Buying the Best Bilingual Book

Reading with your children is a wonderful and fun way to build language skills, and holds countless other benefits as well. Many parents raising bilingual kids wonder what type of children’s books are best for learning the minority language. There are three broad categories of such children’s books: books written originally in the minority language, translations into the minority language, and bilingual books (sometimes called dual language books) written in two languages. Each type of book has its place, is useful in its own way, and would make a good addition to a child’s home library.

Minority language books can play a key role in language learning.

1. Books Written Originally in the Minority Language

Benefits: Books originally written in the target language are great! If you are able to read a text in its original language, every bit of nuance and wordplay is available to you, and without a doubt, there are some books and poems that are inimitably wonderful in their original form. Look no further than "Jabberwocky," a poem first written in English whose gloriously unique nature can be hard to replicate perfectly in translation (though not for want of trying, and some of the efforts get quite close to the feel of the original.) Being able to appreciate the wordplay in a piece of writing that’s uniquely accessible to a speaker of its original language can help foster a positive attitude toward the minority language, because it’s like having access to a cool secret code. Another benefit is that reading books originally written in the minority language is an immersive experience in language and culture, which supports biculturalism as well.

Keep an eye out for: Poems and nursery rhymes are especially wonderful in the original language because the original rhyme structures are preserved.

2. Translations into the Minority Language

Benefits: It can be very motivating for a child to read a translation of a book they’re already excited about. For example, if a child loves Eric Carle, Dr. Suess, or Harry Potter, reading translations of their favorites into the minority language can be fun. Also, reading a translation of a beloved book means the characters and plot are already familiar, so the focus of the book can be on the meaning of the language.

Keep an eye out for: First, make sure that the quality of the translation is good, i.e. that the book makes sense and the word choice and grammar are correct. It can be helpful to browse through books at the library and use the “look inside” feature of book-selling websites before you decide to buy a book. If you are not a native speaker of the minority language yourself, ask someone who is a native speaker to help you with this task--or just bring them along with you to the bookstore! If you go to a brick-and-mortar store, be sure to call ahead and check whether they have a selection of children’s book in the language you are looking for.

Also, when working with translations, bear in mind that there are always certain turns of phrase, plays on words, references, or rhymes that simply work best in the original language. What’s more, words that are “the same” in different languages may, in fact, have very different connotations. An example of this is the different images that “una torta de mela, apfelkuchen, tarte de pomme and apple pie” conjure up in the minds of people fluent in Spanish, German, French and English respectively; a great description of the differences can be found in this response on Quora to the question, "Which is better, reading a book in its original language or reading it in my native language?"

Yet there are many timeless stories that touch upon themes that are universal to the human condition. These books are translated into languages across the globe, and that does not detract from their value. Well-translated books are an asset to your book collection.

3. Bilingual Books (Dual Language Books)

Note that sometimes books written in two languages are called bilingual books, and sometimes they’re called dual language books. So, one tip for looking for books online is that you can increase your search results by trying both search terms plus your language. You will often come up with different search results for each.

Benefits:  Getting a dual language book is like getting two books in one. If a bilingual child has important people in their life who speak only one of their two languages, either can read this book to the child.  

Seeing the text of both languages side-by-side can help children develop metalinguistic skills. It allows children to do a side-by-side comparison of the two languages and think about language on a higher level, including considering how and when language is used and the different components that comprise each language.

Discussing a dual language book in each language at different times can create an opportunity to introduce vocabulary that involves analyzing stories, which can deepen the child’s comprehension of the texts and nurture their ability to discuss complex topics in each of their two languages.

For those children who are learning a heritage language, seeing representations that reflect their at-home heritage can be have a positive impact across dimensions, including academic, social, and emotional.

Helpful links on the topic of bilingual books include:

Keep an eye out for:  Generally, it may be helpful to read the book all the way through in one language at a time in order to create a language immersion experience (although it does no harm to go back and forth between the languages). This is especially true to if you are trying to create an association of a particular person with a particular language (as in the “One Parent One Language” method of teaching language.) This is similar to the principles behind why there is no need to use simultaneous verbal translation as a teaching method.

Where can you find books in the minority language?

Your local library is often a great place to start looking for children’s books in your minority language. Check your library’s online card catalogue. If there are few choices in the language you’d like, look into whether your library is able to special order a book for you from another branch. Call local book stores, including used book stores, and check to see if they have a selection of children’s book in your target language. When looking at online book sellers, look beyond big-name websites to niche websites that specifically specialize in selling books in your target language. Another unique idea is to get your child personalized bilingual books in your minority language. These can make for interesting, fun, custom gifts.

The bottom line is that reading is beneficial to language learning and helps set your children up for academic success. Whether that involves immersion in the language and culture that the book was originally written in, or reading already-familiar plots and characters in a minority language, or even reading a book in two languages, it’s all good. Just... read!

 

***

Families who are trying to raise bilingual/multilingual children may find it helpful to create an individualized Family Language Plan with a supportive bilingual professional. If having a guide to help you navigate the ins and outs of implementing effective and realistic bilingual methods and strategies sounds helpful to your family, contact me for a 60 minute initial consultation via Skype. You can choose between The Basic or the Beyond Bilingual Consultation Package.


Why You Need a Bilingual Action Plan

One of the most common myths about bilingual kids is that they pick up languages very quickly and easily. The idea that children pick up languages “like a sponge” with small amounts of language input is one of those myths that has a grain of truth in it. Children are indeed better and faster at picking up languages than adults. Having said that, children require a lot of language input to become and stay fluently bilingual through adulthood. In an ideal world, becoming a person with native-like fluency in two languages would take about 50%/50% exposure from each language throughout childhood. In the real world, a good target for fluency is at least 30% of one of the languages. In terms of hours, that would be at least 25 hours a week of the minority language. That’s a lot of consistent language input, especially if the child attends school in the majority language.

Of course, the number of hours of minority language exposure that you choose certainly doesn’t have to be as much as 25 hours per week! The hours per week of the minority language that you want in your child’s life totally depends on your fluency goals. One thing that is clear is, no matter what your language goals, children becoming bilingual in a minority language (especially in a country, such as the U.S., where monolingualism in the majority language is the norm) doesn’t just happen effortlessly: it takes planning, and it takes resources such as time, effort, mental energy, or money. The path of least resistance is for children to lean towards speaking the majority language of their country, which means they can quickly become monolingual speakers of the majority language if given a chance. One of the best ways to set yourself up for success in maintaining the minority language is to figure out a plan that makes sense for your family, and to stick to it consistently.

Here are some questions that it may be helpful to ask yourself in the process of planning how your child will learn their minority language:

  1. What are your goals for your child’s fluency level? After all, knowing a language is not an all-or-nothing endeavor, and a wide spectrum exists between recognizing some basic phrases, total fluency, and everything in between. Would you like your child to be a balanced bilingual (i.e. equally fluent in both languages?) Would you be happy to have your child understand a basic conversation in the minority language? Would you like them to have the ability to hold conversations about everyday subjects?
  2. What language modalities are important to you? In terms of knowledge of the minority language, how important to you is their ability to understand spoken language? How about ability to speak? Is it important to you that your child be able to read in the minority language? To be able to write? How will you plan their language learning to gain skills in each of these modalities?
  3. If you are passing a heritage language down to your child, which adults in your child’s life will speak which languages to your child, and when, and where?
  4. Are all of the adult caretakers in your child’s life on board with your child learning more than one language?
  5. How many hours per week will your child be exposed to the minority language, and does that number of hours match up with your goals for your child’s fluency level across the different modalities of speaking, understanding spoken language, reading, and writing?
  6. What kind of resources are you willing and able to invest towards having your children learn more than one language in terms of time, mental energy, and money?
  7. In what situations, if any, will your child NEED to use the language? Will there ever be times when your child is immersed in the minority language?
  8. Are you prepared for potential naysayers? What might you say to them? It can be very helpful to be armed with facts about what typical bilingual childhood speech/language development looks like, to know the truth behind the most common myths about bilingualism, and to be able to give fact-based answers to questions such as “won’t kids get confused?
  9. How can you tailor your child’s learning a minority language so that it takes into account their interests and suits their learning style?
  10. Do you know what your local resources are for your minority language (such as local dual language schools, after school programs, classes, or playgroups)?
  11. For those with older children: How does your child feel about learning another language?

