As a child of “two worlds,” you can almost say I had it easy when it came to bilingualism. It’s not likeI tried hard to learn Spanish and English. I just did.
My mother, my sister and I moved to El Salvador from Houston when I was six-years-old. My mom says that by then I was already perfectly bilingual. I don’t think she really gave it much thought at that time; I was getting plenty of English at kindergarten in Houston and playing all day with my English-speaking neighbors. The Spanish input I received from both my parents, as well as my aunt who lived with us and the large group of party-loving Latinos my parents hung out with.
The one thing my mom was very clear about was that she wanted us to attend an American school in El Salvador that followed a North American curriculum from kindergarten through high school, which meant I was completely immersed in English and only had one class in Spanish every day. Not much, right? Well, I still learned to read and write Spanish with no problems. How? Because I was immersed in Spanish the rest of the day and spoke it with my peers since it was our native language. English, being the minority language, had to be more strongly reinforced through school and activities.
The fact that it was an organic and almost unplanned process for me to become bilingual, biliterate and bicultural also made me naive as to the idea of needing to actually have a plan with my own daughter. The thought had never crossed my mind before conceiving her. Now I know how truly lucky I was to be given the gift of two languages — my mother did try for a third language (French), but I was way too necia by then!
The benefits of learning a second (or more) language at an early age include everything from increased creativity and multi-tasking abilities, to a broader understanding of cultures, and even a delay in the onset of Alzheimer’s at an older age! Not only that, but it equips children to be better prepared with the necessary 21st century skills they will need to compete and get ahead when the time comes. Who doesn’t want all these benefits for their child?
Our babies are born ready to learn multiple languages, but it takes a committed parent to give them this amazing gift no one will ever be able to take away from them.
Even if you don’t know more than one language fluently, these 10 tips will help put you on a path to raising a bilingual child.
Tip #1 — Have the whole family on board 1 of 10To raise a bilingual child, it's important that both parents are completely on board and committed to the idea. You will have to choose a method (see tip #2 for more on that) that works best for your family and you will need to be consistent with it, even when it gets tough, and it will. So knowing that this is something that's important for both of you, and knowing why it is, will make it a family mission with heart to give your child one of the most important gifts she will ever receive.
Photo credit: roshan1286 on Flickr
Tip #2 — Choose a method/develop a plan and stick to it 2 of 10Once both parents are committed and fully understand the benefits associated with being bilingual, you will need to choose a method that works best with your family and decide to stick with it. The sticking with it part is essential, so make sure you make a plan that makes sense for you. The two most popular and most effective methods are known as mL@H (minority language at home) and OPOL (one parent, one language). The mL@H method is when both parents speak the minority, or target, language at home all the time. Not only do they speak it, but they read it, play music in it, try to play movies and shows in it, etc so as to immerse the child as much as possible to the target language at home.
The OPOL method is when one parent speaks one language to the child and the other speaks the second language all the time. This one works really well only if each parent addresses the baby all the time in his or her language. The parents will have a common language between the two of them, but when they speak or read to the child, they always stick to theirs. And, no, this does not confuse the baby at all. We must give their brains a little bit more credit than that.
Photo credit: Basykes on Flickr
Tip #3 –Â It takes a village to raise a bilingual child 3 of 10The more the child is exposed to the minority language, the more fluent and comfortable he will be with the second language. Therefore, make sure you make part of your plan to involve any family members that speak the target language and can spend time with your child. If you have the means and will hire a nanny or a sitter, make sure she speaks the target language and ask her to use it with your child. If you have options around you for bilingual daycares, preschools or elementary schools, jump on those!
Photo credit: daquellamanera on Flickr
Tip #4 — The earlier you start, the better 4 of 10Children's brains are ready to absorb languages from the moment they are formed. So, don't wait for the baby to be born to speak to her in the minority language go for it and babble away to that pregnant belly. Since babies learn languages by absorbing only those sounds they hear on a consistent basis, the more you talk to her, and the earlier, the better.
Photo credit: David Salafia on Flickr
Tip #5 — Talk, Talk, Talk! 5 of 10The amount of exposure to a language does matter. The more a baby hears the sounds of a particular language, the larger his vocabulary in that language will be. Talk to the baby all the time in the minority language about anything you can ramble on about. Just make sure he's constantly exposed to the sounds of the language -- with you or a caregiver -- and he will eventually blurt out "Agua!"
Photo credit: David Salafia on Flickr
Tip #6 — Play, play, play! 6 of 10Yes, as much as talking to your baby consistently is important, so is making sure he has ample time to play and absorb himself with toys and games that he enjoys. Just make sure that most of those toys and games include the target language so that he's learning while playing the best way to learn!
Tip #7 — Travel abroad 7 of 10Not everyone has the means to travel abroad, but, if you can, it should definitely be an essential part of your raising-a-bilingual-child toolkit. Why? Because if you travel to a country where the target language is the majority, it will give your child a totally immersive experience that will add a layer of relevance to his bilingualism. She will "get" why her second language is useful and important. It will make her feel pride in being able to communicate and it will open her up to cultural bonding experiences she wouldn't have otherwise.
Photo credit: Miguel Vera on Flickr
Tip #8 — Playgroups for you and your baby 8 of 10Find a local playgroup with parents that are also raising their child bilingually in the same language as you. Not only will this be a supportive environment for you, but also for your kid that will be able create meaningful relationships with other kids his age that speak the languages he does. Good places to start looking for or put together your own playgroup are your local mom's clubs, online parenting forums, meetup.com and SpanglishBaby Playground.
Photo credit: chiste on Flickr
Tip #9 — Find a dual language immersion program 9 of 10This is probably your most direct road to bilingual success, but one that's not available to all. Dual language immersion programs are, indeed, proliferating throughout the country, thanks to the success they've had in Canada and other countries. Immersion programs start in Kindergarten -- or even earlier, if you're that lucky -- and usually carry either a 100% immersion in the target language or start with a 90/10 model where 90% of the classroom time is taught in the minority language and 10% in English. It gradually increases every year until it reaches a 50/50 model by fourth grade. Check out the directory of immersion programs available on SpanglishBaby.
Photo credit: woodleywonderworks on Flickr
Tip #10 — Read, and then read some more 10 of 10Books are an excellent way to get your kids immersed in a language and an easy way for you or a caregiver to expose them to the sounds of a language. In fact, you can start reading to them when they're in the womb and it'll be a great way for them to start bonding with your voice and with the language.
Photo credit: RuthL on Flickr
I share many more tips, anecdotes and research behind the bilingual brain on my recently published book, “Bilingual is Better.”
Buy the book I co-authored, Bilingual is Better: Two Latina Moms on How the Bilingual Parenting Revolution is Changing the Face of America.
Read more from me at
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