How to raise bilingual kids

Define your goals for your children’s language skills

What is your expectation about how well your bilingual kids should be able to speak the language? There is a big difference in whether you would want them to be able to communicate in everyday situations or whether your goal is for them to be able to read and write and also express themselves in more academic situations.

You may also decide that it is enough for your child to be able to understand a language, this is called receptive bilingualism, so not to feel left out in social situations where the language is spoken. This is a perfectly valid goal if this is what you think is doable. Your children will still get a foundation in the language which can be worked on later in life.

If you want your child to learn a second language so he or she can speak with non-English speaking relatives, or if you want your baby to be bilingual so they’ll someday be better equipped for travel, foreign language requirements in school then have a look at what mum loves best has to offer. Here is the link

Choose the family language strategy that works for you

There are several different ways for how to pass on family languages – read my previous posts on each one of them and (if you haven’t already done so) select the one which is right for you.

  • ONE PARENT ONE LANGUAGE (OPOL)

This indicates that each parent chooses one language and only speaks that language to the child.

  • Minority LANGUAGE AT HOME (mL@H):

As the name indicates, a family that uses the mL@H strategy only speaks a minority language with each other. The family’s common language can but does not have to be the native language of both parents. The mL@H system has its obvious advantages, in so far that it is clear who speaks what language to whom in the family and that there is no need for translations within the home, but you will also come across words of warning if you search for advice on mL@H.

  • TIME AND PLACE (T&P)

The T&P approach means that parents separate the languages used with the child either by time or by place (or both).

Examples of T&P where time is the deciding factor:
– use one language during the day and another in the evening
– split the languages between weekdays and weekends
– speak different languages during alternating weeks or months
Some families have found that frequent swapping between languages is difficult to keep up with and have opted for longer periods for each language.

When the place is used as the “language separator” parents choose a specific place which is dedicated to a certain language. For the child, this specific place will be the signal that it is time to switch to a different language.

  • TWO PARENTS TWO LANGUAGES(2P2L)

With the 2P2L strategy, parents are bilingual themselves and use both languages in their interactions with the children. The language choice depends on many different factors: school matters can be discussed in the language used at school, films, and books in the language they are presented in, and hobbies and sports in the language they are conducted in. The choice of language can also depend on who else takes part in the discussion and whether the family wants others to understand (or not understand!) their interactions. Both languages are used roughly the same amount of time. Being bilingual and switching from one language to another is the norm of the family, and the parents are the role models for this behavior.

Be realistic about what you can and cannot do

There is no point in making a resolution to read for X number of hours with your child if your circumstances do not allow for this. Do you have a relative who could read a book with your child over Skype? Could they make a recording of a book that your child could listen to while following the text or pictures in the book?

Instead of big resolutions, make small adjustments to your daily routines which do not require significant changes. If you feel that your child needs more exposure to your language, start by giving a “running commentary” on what you are doing, be it when you are out and about, in the shop, cooking, working in the garden or playing a game. The more topics you can bring in the better. No need to change what you do, just talk more while you do it with your child.

What has worked in the past?

When have you noticed that your child has made good progress with their language skills? Can you do more of this? Can you arrange a more one-to-one time with other speakers of the language? Would it be possible to stay somewhere where the locals speak the language? Can you find more of the type of books or comics that your child loves?

Building on what has been successful in the past is a lot easier than trying to create new routines – concentrate on an activity that you know your children will love, then incorporate the language into it. Trying to speak a language for the sake of it is rarely successful – the communication should be natural and it should “make sense” for your child.

Stick with it

Persistence and patience are the two most important virtues of parents raising bilingual children. Even when it feels that you are not making progress and are not sure if what you are doing is right, stick with it. I know from many other families as well as my own experience that not giving up is crucial – your kids WILL thank you in the end!

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