Raising Bilingual Children: Is It Too Late?

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

"After we talked, I've spoken nothing but French to my one year old for close to seven weeks now. All of his new words are French, and from what I can tell he understands me completely." Not even two months into her campaign to raise her two children speaking French as well as English, Sheilagh Margot Riordan in Forida has noticed a dramatic difference in the progress between her two children: "My three and a half year old is much trickier. Even though I speak only French to her, she replies in English, but I guess that she understands about 70% of everything I say." Frankly, Sheilagh worries that it's already too late for her over-the-hill three-year-old to become a fluent bilingual.

In our culture it sometimes feels that if you didn't spring for ballet lessons at two or violin at three, it's all over. While there's no doubt that the optimal moment to start learning languages is at birth, it's not at all impossible to achieve fluency later in life. The more language interaction you provide, the more dramatic the progress, and the easier for the child. Even older children are still kids, and they'll remain chatty and unhampered by self-consciousness. Still, transitioning into multilingualism will require motivation; here are several tried-and-true tips.

You know how when you announce that it's bedtime, your kid says, "Why?" You'll get the same reaction to your new language program. "Why do I have to say it in Korean if I know how say it in English already?" This is a fair question, and the answer needs to be either one of necessity, fun, or flattery. Not much else will fly. Here are some possible answers: "Because I/granny/everyone else here only speak Korean." "This book/this game/this song is in Korean." "Because you did it sooo well yesterday." "So you can teach it to baby Ethan when he is a big boy like you." "So you and Kim can have your own secret language."

After the explanation your next step will be to speak only in the minority language yourself (or nanny, or whoever is your child's primary language source). When you get confusion and glazed looks, translate. And, be reasonable; accept replies in the primary language when you first start out.

  • When your child answers back in the community language, say "Yes," and then repeat the sentence in the minority language.
  • If you know your child is able to say a particular word, but is struggling to remember it, jog her memory by providing the first syllable.
  • Be careful not to dampen her enthusiasm. Don't make speaking the second language an inflexible rule or something that becomes onerous. You'll just inspire revolution in the ranks. You might require adherence to the language rules you've set up if you know she has the vocabulary - just as you demand 'pleases' and 'thank yous.' For example, when you're child is asking for a glass of milk, you can require that she ask for it in the minority language. But if she's excited about telling you what happened at the circus, just listen, and then repeat it back in the second language. That way, you provide her the missing vocabulary in a positive way.
  • And, as always, praise endlessly. Even when you are providing translations or the child has just issued sixteen grammatical errors in a four-word sentence. In fact, a child simply doesn't understand if you try to correct her before the age of three. Instead, just repeat the words correctly (a process known as modeling). Alternatively, you can make a joke and say, "Oops, that came out wrong!" Laugh and provide the right way of saying it, so you keep it playful rather than corrective.

Countless parents have asked me: "So now, how do we stay firm with our language use?" Once the child has the vocabulary to understand the second language, sticking to the family language system is essential -- if you don't, you're back to square one! Just think of the things you could never let your child do, even if she begs, whines, and tantrums: things such as riding in a car without a seatbelt, not brushing her teeth, or crossing the street by herself. Don't negotiate about using the language any more than you do about these things, and she will get the picture eventually -- despite the occasional earful. Give it at least six months, and your persistence will be richly rewarded.

Sheilagh says that she realizes her trouble is well worth it and has stopped worrying about beginning too late: "Instead of looking at the things I should have done (speak French since birth), I am looking at the great achievements we have made so far."

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.

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Links to website with information and advice about raising bilingual/multilingual children

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