Every family’s language situation has countless unique variables that are best taken into account when creating a plan of action for raising multilingual kids. It’s not always easy to sort through all of these variables to create your family’s ideal language plan all on your own, so if you have any questions or if you feel stuck, don’t hesitate to reach out to a language professional for support in creating your plan. Then, last but not least, go forth and put that language plan into action!

 


4 Must-Know Aspects of How Bilingual Kids Learn Language

The speech and language development paths of monolingual and bilingual children have more in common than not. Bilingual and monolingual children generally experience the same major speech and language milestones. These include starting to babble, saying their first words, starting to form sentences, and being able to tell a complete story.

Still, there are a few unique aspects of language development for children growing up with more than one language. Not all bilingual children experience the language aspects discussed here, but the following four are common enough to keep an eye out for. It can be helpful for parents to know that these aspects can be a typical part of healthy bilingual language development.

Before delving into those unique aspects, though, it may be helpful to have a point of reference for speech and language milestones common to all children. If you wish to take a closer looking at those, there are lots of resources out there for general speech and language development. Here are a couple of good links with accurate information:

Aspect of Bilingual Development #1: Crosslinguistic Influence

The consensus of researchers in the field of bilingual language acquisition is that each language develops separately; children distinguish between their two languages from the start. Yet, the child’s two language systems are not completely sealed off from each other; at times, you can see crosslinguistic influence in a bilingual child’s speech.

Crosslinguistic influence is when a person communicates in one language, and their speech shows features (e.g., grammar, syntax, pronunciation, etc.) of another language they know. It can occur in bilingual speakers of any age, whether an adult learning a new language, or a child being raised with two languages. Crosslinguistic influence occurs in some, but not all, kids during typical bilingual language development.

To illustrate, let's consider an example using Spanish and English. (Note that this particular example happens to pertain to grammar, but crosslinguistic influence can manifest in any aspect of language.) In English, an adjective comes before a noun, whereas in Spanish, most adjectives (including colors) come after the noun. So, someone whose dominant language is Spanish may say “the car red” instead of “the red car” because that reflects the correct word order in Spanish (el coche rojo). When young bilingual children do this, it’s important to understand it as part of exploring and sorting out the grammar of their languages. Indeed, monolingual children make grammatical errors when learning language too (for instance, a monolingual toddler might say “me want truck” as a phase before they learn to say “I want the truck.”). Young children make mistakes as they sort through the system of systems of grammar that they’ve heard. Sometimes, when bilingual children make errors that have elements of crosslinguistic influence, it’s unfairly interpreted through a negative lens as a sign of “confusion”. Yet, a bilingual child making such an error should be no more cause for concern than the example just given of a monolingual child making an error. For parents wondering how to address this, you can continue the conversation including a model of the form you’d like them to use. For example, if your child says “I want the car red,” you can say “here is the red car you wanted” as you hand it to them.

Aspect of Bilingual Development #2: Silent period

Sometimes, when a child is introduced to a second language—especially when they are suddenly immersed, like starting school in a language that’s new to them—they may speak very little, or not at all, for a certain period of time. This is called a silent period of second language acquisition. Not all children go through this phase, and, for those who do, there’s no set amount of time that this period will last. Older children tend to have shorter silent periods than younger children. An older child may have a silent period of several weeks or months, whereas a younger child may not speak the less familiar language for up to six months.

For the children who go through this phase, being silent for a period of time is a response to the situation of being immersed in their new (or non-dominant) language. The silent period allows them to focus on listening, understanding, and absorbing vocabulary, grammar, and structure until they are ready to produce the language themselves. In this situation, the child’s period of silence in their non-dominant language environment then evolves to imitating the speech of others, copying words, copying phrases, quietly producing their own phrases, and, finally, speaking normally. Silent periods that occur as a stage of second language acquisition go away on their own.

If you have concerns about the amount of time that your child has been silent, especially if the child is making no movement over time in the direction of absorbing more and more of their new languages, or if the silence appears to be coupled with anxiety, reach out to an experienced Speech-Language Pathologist for an evaluation. Causes that may merit professional help include selective mutism, anxiety, and medical issues.

Aspect of Bilingual Development #3: Mixing Languages

Mixing grammar and vocabulary from two languages in one sentence is a common and normal stage in bilingual language development. This phenomenon is usually seen in children between the ages of two to four years old. This is a topic I’ve addressed in previous blog posts: How to Raise a Bilingual Child and Dispelling Confusion about Bilingual Confusion.

On the surface, using two languages in one sentence may sound like a child is getting “mixed up” or “confused”, but the reality is more complex. Mixing languages allows children to fill in gaps in their still-developing ability to communicate precisely what they want to say. They are temporarily leaning on their knowledge of one language while working to master the second. After the developmental phase of language mixing, children will be able to switch between speaking each language one at a time without mixing words.

Interestingly, language mixing is not only a phase of typical bilingual language development, but it is also something that bilingual adults may do with other bilingual speakers of their languages. They do this for a variety of reasons, including to fit in, share secrets, or make a point that can only be conveyed perfectly in the other language. Going back and forth between languages is something that doesn’t disappear forever. Rather, as kids grow older, it transforms into an intentional act only done with certain conversation partners or in certain settings.

Aspect of Bilingual Development #4: Language Dominance Shift To Majority Language

Imagine a little girl, Isabella, who has been exposed mostly to Spanish since birth from her parents and grandparents at home, and Spanish is her dominant language. She starts school and is immersed in English for much of the week. As expected, within a few months, Isabella’s language dominance shifts from Spanish to English. At home, she begins mostly responding to her parents and grandparents in English. Since her family understands her in English, and English is a bit easier for her to speak now, she resists her family members’ requests for her to respond in Spanish. Her parents want her to maintain her Spanish skills, but aren’t sure how to proceed.

I often hear from parents who are disheartened that, after years of putting in effort to make sure their child gets plenty of exposure to their heritage language, they have started to face a situation like Isabella's family faces. It may be helpful to know that a shift in language dominance is nearly unavoidable when raising a child in a country (such as the U.S.) where monolingualism in the majority language is the norm. This dominance shift does not mean that your child has lost their heritage language forever, and it does not mean that all the energy that has been put into giving them opportunities to hear the minority language has been for naught. Certainly, it doesn't mean the parents have done anything wrong. It is a case where it is more helpful to prepare than to despair.

Advice for parents who wish to maintain the heritage language includes:

  • Learn about what’s typical for bilingual language development so that you won’t be caught by surprise by any bumps in the road. (Reading this blog post is a good start!)
  • Don’t be discouraged. Persist in speaking the heritage language to your child, and continue with all the usual ways you’ve exposed your child to your language, even if they reply to you in English/the majority language of your country.
  • Find opportunities where your child has a need to speak the minority language in order to be understood. The best ways to do that include making sure your child has consistent interaction with those who are monolingual in the minority language, or having your child be involved with a regular class or program that is conducted in the minority language. More tips for maintaining a minority language can be found on a previous blog post, How to Raise a Bilingual Child.

The four aspects outlined here are not indicators of a language disorder, but rather, are simply language differences that are expected in healthy bilingual language development. Such differences can sometimes, on the surface, resemble a language disorder. For this reason, if you have any doubt or concerns about your child’s speech development, it’s important to see a Speech-Language Pathologist with expertise in bilingual issues who either speaks your language or is familiar with the proper protocol for using an interpreter in evaluating a child’s speech.

***

Families who are trying to raise bilingual/multilingual children may find it helpful to create an individualized Family Language Plan with a supportive bilingual professional. If having a guide to help you navigate the ins and outs of implementing effective and realistic bilingual methods and strategies sounds helpful to your family, contact me for a 60 minute initial consultation via Skype. You can choose between The Basic or the Beyond Bilingual Consultation Package.

 

Rare photo of a young child mixing languages

 


4 Bilingual Tips to Skip

Raising your kids bilingual in a country where speaking one language is the norm is not always a piece of cake. That’s why there’s nothing better than a good, effective bilingual parenting tip, trick, or hack to make raising a bilingual kid that much easier.

