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Raising Bilingual Children: The First Five Steps to Success

by Christina Bosemark, founder of the Multilingual Children's Association

When I was growing up, the only way to raise a truly international child was via an exorbitantly priced Swiss boarding school. Luckily, such elitism has been thrown out the window, and now parents raise multilingual children themselves. The children grow up just as world-savvy and sophisticated -- and actually know their own parents! Still for the do-it-yourselfer, a few tips can smooth the way.

The most common question people ask me is "How do I raise a bilingual child the best way?" "Easy, just talk to them!" is my tongue-in-cheek response. It seems almost impossible to imagine the baby transforming into a communicating creature, let alone one conversant in several languages. Although the miraculous progress from cooing to speech occurs in exactly the same fashion whether it transpires in one or in several languages, the practicalities are different. Here are the first steps to raising your very own polyglot tot.

  1. Family agreement: Even though agreement within the family is perhaps the most essential ingredient, I am sometimes asked, "What do I do if my partner doesn't want me speaking to our child in a language he doesn't understand?" An insecure spouse may fear being excluded from "the secret language" between the other parent and the child. Discuss and compromise. It is very important that couples find some solution that is acceptable to both parents as well as beneficial to the child.
  2. Enthusiastic, yet realistic: Once the idea of two languages has settled in, many people consider adding more. Usually the number of languages spoken within the household is enough for the child to absorb, but it's actually possible to successfully introduce as many as four languages simultaneously -- provided you can offer enough exposure and need for each one. Still, research suggests that a child needs to be exposed to a language 30% of his or her waking time to actively speak it, and since waking time is a finite quantity, so, too, is language acquisition.
  3. The practical plan: Next, you need to make sure you have a plan. Agree on who speaks what language to whom and then stick to it. There are endless variations on the two most successful language systems. The most common involves one person who always speaks to the child in the 'foreign' language. Anyone who is spending a significant amount of time with the child can function as this primary speaker. The second most common language system is where the whole family speaks in the foreign language. To add another language beyond those already spoken within the family, or if your family doesn't speak any foreign languages, you'll need to provide an outside source like an immersion program, a nanny or an au pair.
  4. Get together: Building a support network is probably the most underestimated success factor, so find others who are raising their children to speak your language. You'll benefit from their knowledge and be able to share both your doubts and your triumphs. It also ensures future play dates that will provide your child with the ultimate language teachers - other kids. Books, music, movies, and toys in your minority language are the most obvious ways to boost your child's exposure, but there is also an amazing range of other household items such as place mats, tableware, posters, etc.
  5. Be patient: Raising multilingual children requires patience, and there are going to be times when doubt sneaks in. As with most aspects of parenting, it's a long term commitment and there will be ups and downs. But remember, that's happening to the parents of the monolingual children too! Don't worry if your child doesn't speak his multiple languages as quickly or as adeptly as his peers. Instead focus upon his successes and marvel at the development of his little brain. Always praise, praise, and then praise some more! Know that when your child says, "I want a hug" in your language, you'll almost cry with pride. At that moment, it won't matter that it took some extra effort or that you had to wait a bit for the result.

And, hey, remember, you're not alone. Madonna, Andre Agassi, and Antonio Banderas are among those raising bilingual children. And if they can do it, why shouldn't you?

But, you are thinking to yourself, what about those people who say that raising a child with a second language is a really bad idea, that it will harm the primary language? Is there some truth to it? See the next article in this series: Raising Bilingual Children: Fact or Fiction? for more details.

About the author:

Christina Bosemark is the founder of the Multilingual Children's Association, your web-guide to raising bilingual children with expert advice, parent discussions, resource directory and articles. She is also mother of two trilingual daughters and co-founder of the Scandinavian immersion school in San Francisco.

Other articles in this series

Links to websites with information and advice about raising multilingual children

Other articles


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