Raising Bilingual Children: The Snags
by Christina Bosemark, founder of the Multilingual Children's Association
I speak Swedish and my husband's native language is English. When
we had our two children, we had no doubt that we wanted to raise them
with equal access to both languages. Now, years later, when I've made
promoting multilingual child-raising not just my avocation, but my
vocation as well, people ask me for the straight story, warts and
all. "What is the difference, raising bilingual children?" "What
do you wish you knew before you got started?"
It's clear to most of us that speaking multiple languages is a
good thing, and learning multiple languages in the early years is
a nearly effortless means to fluency. Your multilingual child will
have a head start in schools during a time when more and more of
them are requiring a foreign language. And once your kid knows two
languages, the move to three, or four is much easier. Counterintuitively,
the effects of growing up bilingually include superior reading and
writing skills in both languages, as well as better analytical,
social, and academic skills. Parents who are themselves involved
in high level careers are already well aware that professional
prospects abound for those with fluency in multiple languages.
Helen Riley-Collins, president of Aunt Ann's In-House Staffing
in San Francisco, who caters to many clients in high tech,
investment banking and finance, says that more than half her
clients request nannies who speak another language. "They want to
give their children a head start in business in 20 years." So,
that all sounds well and good, but what are the real drawbacks?
Delay. Multilingual children tend to speak a
little later than their peers. Although there is no solid scientific
evidence to suggest a delay in speech, anecdotally there is a real
sense among parents that multilinguals start talking three to six
month later than monolingual children. If you think about it, it
makes sense that a child learning two or more language systems might
take more time, since they are actually learning twice as many words.
But rest assured, even if your child did not walk at nine months,
eventually he ended up walking just as well as those precocious ones.
The same thing holds true for language, even when you are talking
about more than one. Guaranteed!
Mixing. Children learning two languages often
slip back and forth between them, mixing up their words. This can
disturb the parents, but can be even more alarming to the uninitiated.
No worries. This tendency will pass once the child has built a large
enough vocabulary -- around the age of four or five. Remember that the
monolingual three year old often struggles to find the right word,
and, for that matter, adults don't always find it easy to express
themselves. In some ways, the multilingual kid has an advantage --
if he can't think of the correct word in Vietnamese, for example,
then he can say it in English. While the rest of us are speechless.
Effort. Perhaps the most easily overlooked drawback to
taking the multilingual path is that it requires more effort on the
part of the parents. Raising a multilingual child is a commitment.
Much like piano lessons, you can't expect your little one to be
a virtuoso overnight. Language learning is a long-term investment
in your child and will require that you are able to provide enough
language exposure. At times, you'll probably need to boost the second
language and offer some extra encouragement. You'll need the persistence
required to keep your family language rules as consistent as possible.
But, if you can keep faith for the first four or five years while
a solid language foundation is put in place, things get easier.
Incidentally, the multilingual second child is a breeze, if your
first child was raised that way. Your first will end up doing a lot
of the work for you by simply being a natural chatterbox.
There's no doubt that multilingual children have more advantages,
but it can feel a bit overwhelming to someone already struggling with
diapers and feeding schedules; however, I have yet to meet a single
parent who regretted the decision. But, the appreciation from your
child, as usual, is probably another 20 years out.
Okay, if fore-warned is fore-armed, then what is the best day-to-day
method for raising multilingual children? Here's a hint -- since the first
five years of your child's language development is so crucial, the key to
success is closely tied to his primary environment, the family. That is
the topic for next article in this series: Raising
Bilingual Children: The Different Methods to Success
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
Other articles in this series
Links to website with information
and advice about raising bilingual/multilingual children