But not all tips and methods for raising bilingual kids are created equal! There are some well-intentioned tips floating around out there may be unhelpful or even counterproductive to the goal of raising kids who are fluent in more than one language. Let’s break down these 4 bilingual tips to skip:

#1: Simultaneous Translation

The Tip to Skip: Going out of the way to repeat everything twice, once in each language, as a language teaching method.

First of all, there’s nothing wrong with occasionally repeating something in both languages, and sometimes there are practical reasons to do so. For example, in families where there’s one English-speaking and one bilingual parent, the bilingual parent may need to repeat crucial information to their child in the heritage language and then repeat it to their spouse in English so everyone is on the same page. Such practical situations are not what we’re talking about here.

Why skip this tip as an everyday language teaching method?

Children prefer to listen in their dominant language. So, if they know that everything will be repeated in both languages, they will listen in their dominant language and tune out their non-dominant language. In other words, it will simply take twice as long to communicate information. No parent wants that!  

Also, while it may seem that this method would expose kids equally to each language, if every other sentence is in a different language, then kids won’t get a chance to experience immersion in the heritage language (whereas, kids generally experience plenty of immersion in the majority language of their country throughout their childhoods from school and their community.) There’s nothing wrong with simultaneous translation, but there are more effective and efficient language teaching methods out there, and having heritage-language-only conversations in the child’s life are important for maintaining the language and culture.

What is a good substitute for this method?

There are many effective methods for raising bilingual children. For example, a popular and effective method for families with one bilingual and one English-speaking adult in the home is Child-Directed One Parent One Language. For families with two parents who are bilingual in the same language, Minority Language at Home is a popular option. For more information on various methods of raising kids with two languages, please see part 2 of the post How to Raise a Bilingual Child.  

#2: Forcing the Language

The Tip to Skip: Negative consequences if a child does not respond in a certain language and/or repeat back mistakes correctly.

First of all, I understand the logic behind this method - after all, speaking a language is good practice. If families have a rule such as “minority language only in the home” and that works for them, that’s great. My recommendation here is to use environmental influences, leading by example, and nurturing the child's self-motivation to maintain a culture of responding in a certain language, rather than negative consequences to keep up that expectation. This is because if punishments are used to compel the child’s responses, this can decrease intrinsic motivation for language learning, and/or create negative associations with that language which are counterproductive for maintaining bilingualism long-term. In fact, use of any external motivators, including rewards to incentivize language use, does not serve to increase the crucial element of internal motivation, and intrinsic motivation is key for keeping up something which requires sustained practice, creativity, and long-term commitment such as gaining and maintaining a second language until adulthood.

Before delving further into this topic, some background information about typical childhood language acquisition is in order: Almost all kids raised in an English-speaking country will start preferring to speak English at some point; English will inevitably become their dominant and most comfortable language. Once it becomes easier for the child to speak English, a child will switch to answering in that language if they know they can still be understood. This is because a child’s focus is communicating effectively in the moment. This inclination to speak in whichever language comes most easily is a part of typical language development, and the most effective way to deal with it is to find clever workarounds, not to attempt a (potentially uphill) battle of wills against it.

Four important elements are required to gain and maintain a language: exposure, need, positive attitude, and fun. While requiring children to respond in a certain language, with no reason other than fear of reprisal, may increase exposure, doing so at the expense of positive attitude can end up making the cons outweigh the pros. Having a positive attitude towards a language may seem like a small, fluffy detail, but in fact, it literally helps kids remember the language!. Cultivating a positive attitude towards a language leads to long-term motivation to keep it up; creating a negative or punitive association with the language can lead the child to reject and ultimately forget the heritage language. Also, it’s not possible for a person to *force* another person to speak a certain language anyway.

What is a good substitute for this method?

First, there are ways that you as a parent can cultivate an environment where your child is expected to answer in the heritage language. Parents can consistently keep up speaking the heritage language to the child, regardless of whether the child responds in English, possibly with a gentle reminder to keep going in the heritage language if they seem to have slipped into English absentmindedly. If a child is speaking in the heritage language and they slip into English because it seems that they came across a word they only know in English, translate the word into the heritage language for them with minimal interruption to the flow of the conversation. Another way to create an encouraging atmosphere is to refrain from teasing the child if they make an error in the heritage language.

Next, remember what I was saying earlier about exposure, need, positive attitude, and fun being necessary elements in place to learn a language? "Need" is an often overlooked and undervalued aspect here, so make sure your child has a true need to consistently speak in the language. This involves regularly surrounding the child with people who are dominant speakers of the heritage language, such as relatives and babysitters. Other ways to create a need to use a language in your child’s life include video chatting with relatives who live abroad, sending children to an after-school heritage language program, or any class (art, music, dance, etc.) that happens to be in the heritage language. Likewise, try taking a family trip to an area where that language is spoken, or go places that you would attend anyways, such as a religious service, in your heritage language. Think outside of the box to put your family in situations where the heritage language is needed!

For tips on making language learning fun, such as playing games and singing songs in the heritage language, check out part 3 of the post How to Raise a Bilingual Child.

Also, some children, especially older children, may be receptive to learning about the benefits of being bilingual, for instance, having a “secret code” to speak in, or access to more music and films. This can help them understand why responding in the heritage language is so important for practice, and thus help them stick with it.

#3: Taking the ‘One Parent One Language’ Guideline Too Literally

If you’re raising your child bilingual- or even just exploring the idea - you’ve probably come across the phrase “One Parent One Language”. This is a popular method where one parent speaks English to the child all the time and the other speaks the heritage language to the child all the time (and of course, the parents speak English with each other). There is also a variant that I call “Strict One Parent One Language,” which refers to a situation where two parents are fluent in the same languages, and one parent speaks English to both the other parent and to the child all the time, and the other parent speaks the heritage language to both the other parent and to the child all the time. Unfortunately, the idea of “One Parent One Language” is often misinterpreted.

Examples of how people sometimes misinterpret “one parent one language”:

  • Taking it to mean that this is the way you must implement bilingualism, or that this is the only effective way to raise a bilingual child. The truth is, there are many potential effective methods for raising a child. (Again, for more details on different such methods, please see part 2 of the post How to Raise a Bilingual Child.) Each family has unique circumstances that would make a different method, or a combination of methods, most effective for them; that’s why it’s so helpful for some families to consult with a bilingual parenting expert to figure out a method and plan for their specific family.
  • Some parents take the phrase “One Parent One Language” to mean that if the child hears the parent speaking any language other than “their” language that it will be harmful or confusing to the child in some way. Fortunately, that misperception is completely untrue. Children are very adaptable, and they assume that whatever situation is in front of them (whether it’s monolingualism, bilingualism, multilingualism, etc.) is normal. For a closer look at misperceptions surrounding potential confusion, please see the post Dispelling Confusion About "Bilingual Confusion."

#4: Using Teaching Methods for Older Children on Young Children

The Tip to Skip: Overusing direct instruction materials (such as flashcards, language learning DVDs, and interactive language learning computer programs) as language learning tools with very young children under age five.

Why skip this tip?

Children ages birth to five learn best through human interaction and real-life situations. Also, pre-school age children and younger have the amazing ability to learn language from overhearing it (a skill that declines as children get older.) Taking all this into account, having a young child exposed to the minority language in more naturalistic settings (such as hearing caregivers speak to them or in front of them in the minority language) is the way to go, if at all possible.

Tools of direct instruction have their place, and if a child is going to, for example, be using an app anyways, it can only be a positive thing to have that app be a language-teaching one. Yet if preschool age children or toddlers are learning individual words without context and absent social interaction, it may be hard for them to effectively absorb and integrate that language knowledge. Language learning tools that involve direct instruction such as flash cards and computer programs are best for children elementary school age and up, and there’s no need to go out of your way to use them earlier than that.

 

***

Families who are trying to raise bilingual/multilingual children may find it helpful to create an individualized Family Language Plan with a supportive bilingual professional. If having a guide to help you navigate the ins and outs of implementing effective and realistic bilingual methods and strategies sounds helpful to your family, contact me for a 60 minute initial consultation via Skype. You can choose between The Basic or the Beyond Bilingual Consultation Package.

