at home, find a tutor or babysitter who speaks the language you want your child to speak, Abbot says. Employing a sitter who can use that language while playing and doing routine tasks with your children can help your children’s pronunciation and expand their vocabulary.

For households with native speakers, consider the “one-parent-one-language” (pdf) method—where one parent speaks to the kids in their first language, while the other parent speaks to them in their second language. According to Christina Bosemark, founder of the Multilingual Children’s Association in San Francisco, children need to be exposed to a language for 30% of their waking time to really learn it, the New York Times has noted.

Positively reinforce the language

Kids are very intuitive and will pick up on the attitudes that parents and peers have toward a language. Sometimes they will deem one language as “more important” than the other based on how often it’s used by their peers, according to the Linguistic Society of America. Researchers also talk about kids picking up on a language’s “prestige.” If they think one language has a lower “status” than another, they will use it less, according to Dr. Colin Baker, author of A Parents’ and Teachers’ Guide to Bilingualism.

Parents need to show children—not just tell them—that they want them to be successful using a second language. If you’re a traveling parent, for instance, pick up a few phrases from the country you visited and teach them to your kids. This way they’ll see the value of learning a new language and won’t always expect people to speak a certain language to them.

Consistency is key

Some families have one parent who speaks the dominant language and another who speaks the “heritage” language. In these cases, it’s important that the heritage speaker be consistent. Otherwise, the dominant language can take over pretty quickly, Abbott said. If the dominant language is English, for instance, once the children realize that the heritage language-speaking parent does understand and will use English, they’ll start to slip more frequently into using English.

In my family, my mother was the Korean “heritage” speaker (my father grew up in the US and spoke English) and she would speak to me and my siblings solely in Korean. Growing up, there were many instances when I would speak to my mother in English but she would be strict and not respond to what I had said until I had repeated everything to her in Korean.

But make sure you don’t take consistency overboard and make speaking two languages a chore. If your child needs help with homework or wants to talk to you about something exciting in the dominant language, pushing the heritage language can accidentally discourage your child from wanting to speak it. Try to accommodate your children by speaking the dominant language when they really need it, but switching back to the heritage language after that task.

Make it fun and interactive

The fastest way I learned to speak Korean when I first moved to Seoul was through watching Korean TV shows with my mother. Watching TV helped me pick up colloquial phrases and conversational speech. And making this a mother-daughter activity wasn’t only fun, it also meant whenever I had questions about words and sentences I didn’t understand, she was right there to answer them.

As a family, watching TV, singing songs, and reading books together are all great ways to practice a language. Also consider going on cultural excursions, immersion programs, and family vacations involving the language you want your kids to know. (Extra points for fostering positive associations between the child and the language this way, too.)

It’s truly a commitment

More than anything, raising a bilingual child is a big commitment. As parents, you need to make the effort to speak and engage your children in the different languages, surround them with books, music, games, and TV programs, even spend money on schools and tutors. Mostly though, it’s most important to be patient and persistent. Children may not show signs of fluent bilingualism early on—and may not even see the point of it—but over time, they’ll thank you for it.