Intercultural marriages and the relocation of whole families are typical scenarios that require bilingual parenting. The experience of many confirms it is neither a burden for the child nor an unsurpassable challenge for the parents. On the contrary: it is a special gift with lifelong positive effects.
Defining bilingualism is an ongoing debate; however, for most people, it simply means the ability to speak and understand two languages that derives from a bilingual upbringing and results in native-level language skills. But the exact level depends on the scenario the language learning process: through individual development, family, society, education or a professional career. That implies that one cannot only become bilingual as a child but many times also as an adult.
Due to the increasingly globalized nature of our world, the perception of bilingualism has shifted from a major challenge to a positive property. As it turned out, bilinguals not only possess linguistic skills but also the means to navigate or even bridge two worlds cognitively and culturally. There is research supporting the idea that bilingual kids develop valuable cognitive functions, such as inhibition or longer attention span. Meanwhile, it has also become clear that bilingual upbringing does no harm to children (in fact, their brain is up for such a challenge). The slight disadvantage bilinguals might have is that their vocabulary is a bit weaker than that of monolinguals, and that they might spend more time looking for words when speaking than others.
For the above reasons and sometimes even accidentally, parents around the world are raising bilingual children or want to do so. And they also want to make it right: to have the child learn both languages with equal passion and to an equal level. But how?
Regardless of whether it’s one parent speaking the minority language or two, the following is general advice that benefits the language learning process for their children:
Everyone should speak their native language
In such an emotionally loaded process as parenting, parents sticking to their native languages will be the most authentic and their children will be able to learn the right grammar structures, a great variety of expressions and cultural clues. However, certain situations might require that you speak the other language, and that’s no tragedy, either.
When learning languages, kids quickly make the distinction between the two and know in what language to use with whom. Navigating the different codes doesn’t confuse them but your inconsistency does. If you’re English, speak English with them at all times. Don’t be discouraged if they reply in your spouse’s language, sometimes it’s just a phase that will pass.
Read and make them read
Books are your support, your backup plan, your best investment in bilingualism. You can bond over books with your child, you can let them explore the written form of the language, and you can give them something fun that doesn’t look like study material.
Bilingual parenting is, after all, parenting, and as such, it requires the adults to trust themselves and their children and be patient. You will need both to make it a journey worthwhile for all of your family.
Written by Anikó Jóri-Molnár