 


4 Tips for Monolingual Parents of Bilingual Kids

As a Bilingual Parenting Consultant, I help families create language plans to meet their language goals. Many families I work with have one monolingual parent and one bilingual parent, and one of the most frequently asked questions I get is, “How can I, as someone who speaks only English, be supportive of my kid becoming bilingual? Is there anything I can do to help if I don’t speak the language myself?”

The good news is, there is plenty that the English-only parent can do to be supportive. In fact, having the monolingual parent on board with the child growing up bilingual is super important for maintaining the minority language!

Many language tips out there are directed towards what the bilingual parent can do, so monolingual parents, here are some tips especially for you!

1. Actively help with minority language exposure

There are many opportunities for language exposure in addition to speaking to the child in the home. As the monolingual parent, you can take the child to and from lessons, playgroups, or storytimes in the minority language. Find great books in the child’s other language, find CDs or online song playlists in the language, or research other at-home learning materials that seem like a good fit for your child.

Take on some of the legwork in finding different language exposure opportunities. If there is no existing playgroup that’s local to you, connect with other bilingual families on social media to create one! Pick an activity that you think will be fun (such as reading books for a storytime), and offer to volunteer a space in your home and to oversee the activity, or go in with other local families on renting a space and hiring a professional teacher. It doesn’t even have to be a storytime class - any class that a child might normally attend (like music, dance, or art) can be taught in the heritage language.

If your child is going to be taking private lessons in something anyway (for example, piano lessons), find a tutor who can teach in the heritage language.

2. Accept that you won't understand everything

Perhaps in your family, the bilingual parent speaks only the heritage language to the child. If your family is doing child-directed One Parent One Language, don’t worry about not understanding everything that’s being said.

Feeling left out or jealousy is a natural, human response to not understanding what’s going on in a conversation between loved ones near us. Yet part of being on board with the project of raising a bilingual child may mean sacrificing understanding some conversations.

It helps to keep an eye on the big picture of raising bilingual kids and all the benefits being bilingual will mean for their future. Agree with your partner to keep open lines of communication about any ups and downs you both might be feeling - mutual trust and support is key. You may be surprised to find that you are both feeling similar emotions regarding the missed communication; often, while the monolingual parent is feeling left out, the bilingual parent is having feelings from their side of the situation such as guilt or missing having you as part of the conversation. Supporting each other through the sometimes-tough emotional aspects, articulating that you appreciate the sacrifices, time, and energy that each other are making, and reaffirming with each other that you are both on board with the goal of raising bilingual kids can be helpful.

Have something special that you and the kids share, just as the minority language is something special that the bilingual parent and the kids share - for example, a shared love for the same sport or same type of music, or activities you can do together, such as baking, painting, or anything else that speaks to you.

If there are practical concerns - for instance, you missed out on a crucial piece of information because it was only stated in the language you don’t know  - make sure to communicate clearly with your partner that if it’s something you need to know too, for them to please translate it for you!

3. Learn the language

Learning a language fluently from scratch is not an easy task. Fortunately, it’s not an all-or-nothing endeavor! Learn the most common household phrases (such as “let’s go” or “it’s dinnertime”) or words that are used in your home a lot - even if just to recognize the words being spoken. This can make living in a bilingual home easier for all, and therefore more feasible in the long run.

If you have the time and inclination, and wish to study the language more seriously, consider taking a class in the heritage language. Or, as a less time-consuming option, use a free language-learning app or website. Some of those apps make language learning gamified and fun, and it’s a good option if your goal is to gain some basic conversational skills, to understand some words, or learn to say some phrases.

4. Be the bilingual cheerleader

Your attitude towards the minority language will play a huge role in setting the tone for how the whole family views the other language, so encourage the rest of your family! Cheer on your bilingual partner when the going gets tough, and let your kids know how awesome and useful you think being bilingual is.

Educate yourself about the benefits of bilingualism, as well as popular myths and misconceptions about it. The benefits of bilingualism include an increased ability in multitasking skills, problem-solving skills, metalinguistic awareness, focusing in on relevant information, and filtering out unnecessary information. There are social benefits of being able to communicate with a larger number of people, plus more future career prospects. What’s more, being bilingual is a preventative factor against Alzheimer’s later in life.

Examples of common myths are listed here: http://polyglotparenting.com/blog/how-to-raise-a-bilingual-child/

If people make rude comments or state misconceptions when overhearing the bilingual parent speak the heritage language with the child, act as a buffer! Firmly defending your family’s choice to raise bilingual kids will often stop negative comments in their tracks.

In sum, you as the monolingual parent have a crucial role in raising kids to be bilingual. Raising bilingual kids is a marathon, not a sprint, and your support and understanding will go a huge distance towards helping your family on the bilingual journey!

 

***

Families who are trying to raise bilingual/multilingual children may find it helpful to create an individualized Family Language Plan with a supportive bilingual professional. If having a guide to help you navigate the ins and outs of implementing effective and realistic bilingual methods and strategies sounds helpful to your family, contact me for a 60 minute initial consultation via Skype. You can choose between The Basic or the Beyond Bilingual Consultation Package.


A Simple Music Tip for Busy Parents

Kids need lots of exposure to a foreign language in order to gain and maintain fluency, and music is a super fun, easy, and effective way to add more language into your life! You can sing songs with your child, go to concerts, listen to albums, or put on a youtube playlist of kid’s songs. Songs, poems, nursery rhymes, or really any things that rhyme are great to expose your kids to in their minority language. Rhymes make words memorable and sticky in your mind.

However, it’s not always easy to find time to serenade our kids with heritage language lullabies. For a quick and easy way to put on some background music, you can use a YouTube playlist of kid’s songs in your desired language. You can even go one step further if you really want to put it on “set it and forget it” mode so that you don't have to keep an eye whether that playlist is almost done or not: you can use an outside website that shuffles YouTube playlists (such as http://youtube-playlist-randomizer.valami.info/) and keep your chosen song list playing in random order indefinitely.

I’ve included links to youtube playlists (and their shuffle versions that play in random order on a loop indefinitely) in a number of languages here for your convenience. If you can’t find your language listed here, simply search [Your language] kid’s songs on Youtube and be sure to filter by playlist, or if you want to shuffle a chosen playlist, go to http://youtube-playlist-randomizer.valami.info/ and follow the directions from there. Now go forth and play some beautiful music!

Spanish:

Spanish YouTube Playlist

Spanish Shuffle Playlist

Russian:

Russian YouTube Playlist

Russian Shuffle Playlist

French:

French YouTube Playlist

French Shuffle Playlist

Chinese:

Chinese YouTube Playlist

Chinese Shuffle Playlist

Polish:

Polish YouTube Playlist

Polish Shuffle Playlist

Korean:

Korean YouTube Playlist

Korean Shuffle Playlist

Japanese:

Japanese YouTube Playlist

Japanese Shuffle Playlist

Hebrew:

Hebrew YouTube Playlist

Hebrew Shuffle Playlist

***

Families who are trying to raise bilingual/multilingual children may find it helpful to create an individualized Family Language Plan with a supportive bilingual professional. If having a guide to help you navigate the ins and outs of implementing effective and realistic bilingual methods and strategies sounds helpful to your family, contact me for a 60 minute initial consultation via Skype. You can choose between The Basic or the Beyond Bilingual Consultation Package.


The Key to Reaping the Awesome Benefits of Bilingualism

Recent research has revealed that being bilingual has numerous amazing cognitive benefits. When bilinguals speak one language, they are suppressing the rules and elements of their other language. This takes mental flexibility; it's essentially mental exercise. This exercise keeps your mind sharp and limber, which seems to be one reason why bilinguals have proven advantages over monolinguals in terms of ability to multitask, focusing in on relevant information, and filtering out unnecessary information. All that mental exercise and agility works as a preventative factor against Alzheimer's, too. Other benefits of bilingualism include better metalinguistic awareness (which in turn strengthens literacy skills), better problem-solving skills, the social benefits of being able to communicate with a larger number of people and fit into a larger number of environments, and more future career prospects. Who wouldn’t want all of those nifty benefits?

The key piece of information that is often missing from the discussion of these wonderful benefits is the best way to ensure such advantages. The key is additive bilingualism, as opposed to subtractive bilingualism. 

