5 key points to raising bilingual and multilingual kids
Bilinguals kids,  Parenting

Five key elements to raising bilingual and multilingual kids

We are raising Miss M to be bilingual. Over the course of our development as a bilingual family, five key points have crystallised with respect to raising bilingual and multilingual kids. Keep these five key points in mind and stay motivated.

Our goal is to have Miss M speak both English and German perfectly, naturally and without an accent. For us, perfectly means with perfect grammar. Naturally means with a natural use of expressions and colloquialisms. Many people equate natural use of language with fluently and perfect grammar. However, even though phrasing my be correct, it still may not seem natural or relaxed to a native speaker. Without accent means without the accent of a foreigner. We are of course happy for her to have a German accent in German and an Australian accent in English.

Generally, both sides of our family are monolingual, with the exception of the foreign languages they learnt at school. For my brothers, for example, this means that they can say good morning, sing a song about pizza and fries and ask for a beer in German. Other members of my side of the family learnt French or Japanese at school. In order to be able to communicate easily with her family, therefore, Miss M needs to speak their language. She needs to be able to tell her (German) Oma that her ‘Barbie-Puppe neue Schuhe braucht’(Barbie needs new shoes) and her (Australian) Grumps that she wants vegemite on her toast, please.

Miss M also needs to be able to interact with both environments. She needs to be able to communicate easily with other children at her kindergarten, so that she can play easily and happily with them. We’d like her to be able to speak equally naturally and confidently to shop assistants and doctors, for example. This will ensure that she gets any help that she may need.  As both are a part of her heritage, we want her to understand and feel at home in both cultures. Language is a big part of that.

Miss M’s language development

Initially most of what Miss M heard was in English. I am self-employed and work from home. It was therefore logical for me to stay home when Miss M was born. I spoke as much English to her as possible, and read and sang to her in English. My husband and mother-in-law took care of German. Greater exposure to English meant that her English (our minority language) came along in leaps and bounds. In contrast, her German (majority language) was limited to a few words or phrases at the start.

When my mother became ill, Miss M and I spent prolonged periods in Australia. Spending time with family and wanting to have her cousins understand her significantly increased Miss M’s fluency in English. German was more difficult to keep up while we were there. Peter was not with us for much of that time. Although rather lopsided, this development was organic.

Before Miss M started kindergarten, her (spoken) English was fluent and strong for her age. Her German understanding was high, but she avoided speaking it wherever possible.

Then kindergarten happened and she wanted to communicate with the other children. This was, I think, difficult for her at first as her German was not strong. After just over one and a half years in kindergarten, Miss M’s German has significantly improved. It is now often her preferred language. She will even speak to me German when she is thinking more about her message than how she wants to say it.

Strategy depends on the circumstances

Our circumstances are simple in comparison to many bilingual or multilingual families. I am from Australia and Peter is German and we live in Germany. We both speak English and German and recognise the importance of raising Miss M to be bilingual.

Many families are much more complicated. Parents can have two (or more) different native tongues and live in a country with a third language. Some parents will only have a third language that they both speak, but which neither of them speak at a native level. Others families will have a nanny or grandparent, who helps take care of their child or children and who speaks yet another language. Other countries or areas, such as parts of Brussels or Saarland in Germany, will have more than one community language. The combinations are endless.

Before she was born, we looked into what was the best way to teach Miss M both languages. We read various literature and I had a longer chat to my Mum about it. Mum was an educator, with a focus on early childhood, and she was a fountain of information. I also joined a facebook group on raising bilingual and multilingual children to get advice from other parents. 

There are a number of possible strategies you can take when raising bilingual and multilingual kids. We use the OPOL method, or one person one language. It suits our circumstances. Another option is to have a house language and a community language, with the ‘change’ as you leave the house (minority language at home, or MLAH). Other families will dedicate certain times, days or circumstances to a specific language, such as when certain people are present (context).

5 key elements to raising bilingual and multilingual kids

Raising bilingual and multilingual kids: The 5 key points

Our reading, discussions and experience have solidified five key points with respect to raising bilingual and multilingual kids.

