Parents who speak more than one language in their home have been asking me lots of questions about what to expect when teaching their infants and toddlers to be bilingual. Let me translate those concerns into some helpful information about children who are raised or taught to be bilingual.
There are benefits to being bilingual. Studies have shown that children exposed to several languages are more creative and better at developing problem-solving skills. Other studies say that speaking a second language helps that child have an easier time learning other languages in the future. It may also lead to cultural benefits, such as children communicating better with relatives or making children more eager to learn about the history and traditions of their family’s country of origin. This, in turn, can help them develop stronger identities related to their cultural heritage.
So if you want to bring your children up as bilingual, I have some suggestions. First make a plan as to how fluent you want your children to be: do you want them just speaking the language, or reading and writing it as well? Once the plan is made, consistency in carrying out that plan is crucial. Studies suggest that children need to be exposed to a second language at least 30 percent of their waking time to become bilingual, but this is just a guideline and it may be more or less.
As to how best to teach a second language, there are several approaches. The most common approach is the “one-parent, one-language” technique: one parent speaks to the child in English and the other in the second language. You can also try the “second language at home” method, where children speak English when out in public or at school with others and only speak the second language when at home.
It is important to not mix two languages into one sentence or sentences, although your child may do that. If your child does this, casually correct them by providing the proper word in the language you are using at the time. You might find materials online that are fun for children to watch and learn from as well.
But does learning two languages at once delay speech development? Some studies say it may initially slow overall language development relative to single language children, but by the time bilingual children are ready to enter school, they have easily caught up in their language skills and no speech and language delay is noted.
Hopefully tips like this will not lose something in translation when it comes to considering whether or not to teach your young children to be bilingual.
Lewis First, MD, is chief of Pediatrics at The University of Vermont Children’s Hospital and chair of the Department of Pediatrics at the Larner College of Medicine at UVM. You can also catch “First with Kids” weekly on WOKO 98.9FM and WPTZ Channel 5, or visit the First with Kids video archives at www.UVMHealth.org/MedCenterFirstWithKids.