Additive bilingualism is knowing more than one language at a high level of proficiency. People who gain and maintain fluency in two languages tend to have many opportunities to use both languages in a wide variety of contexts, spend decent amounts of time using both languages, and also have an internal desire to maintain both languages.

In contrast, subtractive bilingualism is replacing knowledge of one language with knowledge of another. This can manifest as gaining skills in one language while simultaneously losing proficiency in another language. One example of how a subtractive bilingual situation in the U.S. might look: Say a family with young children moves from a non-English speaking country to the U.S., switches the household language to English. The children of the family go to school in the majority language and make friends with monolingual English-speaking children, mostly forget their first language, and they become subtractive bilinguals.

For subtractive bilingual children, during the in-between phase of their first language falling into disuse and being forgotten, while they are still learning English, they may not be able to express themselves fluently in either language. This in-between transitional phase seen with subtractive bilingualism can be frustrating for the child, and if language barriers grow between themselves and speakers of their first language, that can be a further source of frustration or a feeling of loss, in some instances.

Another benefit of additive bilingualism is that it fosters a feeling a part of two cultures, whereas subtractive bilingualism is more associated with a feeling of loss of culture.

It’s of note that one of the most persistent myths of bilingualism is that one language must always be learned at the expense of another, the assumption being that the amount of space in your brain devoted to knowledge of language is like a pie. By this way of thinking, if a person wants to give some of those brain space “pie slices” to English, they have to take pieces of the pie away from another language the person knows. Sure, language learning CAN look like this (i.e. subtractive bilingualism) but it does not HAVE to look like this (i.e. if additive bilingualism is supported.) The truth is that one language does not necessarily have to be learned at the expense of another. In terms of the brain's processing power, there is no need to sacrifice first language fluency in order to gain second language fluency. Our brains have the ability to accommodate multiple languages, and bilinguals have even been proven to have denser and more gray matter in relevant areas of the brain than monolinguals. Indeed, counterintuitively to the “pie” theory outlined above, recent research points to additive bilingualism leading to even better knowledge of both languages!

Instead of the pie analogy, it’s more accurate to view how the brain does two language as an iceberg, aka the Common Underlying Proficiency model: Skills in different languages (e.g. grammar, syntactical structures) live in the same part of the brain, reinforcing each other at the base while differing on the surface level. Increased skills in one language support and strengthen language skills in the other language.

 

Ok, so the best way to reap the benefits of bilingualism is additive bilingualism. The question is, how do you encourage additive bilingualism? The answer is to create an environment that is supportive of maintaining and gaining skills in both of your child’s languages.

Some definitions before we delve deeper here:

Majority language: the language that the majority of the people in a country speak (In the US, English)
Heritage language/Minority language: a language that is not the main language of the country one lives in

How do you create such a supportive environment? Broadly speaking, what’s needed for both of the child’s languages are: plenty of exposure, a need to use it, a positive attitude towards the language, and motivation to use it. Of course, this is all easier said than done!

Some overall guidelines for fostering additive bilingual environments:

Fill in some of the spaces of life that are normally silent with the minority language: There are countless ways to squeeze more exposure into everyday life of the minority language. Examples include playing music in the background at home, telling tall tales while doing errands with your kids, posting labels around the house in the minority language to support literacy- the sky’s the limit!

Think outside the box to find more opportunities to get lots of minority language exposure: Examples include dual language schools, weekend heritage language programs, foreign language summer camps, classes that your child would take anyway (e.g. dance, sport, art, or musical instrument lessons) in the minority language, and much more. Every family has to find the right combination of opportunities that are most practical and feasible for them. Use your imagination and you can find opportunities for language exposure that fit your family’s situation in all sorts of places!

Spend quality time with native speakers of the minority language: Whether it’s relatives, members of your community who share your heritage language, hosting an exchange student in your home, or visiting a place where your minority language is the majority language, there are many unique ways to come in contact with speakers of the minority language. If you can spend time with people who speak only the minority language, that creates a natural need and motivation for the child to use the language, too.

For more specific strategies, methods, and tips for raising bilingual kids that expand on the above ideas, see my previous post post How to Raise a Bilingual Child.

 

***

Families who are trying to raise bilingual/multilingual children may find it helpful to create an individualized Family Language Plan with a supportive bilingual professional. If having a guide to help you navigate the ins and outs of implementing effective and realistic bilingual methods and strategies sounds helpful to your family, contact me for a 60 minute initial consultation via Skype. You can choose between The Basic or the Beyond Bilingual Consultation Package.

 


Dispelling Confusion About "Bilingual Confusion"

Monolingualism may be the norm in the U.S., but throughout most of the world, kids speak more than one language.[^1] In the past few decades, research has revealed more and more benefits of bilingualism. This has contributed to a resurgence of American parents interested in supporting their children in becoming bilingual, but parents understandably still have many questions. In my experience as a Bilingual Parenting Consultant and Speech-Language Pathologist, a very common concern from parents about raising children bilingual is that the child will be “confused”. Allow me to put your mind at ease. Since different people use the word “confused” to mean different things, I’ll break the responses down into five concerns and address each one in turn.

Common fears about bilingualism:

  1. My child will not know which words belong to which language.
  2. My child will mix two languages together when speaking.
  3. My child will be generally overwhelmed by dual language exposure, negatively impacting all cognitive functions.
  4. My child will not understand that some people speak only Language A, some only Language B, and some are bilingual.
  5. My child will not know which is the “real” word for an item.

Common concern #1: “My child will not know which words belong to which language.”

Monolingual people have one language system represented in their minds. Decades ago, researchers (mistakenly) thought that bilingual children under the age of three years have one language system in their minds too, composed of a hodgepodge of bits and pieces of two languages jumbled together at random. This myth lives on today despite having been debunked by research of the past few decades. The truth is, bilingual kids have two language systems represented in their minds from the very beginning of the time they can speak, and possibly even earlier than that.[^2]

Part of the reason this myth persists is that bilingual children sometimes switch back and forth between languages (“bilingual code-switching”). Although on the surface this behavior might seem like the result of a confused child, bilingual code-switching is neither an indication of confusion nor an inability to differentiate between the two languages. Research shows that even two-year-old bilingual children from homes where one parent speaks each language have the ability to switch between their languages appropriately based on context both with familiar speakers and strangers alike.[^3]

Common concern #2: “My child will mix two languages together when speaking.”

Mixing two languages together is nothing to worry about and is not a sign of confusion. In fact, it’s a common and normal stage of a child’s language development. This is especially true for preschool-aged children, as the language mixing stage most often occurs between the ages of two and four years.[^2]

Bilingual code-switching may sound “mixed up” on its surface, especially if you yourself can’t understand both of the person’s languages. However, bilingual code-switching is a sophisticated means of language usage that goes by its own set of inherent rules and structures, and allows children to fill in linguistic gaps in their still-developing ability to communicate precisely what they want to say.[^2]

After the developmental phase of language mixing, children will generally be able to switch between speaking their languages one at a time, without mixing. It’s been proven that even kids as young as two from homes where one parent speaks each language can figure out the strongest language of an unfamiliar person they’re speaking with without being directly told, and they tend to switch languages accordingly.[^3]

If you are the parent of a bilingual kid who “code-switches” frequently and one of your goals is to minimize this behavior, one thing you can do is speak only one language at a time in the presence of your child. This gives children a clear, whole, grammatically correct language model to aspire to. It can also help the child be able to distinguish as quickly, easily and early as possible which language is which. Having said all that, it’s fine and sometimes inevitable to mix languages here and there; it is simply a fact of life in many bilingual homes. Switching between languages mid-sentence is not harmful, but speaking full sentences in one language at a time may be helpful if you have any concerns.

Common concern #3: “My child will be generally overwhelmed by dual language exposure, negatively impacting all cognitive functions.”

The incorrect idea that learning two languages exceeds children’s typical developmental capacity stems from another, underlying myth: the myth that the brain has a specifically limited amount of resources to devote to language, therefore being better at one language necessarily means being worse at the other. Half a century ago, this was a widely-held view.

What up-to-date research indicates is that learning more languages means knowing more languages. It is not necessarily true that one language must be learned at the expense of fluency in another. Current research reassures us that the human brain has enough room to learn multiple languages fluently without a cognitive burden, just as the human brain has room to allow for playing the piano well and the violin well without this knowledge being in competition with each other for space in the brain.