1. Be consistent

Whatever strategy you choose to use – OPOL, MLAH, context language, etc. – the most important thing is to be consistent. Continually switching between languages will only confuse your child while learning. You should be consistent with corrections too. For example: if your child speaks to you with incorrect grammar or a mixture of languages, repeat their statement correctly and in one language as part of your answer. Be careful not to overdo it though, as your child my quickly become disheartened and conversations will not flow. Effort and praise on your part should be consistent, too.

2. Stick with what you know

If possible and practicable, stick with what you know.

It is generally best for the development of a child’s language if they learn it from the person who is a native speaker. This will help ensure that grammar, intonation and pronunciation are correct. That is why we chose the OPOL method: I speak English to Miss M and my husband speaks German. 

Moreover, learning is not merely language acquisition. Most parents will find it easier to sing childrens’ songs in their native language and develop a closeness or attachment to their child. Terms of endearment will be more effortless in one language over another. I know few nursery rhymes or songs in German and to sing them does not feel natural to me. Instead, I delegated this task to my mother-in-law, who can actually sing. 

Part of sharing your native language is bonding with your child. Of course, in sharing your language you are also sharing your culture . In some cases, this will involve sharing hand gestures (especially for sign language), mannerisms or language for specific relationships or situations (such as seize in German or onna kotoba in Japanese).

However, it is not always possible to stick to your native language. Sometimes the second or third language will be one external to the home that neither parent speaks. A family may also choose to teach their child a language that only one parent speaks, but not as a native speaker. This can happen, for example, when a parent has two different cultural heritages, but has only a passive understanding of one language.

If this is the case, don’t get disheartened. Sticking with what you know can also mean using the tools that you already know to acquire the new language: make the effort to speak it, listen to it and read it and ensure that it is used in your family. Be consistent in your practice and encouragement (also encourage your own development!) and use the support available.

As each family’s situation is different, it is important to keep all five of these key points and their interaction in mind.

3. Utilise the available support

Support comes in many forms. It could be a family member, or friend who speaks the language. Teachers at a language school or bilingual kindergarten, or other community groups can also be a great source of support and ideas. Community members can be particularly helpful if you are learning the language at the same time.

Even if they are far away, family members can help. My Mum selected a number of children’s books and bought two copies of them or got us to find a copy for Miss M. She would then read the books to Miss M via FaceTime. I would sit and hold Miss M and the book, so that she could see the pictures and hear my Mum reading.

Books, movies and youtube are a useful sources of language and it is easy to find things to suit all ages and levels of language development. Spotify, also, often has a huge range of resources, such as radio plays. If you can’t find something in the language you want on your local site, try logging onto the site for a country with the language you want (e.g. spotify .de for Germany). Please note: it is not enough for language development to park your child in front of a TV.

Facebook groups or other speakers of your minority language can also be great sources of support and confirmation of your approach to raising your bilingual and multilingual children. This can be particularly useful when you are faced with criticism. They are also a great source of inspiration and recommendation for books and other resources, such as homeschooling. 

4. Each child is different

Your child will develop at their own rate. Not all language acquisition and development is the same nor will it happen at the same speed. Speech delays are common in children who are being raised bilingually but this need not happen to your child. One language will likely dominate, particularly for a time, and it is also common for children to mix the languages (words of both languages in a sentence) or make mistakes, such as speaking one language with the grammatical sentence structure of another. This is all normal. 

5. Remember why you are doing it

Unfortunately, criticism can be common. Some will face criticism from a parent or grandparent who does not speak both languages and feels left out when you speak the minority language to your child. Some parents feel awkward speaking a language to their child when no one else around them speaks that language. This is often the case with babies as the conversation is rather one-sided. Your approach may also be criticised if your child’s speech is delayed or one (the minority) language is significantly stronger. 

We faced criticism from our kindergarten director because she felt that Miss M did not understand everything in German and had difficulty responding. She even went as far as to suggest that I should speak German to Miss M at home until Miss M’s German improved. No, that was not going to happen. Not only would Miss M learn my mistakes, but her English would suffer – a language that was just as important to her identity and future. We stuck it out, just increasing screen time and books in German, and a few weeks later, Miss M began to prefer German to English in her conversations with us.

