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!

 

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