It’s interesting to note that multiple languages live in the same part of the brain, and not only does the brain have the ability to accommodate multiple languages, but bilinguals have denser and more gray matter in relevant areas of the brain than monolinguals.[^4]

Of course, people do not always have an equal opportunity to become fluent in two languages, just as a child may not have an equal amount of time available to practice both violin and piano. But the mental resources it takes to play violin are not separate from the mental resources it takes to play the piano. It's complementary to know both, and the knowledge overlaps in many ways. Just so with bilingualism.

Common concern #4: “My child will not understand that some people speak only Language A, some people speak only Language B, and some are bilingual.”

Here’s an example that a friend recently shared with me: She was at a playground in Brooklyn with her son. A toddler came up to her and repeatedly attempted to tell her something in Urdu. My friend does not speak Urdu, so she could not understand, and the little girl appeared frustrated.

My take is that making an incorrect assumption and then realizing they were incorrect - i.e. briefly encountering a situation that is confusing - is such an incredibly common occurrence for children that I don’t think it’s practical or necessary for parents to make it their goal to avoid or minimize such situations.

Monolingual children have to encounter potentially confusing linguistic situations along the way, too. For instance, a monolingual English-speaking child may encounter a person who is monolingual in a foreign language and have a similar moment of frustration. Another common example of language mix-ups that often happen with small children is that they overgeneralize -  for instance, they call all four-legged animals "dogs" upon first glance, or they may call all men “daddy” until they figure out differentiated words like “man”, “uncle”, etc.

Why the special concern about bilingualism? If being “confused” is so bad, why are we not at all concerned about other potential sources of minor, temporary confusion and frustration? Children will encounter tons of confusing things throughout their early years. It can be confusing that “1” and “l” look alike, and so do “0” and “O”. It’s confusing that “flammable” and “inflammable” mean the same thing. When I was a little kid, I found the concept of TV very confusing, because where did all of those little tiny people disappear to when someone pressed a button on the remote?

At the end of the day, it’s not your responsibility as a parent to shield your children from such linguistic mix-ups. There is nothing destructive about the type of mix-ups associated with knowing two languages. Having one’s assumptions or misconceptions dismantled is a constant part of learning for children and adults alike, and there’s no reason to believe that bilingualism causes a particularly insidious type of misunderstanding. In fact, on the contrary, there is a lot of evidence for benefits of bilingualism.

If you are concerned, one way to help a child understand that some people speak only Language A, some only Language B, and some are bilingual is to explicitly name the languages used and who uses them in an age-appropriate way. For example, you might tell your two-year-old, “Sweetie, Abuela understands ‘Dame el agua’ not ‘Give me the water.’”

Labeling languages can occasionally be worked into your conversations when relevant. This can be as simple as saying, “Daddy speaks English and Mama speaks Mandarin.” Or you can mention in conversation that China is a country where many people speak Mandarin, or mention that in Australia, people speak English, too. This lends a global context and importance to the language, and helps allow the child to internally organize and categorize what they’re hearing. I have heard some humorous stories where some children grow up thinking that their family speaks in a secret code that only their own family knows, and they are surprised to find out later that it’s actually a language that many other people worldwide speak!

Common concern #5: “My child will not know which is the ‘real’ word for an item.”

Kids tend to be adaptable and assume that whatever situation is in front of them is normal. For example: a child who has one parent who speaks with them in French and one parent who speaks with them in English is less likely to ponder whether that furry four-legged barking thing that likes to play fetch is “really” a dog or a chien, and more likely to unthinkingly accept that one parent calls it dog, the other calls it chien, and that’s just the way it is. Sure, someday the child may think, “I wonder why Papa and Grand-père call that thing ‘chien’ and Mommy and the neighbors call it ‘dog’”, but this need not be a moment to worry about any more than you might worry about your kids wondering someday “Wait, if penguins are birds, why can’t they fly?” It requires an explanation, to be sure, but that’s not necessarily worrisome. They can ask, and you can explain.

If you are concerned, one thing you can do is explicitly name the languages used and who uses them in an age-appropriate way, as described at the end of Concern #4 here. You can also explain that some families speak English only in their homes, some speak two languages, and some speak multiple languages.

A friend gave me another example of this type of confusion. She knew a family wherein the mother spoke Russian and the dad spoke almost entirely English plus some Russian nouns to the children, for example, “Do you want a (Russian word for towel)?” One day, their two-year-old child came home frustrated that she had asked them at daycare for a towel using the Russian word (which was the only word for towel that she knew) but no one at the English-speaking daycare understood her, making the child hesitant to use Russian at all for fear of not being understood.  

In this case, I would recommend that the family sticks to the “Child-Directed One Parent One Language” method (see image below for details.) General advice for raising bilingual kids includes speaking only language(s) to a child that you yourself feel comfortable speaking. I would also recommend that the parents discuss with her teacher how to best support her as a bilingual child. More tips on that topic in my post about “additive” vs. “subtractive” bilingualism.

In sum: the answer to "will exposing my child to two languages confuse them?" is that evidence does not support this being a concern. That’s a relief, because over half the world’s population speaks two or more languages, and hopefully most people on Earth are not walking around in a perpetual state of confusion!

***

Families who are trying to raise bilingual/multilingual children may find it helpful to create an individualized Family Language Plan with a supportive bilingual professional. If having a guide to help you navigate the ins and outs of implementing effective and realistic bilingual methods and strategies sounds helpful to your family, contact me for a 60 minute initial consultation via Skype. You can choose between The Basic or the Beyond Bilingual Consultation Package.


[^1]: Tucker, G. R. (1999) A Global Perspective on Bilingualism and Bilingual Education. https://www.ericdigests.org/2000-3/global.htm
[^2]: Paradis, J., Genesee, F., & Crago, M. B. (2011). Dual language development and disorders: A handbook on bilingualism and second language learning. Baltimore, Md: Paul H. Brookes Pub. Co.
[^3]: Genesee, F., Nicoladis, E., & Paradis, J. (1995). Language differentiation in early bilingual development. Journal of Child Language, 22, 611-631.
[^4]: Kovelman, I., Baker, S. A., & Petitto, L.-A. (2008). Bilingual and Monolingual Brains Compared: A Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging Investigation of Syntactic Processing and a Possible “Neural Signature” of Bilingualism. Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, 20(1), 153–169. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2643466/


How to Raise a Bilingual Child

As a Bilingual Speech-Language Pathologist, people ask me all the time: “How do you raise kids to be bilingual?”

The short answer is that you expose them to two languages. The rest of this blog post is just an elaboration on that basic idea.

Here are some useful definitions that are used in this post:

  • Majority language: the language that the majority of the people in a country speak; in the US, English
  • Heritage language/Minority language: a language that is not the main language of the country one lives in

In this post I will use the term “bilingualism” by default, but everything that I say about bilingualism can be applied to multilingualism, too. Also, I will refer to “parents” in this post for simplicity, but please substitute any words that apply in your situation to the key adult(s) who are part of your child’s home life. To paraphrase Tolstoy as applied to bilingual language development, “All monolingual families are alike; each bilingual family is bilingual in its own way.”

Table of Contents:

  1. Debunking Myths about Bilingualism
  2. Methods and Strategies for Raising a Bilingual Child
  3. Tips for raising a bilingual child

PART 1: Debunking Myths about Bilingualism

MYTH #1: "Bilingualism can cause a speech or language disorder or delay."

THE TRUTH: On average, bilingual children learn language on the same timetable as their monolingual peers. Bilingualism does NOT cause speech or language delays or disorders. Bilingualism does not cause any cognitive, intellectual or emotional problems. Furthermore, bilingualism does not worsen such issues if the child already has them. 

MYTH #2: “A child’s brain cannot handle two languages.”

This myth incorrectly assumes that the brain has a very limited amount of resources to devote to language, therefore being better at one language necessarily means being worse at the other.

THE TRUTH: Learning more languages means knowing more languages. It is not necessarily true that one language must be learned at the expense of fluency in another. The human brain has “room” to learn multiple languages fluently. Of course, more language input is always better. (Having said that, you don’t literally need twice as much input for two languages; more details on that later.) Not only can a child’s brain “handle” multiple languages, but bilingualism has many proven cognitive benefits. Such benefits are beyond the scope of this blog post, but look them up if you are not already aware of them!