Quote from Frank Smith: One language sets you in a corridor for life. Other languages open every door along the way.

For most parents, the decision to raise their child to be bilingual or multilingual is part of a plan to set up their child for a bright future. Languages open doors. Raising your child to be bilingual can increase opportunities in their career and in life. Bilingual children have been shown to be better at creative thinking and multi-tasking because they are constantly switching languages. Being bilingual has also been linked to delays in the onset of dementia and alzheimers.

Raising a child to be bilingual is also about showing your child another culture, probably your own. It is a way to ensure that your child can communicate with and get to know both sides of their family, and, by extension, both cultures. As language makes them more aware, they are often quicker to accept and approach other children of different cultures.

Keep these 5 points in mind and stay motivated when raising your kids to be bilingual and multilingual

Raising bilingual and multilingual kids is not always easy. It can be frustrating and slow and lead to criticism and doubts, especially from those who do not understand your strategy. Whether a result of choice or circumstances, the benefits can be enormous. So keep these 5 points in mind and stay motivated on your journey as a bilingual or multilingual family.

Are there any more tips that you would add?

8 Comments

  • Gloria

    Great post, we have two boys and I wanted both of them to also be bilingual. My oldest is currently in a bilingual school setting while my youngest is only taught English in school. He had a speech delay so when we would take him to therapy, it was only English and he seemed to pick it up quickly so we decided to just speak to him in English. He replies in English but at times we ask him things in Spanish and he does seem to understand. Anyway, that’s great that you want your daughter to be bilingual!

    • Rachael Matthews

      If the speech is no longer delayed, you might want to start introducing some Spanish to your youngest. If your older son has Spanish in school, he could probably read your younger son books in Spanish. Try books like “The very hungry caterpillar,” which often come in bilingual versions. I would also let them watch some things in Spanish together, so your older son can help explain what is happening to your younger one. They say that a child will learn and remember best what they can teach to someone else, so it would be helping both sons at the same time.

  • Valerie

    What a wonderful gift you are sharing with her! I live in an area where many/most people are bilingual {English/Spanish} but I am not. It is so challenging for my children {and myself} to learn a second language now. I have no doubt your child will be so grateful for this opportunity as she grows. Thank you for sharing. Have a lovely weekend.

    • Rachael Matthews

      Thank you, Valerie! Even if you are not bilingual yourself, I am sure there would be things in your community that you could use (kids clubs, language courses) for both you and your children. Kids soak up languages so quickly so it is worth using the community resources. A bilingual community is a great one to grow up in and you probably already know some Spanish just by reading it on food or shops or the like, without actively trying to learn it. Good luck!

  • Megan Kling

    We started teaching our daughter sign language as an infant and she really ran with it around her first birthday. I am trying my best to keep up with adding new signs and would like to eventually take a course myself to become more fluent myself. Its not something that I know now but I hope to learn more along side her! I have always loved the idea of a multilingual family but both my husband and I only speak English so I think that ASL is as far as we will get. I love the idea of youtube and music as an additional resource!

    • Rachael Matthews

      Congratulations on raising your child “bilingually” – sign language is definitely a language in my book. I haven’t looked at what youtube or music is around with sign language, but I know there are some sesame street skits and a lot of big concerts in the US (like Metallica) have signers for deaf members of their audience. I am sure that I have seen some videos of some of them – have a look and see if there are some for your favourite songs or musicians. If you are listening to music anyway, it might be nice for both of you to listen with the signing.

  • With My Little Ones

    This is the best gift you could ever give to your child. No matter what language and how fluent you are, it is always beneficial !!! We live in Montréal, Québec and our kids are trilinguals (English, French and Portuguese), they switch from one language to another so easily that makes me envy them a little bit! haha

    • Rachael Matthews

      Your kids are so lucky and I know it will benefit their futures! I hope Miss M will get to the stage that she is swapping languages so easily – she still tends to mix things up and uses a word from the other language when she can’t think of the word she wants quickly enough.

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