Encouraging bilingual language development, August 12, 2008


I want my daughter to grow up bilingual. How do I encourage language development in two languages at the same time?

Robert's response:

Globally speaking, growing up in a multilingual environment is really quite normal, though it is perhaps less common, and certainly less encouraged, in the United States. Monolingual parents, teachers, and other adults occasionally worry that exposing young children to more than one language will "confuse" them and/or cause a delay in their language development. There is in fact no evidence linking a bilingual environment to increased risk of language delays or disorders. Children regularly exposed to multiple languages do often tend to begin saying their first words later than their monolingual peers, but not by much. When they begin to talk, they might pick one language to use at first, but they'll generally demonstrate understanding of both.

As a general rule, the two key ingredients in learning any language are:

(1) exposure, and

(2) motivation.

For young children developing language for the first time, the motivation is built in; they want to communicate with you! As for the exposure, that's what you provide.

There are a number of ways parents can provide sufficient exposure to two languages for the children to learn both. Probably the most common is the "one language per parent" model; for example, Mom speaks Spanish and Dad speaks English. My experience with children raised with this model is that the child will start out speaking the language that the parents speak to each other, which is often the dominant language of the community where they live. A couple I know in Germany (American dad, German mom) have been using this approach with their toddler son, who speaks only German but understands his dad just fine when he speaks English. He's heard his dad speaking German with his mom and others in the community, so he knows Dad will understand him when he uses German. On the other hand, he knows a lot of people in his community don't understand English, so he's figured out that the most efficient way to begin is with the language that everyone knows (at least everyone in his world). Smart kid, huh? He'll add English later, assuming his dad keeps providing the exposure.

Another approach is "one language per setting," where the parents use one language at home and another when they're out and about. I don't actually know anyone who's done this, so I'm not sure how well it works. My feeling is that it would be harder to provide adequate exposure to the "out and about" language, but that depends on the family's habits and practices. This may be a more viable option for children being raised by a single, bilingual parent.

I've also heard of other approaches that don't seem to work so well, such as switching back and forth "as the spirit leads," or speaking one language on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday and the other on Tuesday, Thursday, and weekends. My opinion about these is that they do not adequately provide the children with an opportunity to compartmentalize their languages. Most bilingual people (children and adults alike) tend to favor one language or another according to the context they're in (work versus play, for example). Children are well-adapted to spotting patterns, and an "as the spirit leads" approach does not provide a pattern to spot; going according to the days of the week probably won't work well for infants and toddlers, since the concept of a seven-day week is something that generally develops later.

If your family is monolingual, it is harder to create a multilingual environment in the early years. Hiring a bilingual babysitter who is willing to use a second language with the child can be an option if you have the means, but many don't. In that case, starting in preschool or elementary school may be possible. The older a child gets, the more difficult it is to learn a foreign language, but elementary school is still early enough for a child to develop native or near-native fluency of a foreign language. Some communities have language immersion schools for the purpose of fostering bilingualism, but in the United States these are mostly limited to large urban areas and competition for admission is pretty stiff. Unfortunately, the prevailing practice here is to wait until high school to begin even giving children the option to learn a foreign language.

Getting back to your question, the way to encourage your daughter's language development in two languages at the same time is, quite simply, the same way as you would with one language - by creating a language-rich environment. Talk to her a lot, use a wide variety of vocabulary, and provide a healthy and varied diet of communication activities. Just do it with two languages rather than one.

By raising your daughter bilingual, you are providing her with a tremendous asset and blessing. She'll thank you when she's an adult - in two languages!

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