MYTH #3: “Kids will get ‘confused’ if exposed to more than one language” or, “Mixing languages is a sign of being ‘confused.’”

THE TRUTH: Mixing two languages together is nothing to worry about. In fact, it's a common and normal stage of a child’s language development. This is especially true for preschool-aged children, as the language mixing stage most often occurs between the ages of 2 and 4 years.

After the developmental phase of language mixing, children will be able to switch between speaking each languages one at a time, without mixing them. Interesting, it’s been proven that even very young kids (as young as 2) can figure out the strongest language of the person they’re speaking to without being directly told, and switch into it.

As for the fear of confusion, let me put your mind at ease. Half of the children in the world are raised with two or more languages. I daresay that half of the world’s children are not walking around in a perpetual state of confusion!

On a more serious note, there is a potential for mix-ups when a child learns anything at all - for example, they may mix up the number “1” and the letter “l” while learning their letters and numbers - but the potential for mix-ups is part of the typical learning process for anything at all. It is harmless for children to sometimes benefit from clarification on bilingual matters (such as an explanation that their monolingual Spanish-speaking grandmother understands “Dame el agua” rather than “Give me the water.”)

For more information on language mixing (a.k.a “code switching”) in children, here’s an excellent workbook resource. It is geared towards teachers but contains very useful information for parents too.

MYTH #4: “Kids pick up new languages super easily, like a sponge.”

THE TRUTH: There is a grain of truth in this one. Children are better and faster at picking up languages than adults. Having said that, children require a lot of language input to become and stay bilingual through adulthood. To make this happen in a perfect world, their total language input from age 0-18 would be 50%/50% in each language. In the real world, however, a good target is at least 30% of one of the languages. In terms of hours, that would be at least 25 hours a week of the minority language. That’s a lot for one language if you think about it, especially if the child attends school in the majority language only. In sum, where this myth is incorrect is that it underestimates how much language exposure a child needs for fluency.

MYTH #5: “It’s too late to start with my kid, they’re too old.”

THE TRUTH: It’s never too late to start! Adults can learn new languages. Having said that, the earlier you start learning a second language, the easier it will be, because gradually over time, it gets harder and harder for people to learn a new language. People older than approximately 6 years old learn better with direct language instruction. Pre-school age children and younger are able to learn language simply from overhearing it (a skill that declines as children get older, and which adults are rarely able to do without formal, direct education.)

MYTH #6: Kids learn best the language spoken DIRECTLY to them.

THE TRUTH: Kids end up speaking best the language that they OVERHEAR the most. For very young children, that tends to be the language that the adults in the child’s home speak to each other. For school age children, their peers tend to have the most influence on their speech.

 

Part 2: Methods and Strategies for Raising a Bilingual Child

Method #1: “Two Parents One Language”

This is when both parents speak the heritage language (for instance, Spanish) to the child AND they speak Spanish to each other in front of the child. This is a “person-based method” because it involves certain individuals speaking a certain language. Children eventually pick up English from school and the community.

Method #2: “Minority Language at Home”

This is a “place-based method.” For example, if your heritage language is French, by this method, the moment you walk through the front door, it’s all French all the time.

Methods #1 and #2 give the most exposure to the heritage language and therefore the best chance of growing up to be a bilingual adult.

Method #3: “Strict One Parent One Language”

“One Parent One Language” is a popular method that you may have heard of. However, here I have broken down that concept into two more narrowly defined categories. “Strict One Parent One Language” is when one parent speaks one language all of the time, and the other parent speaks the other language all of the time. This method works best when both parents are bilingual in the same languages, but one of the bilingual adults is much stronger in the heritage language then the other adult.

For example, consider the case of two parents: Mom, who came from Russia to the US when she was 17, and dad, who came from Russia to the US when he was 6. Mom’s dominant language is Russian, and dad’s dominant language is English, although they can both understand their non-dominant language. Mom is very comfortable speaking English, but dad is not very comfortable speaking Russian because he hasn’t needed to speak it consistently since he was a small child.  This is a situation where “Strict One Parent One Language” would be fitting: the mom speaks Russian to the child and to her husband, and the dad always speaks English to the child and to the mom. The benefit of this method is that everybody speaks the language that they’re comfortable speaking, and everybody understands what’s going on.

Method #4: “Child-Directed One Parent One Language”

This method is ideal when you have one monolingual parent (for example, English only) and one bilingual parent (for example, English and Mandarin). “Child-directed” means that the bilingual person would only speak Mandarin to the child, and other person would speak only English to the child. Of course, given that one parent is monolingual, the parents would speak English with each other in front of the child.

Method #5: "Multiple languages mixed all the time"

This is not a formal method, but rather the natural state of many homes. Language mixing (a.k.a. code mixing/switching) is a very common occurrence among fluently bilingual adults.

The pros of this method is that if this is how a couple has always communicated, then it is effortless to implement, and it exposes the child to more than one language.

The main con of this method is that if the child never gets a 100% monolingual language example of the minority language, then if they’re ever in a situation where they must speak just that language, it might be hard for them to do so. This is because they will not have a clear model in their mind of the heritage language. This may cause obstacles in the child’s communication with people in their life who only speak the heritage language.

Method #6: “Time-based”

This is what it sounds like: you split up the languages by time. For example, a family might speak only English on Monday, only Italian on Tuesday, and consistently alternate each language every other day. Another example is dual language schools: They may have Spanish instruction from 8:30am-12pm, then English instruction from 12pm-3:30pm. This method also has notable pros and cons.

Pros:

  • With strict implementation, this method can lead to something close to the ideal of 50%/50% language input

Cons:

  • This method can be difficult to sustain due to its highly structured nature. For instance, some parents find it difficult to switch languages precisely by schedule.
  • The time split is arbitrary, and that makes it tough to use with very young children, who do not have a solid concept of time yet.
  • Time-based methods don't foster the same type of natural emotional connection that goes along with person-based or place-based methods, and feeling a positive emotional connection to a language is ideal for being able to retain it long-term.

So, which method is best?

This is a personal decision. The best method for your family balances the maximum possible exposure to the minority language with pragmatic feasibility. If the child’s schooling is primarily in English, then methods #1 and 2 maintained throughout childhood allow for the best likelihood that the child will grow up to be a bilingual adult due to the high input of the heritage language that these methods involve.

Part 3: Tips for raising a bilingual child

Generally, it is good to bear in mind four key components that support bilingualism:

  1. Exposure is key. This may seem obvious, in a way. I imagine no one would be surprised to hear that I’ve never been exposed to the Swedish language and, consequently, I don’t speak Swedish. However, it’s more complex than that. Ideally, a child would have 50% of their language exposure from each language throughout their whole childhood, between the ages of 0-18. It’s important to remember how heavily the scales get tilted in favor of English once the child reaches school age, assuming they go to an English-only school. Therefore, for the best chance of achieving bilingualism, it would be ideal to expose a child to as close to 100% heritage language input from age 0 until they start school, then after school starts, continue with the heritage language everywhere outside of school.
  2. It is important that the child has a need to use the minority language. For example, suppose an American child going to an English-only school has two bilingual Portuguese/English-speaking parents. Once it becomes even a little easier for the child to speak English, the child will switch to answering in that language if they know they can still be understood by doing so. A child’s focus is communicating effectively in the moment. The natural inclination to speak in whichever language comes most easily means these parents would have to go out of their way to create situations in which the child needs to use Portuguese.
  3. It’s crucial for parents to foster a positive attitude towards the heritage language, and preemptively prevent the common occurrence of children developing a negative attitude towards or rejecting the heritage language.
  4. FUN! A fun atmosphere not only supports a positive attitude towards language, but also, interesting, dynamic, fun activities often come from a wide variety of sources. Using the minority language in unique, exciting situations and places leads to more exposure to complex language, as well as a variety of vocabulary beyond hearing the usual household words over and over. Only ever hearing phrases like “Put on your shoes,” “Take out the garbage,” etc. in the minority language is not only dull, but leads to a vocabulary that is not as varied and rich as it could be. Fortunately, there are many tips for making bilingualism more fun!

