Raising Bilingual Children: 10 Tips for Boosting the Minority Language
by Christina Bosemark, founder of the Multilingual Children's Association
Your toddler may think that he or she's a complete superhero --
and when it comes to language acquisition, it's actually true! Lena
Sandvik in Boston says "I'm amazed that my 15 and 11 year olds have
grown up to be completely bilingual. My accent and those silly,
grammatical errors still haven't disappeared, even after 15 years
in the country." As easy as acquiring multiple languages is for
small children, the single most important factor in language
learning is the quantity of spoken language addressed to the child.
So, if you worry that you aren't providing enough, here are a few
tricks to boost your superhero's inherent powers.
- Other kids: Join (or start) a playgroup for the
second language. Children of all ages will learn from each other;
there simply are no better language teachers than other kids. An
added bonus will be that you will connect with other parents of
- Books: Of course you know how vital those precious
one-on-one moments are, but remember that they can be infused with
language learning also. Books are the most effective tool for teaching
language, and so I advise all parents: "Start reading at birth and
never stop!" A good way to add to reading time (and make it really
personal) is to create a dialogue, encouraging your child's comments,
responses, and elaborations. Talk about what the characters are like
and what they might be doing next.
- The right stuff: From books, add video, television
and games. There are a multitude of aides towards fluency. In particular,
games that use rhyming will make the most of language memory, but
"I Spy", "Bingo" and "Memory" with picture cards will also playfully
- Sing and dance: Children absolutely love music,
but don't rely solely on recorded music; your own singing, even if it
is off-key, will still serve to unite melody and words for your child
more surely than any professional recording ever could.
Melody is also a fantastic memory aid. Think about how much easier children learn
their ABCs when they sing them, compared to just reciting them. And,
the combination of music with movement and gestures will enliven it
all - as well as provide a nice outlet for squirmy toddlers.
- Tap into their interests: Whatever your child's
enthusiasms may be -- whether a love of soccer, dance, or horses --
make an effort to 'involve' these passions in the minority language.
"My 3-year old son is a really big "Bob de Bouwer" (Bob the Builder)
fan," says Martijn Fredriks. "So now we always watch it in Dutch,
and he's even started speaking in Dutch when he plays with the Bob t
he Builder toys."
- Be creative: The trick is to give the child lots
to talk about, so draw out that conversation! Encourage them to make
up their own stories, play dress-up and pretend in the second language.
Even painting, working with sidewalk chalk, or molding clay usually
creates more vocabulary than art! Older children may enjoy calling
or using a webcam for calls overseas (one such free service is Skype).
- Outside the box: Isabella Vellaccio, a mother
in Washington DC, who reached beyond the obvious says, "I wanted my
son to hear Italian from someone else than just me, and the playgroups
were all during my working hours." Isabella decided to attend the
church coffee after the Italian mass on Sundays. "The older Italian
parishioners were thrilled to see him learn Italian." Needless to
say, with that much attention, and Italian cookies, he loved it.
- Baby sitter: Find a college student who speaks
the language, or for something more consistent, try a nanny or an
- Visits: The ultimate language boost is to visit
the country where it is spoken. Total immersion for a couple of weeks
has an amazing effect. And visits from friends or family also provide
a valuable boost.
- Enthusiasm: While the quantity of spoken language
is the most important factor in learning a language, the second most
vital ingredient is the amount of positive feedback the child hears.
Early on, when a child is struggling to get those first syllables out,
resist the urge to correct…it can actually inhibit language skills.
There is a myriad of ways to ensure that foreign language time is
"quality time," but like any other aspect of parenting: trust your
judgment, employ your imagination, and listen very, very well.
So, these are great tricks to use for children growing up with multiple
languages, but what about if you didn't start at birth? Is it worth
starting it now? Absolutely. As a matter of fact the next article in this
series is called Raising Bilingual Children: Is It Too Late?
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