Here is a compilation of some of the best language tips gleaned from many sources, including interviews with countless of my fellow bilingual parents:

Tip #1: Start early

Start with the minority language as early as possible, ideally from birth. This is because very gradually over time, it gets harder and harder for people to learn a new language. There’s no need to wait until the child starts speaking - they understand language well before they can speak. If you have a baby or very small child, narrate what you’re doing, even if you think they’re too young to answer or understand. For example, you can say in the heritage language: “I’m chopping the carrots for soup,” or “I’m putting up curtains. The curtains are orange and shiny. Aren’t they pretty?” This extra exposure to language adds up over time.

Tip #2: Be persistent

Do it even when it’s hard, even when you’re tired, even when it’s not the most efficient way to get the point across; just keep it up. Becoming bilingual is a marathon, not a sprint: keep your eye on the prize, namely the future benefits of being bilingual. After all, I have never met a bilingual adult who wishes they were monolingual! If you feel like your family has gotten off-track with language for a little while, just get right back on track and keep going. Remember that kids can quickly become monolingual speakers of the majority language (e.g. English) if given half a chance, since it is the path of least resistance. If you’re trying to raise bilingual children, you’re not just a parent, you are also a language teacher, which is often a thankless job. Also bear in mind that sometimes, being proactive and consistent means showing enough enthusiasm for both yourself AND your child.

Tip #3: Only give positive feedback

As per the principle of maintaining a positive attitude, do not give in to the temptation to tease a child about a mistake in the minority language (no matter how cute!) Also, do not give into the temptation to correct a mistakes, at least not too often. Sometimes, what you gain in language exposure from pointing out a mistake, you lose tenfold in attitude. It’s natural for kids to want to default to the most comfortable language for them, so it’s important to avoid adding an element of self-consciousness to the situation.

Resist the urge to correct, but if you must do so, simply repeat the child’s phrase back to them grammatically correctly, then continue the flow of the conversation. To give an example, if a small child is playing with baby dolls and says, “Babies is sick,” don’t correct it directly. Instead, do so indirectly by modeling the correct version: “Oh, the babies are sick. What are we going to do with the babies if they are sick?” The child still hears the right way to say it: (“Babies are…”) because you’re repeating a correct model back to them, but the rephrasing still makes sense within the conversation and keeps it neutral.

Tip #4: Explicitly name the languages being spoken at home

This will further bolster a child’s ability to distinguish between the two languages. Labeling languages can be as simple as saying “Daddy speaks English and Mama speaks Finnish.” You can mention in conversation that Finland is a whole country where they speak Finnish, or mention that in Australia, people speak English, too. This lends a global context and importance to the language, and helps allow the child to internally organize and categorize what they’re hearing. I have heard some humorous stories where some children think their family speaks in a secret code that only their family knows when it's actually a language that many people speak, such as Korean.

Tip #5: Speak in one language at a time

This gives children a clear, whole, grammatically correct language model to aspire to. It will also help the child be able to distinguish as quickly, easily and early as possible which language is which. Having said all that, it’s fine and sometimes inevitable to mix languages here and there; it is simply a fact of life in many bilingual homes. Switching between languages mid-sentence is not harmful but speaking full sentences in only one language is the most helpful. Note that intentional simultaneous interpretation (saying the same thing in one language, then another) is not recommended as a method of teaching two languages, because children end up simply listening in their stronger language and disregarding the other language.

Tip #6: Read books and stories in the heritage language

reading books

Literacy is an important dimension of language learning.  To make reading even more interesting, tailor it to your children’s interests. If your kids like comic books, find them some in the heritage language. You could subscribe to magazines in the heritage language. Something about the novelty of getting snail mail and having something they’ve never seen or read before is fun, and the pictures support understanding of the words.

You could also get clever and keep certain books in the heritage language with inappropriate language around the house. One mother I interviewed did this to incentivize the older children whose interest in reading Russian had faded over the years, and it worked in that she started to notice that those incentivizing books containing “colorful” Russian language often went missing from the bookshelf!

Also note that literacy begets literacy. Literacy in your first language has transference to literacy in your second language.

There are many benefits to reading things originally written in the heritage language. It fosters a positive attitude, and can feel like a cool secret code. If you are able to read a text in its original language, you can get nuance of meaning and beauty out of it that someone who reads a translation simply can’t, which makes it special.

Translations sometimes get unfairly maligned, but in fact, they can play a positive and important role. It can be very motivating for a child to read a translation of a book they’re already excited about. For example, if a child loves Dr. Suess, Harry Potter, or Alice in Wonderland, why not get them a translation of those in the heritage language? There can be something very motivating about reading a translation of a beloved book in which the characters and events are already familiar, so the focus of the book is the language rather than the plot.

Besides books, you can also make up your own stories at home. In the stories, you can use your places and people that you know, or act out plays together as a family. Creativity only adds to the fun and interest.

Tip #7: Listen to music and watch TV in the heritage language

Music is a fun, effective way to learn language. You can listen to CDs, sing songs together, or go to concerts in the heritage language. Poems, fairy tales, or anything that rhymes is especially good because rhymes help you remember words. And if the TV is on anyway, why not make it a TV show, film, or cartoon in the heritage language?

Tip #8: Play games in the heritage language.

You can do puzzles, board games, “I Spy”, 20 Questions, storytelling games, or more. There are countless different games--be as creative as you want!

Tip #9: Have a puppet or doll who “only speaks [heritage language.]”

This tip works best with very young children. If you want to have them speak the language, take the puppet and say in a “puppet” voice in the heritage language: “Oh no! You’re not speaking [Spanish/French/etc.] … I can’t understand you!” You’ll know exactly the day that that tip stops working, because the child will tell you. “I know the puppet is you, mom!”

Tip #10: Find schools and after school programs in the heritage language

Schools in the United States are primarily English-language. Having said that, depending on your heritage language and what city you live in, you may be able to find daycares in your heritage language, dual language schools for older children, afterschool or weekend heritage language programs, or heritage language summer camps.

There are also countless other minority-language opportunities outside the home besides school or direct language instruction programs. such as heritage language playgroups, clubs, theater groups where plays are performed, conferences, and religious services. See if there are local classes that are taught in your heritage language, such as dance, gymnastics, piano lessons, tennis, drama or art – especially if that’s an area of interest for your child. These language exposures outside of the home are not only crucial for exposure of different types of vocabulary, but they also foster a positive attitude of the heritage language by demonstrating that there are other speakers of this language in their community, which aligns with a child’s natural desire to fit in. Furthermore, children meeting with other children their own age who speak that heritage language is important because once a child reaches school age, a child's peers influence how they speak more than their parents.

Tip #11: Invite people to your home who only speak the heritage language

This creates the need to speak it. It can be family, friends, foreign exchange students. If you have a babysitter or any other help in the home, consider working with someone fluent in the heritage language. If that’s not feasible, Skype with relatives or friends abroad who only speak the heritage language. If possible, go on vacation to a country where that language is spoken. For older children, see if they are interested in studying abroad, or doing a summer homestay abroad.

Tip #12: Enlist the help of older children in teaching the little ones the heritage language

Sometimes, having that responsibility can be really fun for them. Sometimes when an older child is simply more comfortable in English, they don’t even realize that they’re speaking English. What typically happens in families with several children is that the oldest child will speak the heritage language the best, the second oldest child will speak the heritage language second to best, the third oldest child will speak the heritage language third to best, and so on, because the amount of exposure to the heritage language, despite the parents’ best efforts, gets lower and lower because the household becomes more English-speaking as the older children go to school.

In conclusion: at the end of the day, none if this is that big of a deal. This should be lighthearted and joyous. There is no such thing as death by monolingualism. You can’t mess this up too badly. Have fun with it and if there’s an imperfection or some opportunity is missed: nobody is perfect, life isn’t perfect, just keep persisting.  And, when your kids grow up they’ll thank you – hopefully, in two languages!

***

Families who are trying to raise bilingual/multilingual children may find it helpful to create an individualized Family Language Plan with a supportive bilingual professional. If having a guide to help you navigate the ins and outs of implementing effective and realistic bilingual methods and strategies sounds helpful to your family, contact me for a 60 minute initial consultation via Skype. You can choose between The Basic or the Beyond Bilingual Consultation Package.