It’s no secret that we are raising Miss M to be bilingual and advocate you doing the same for your children. While in our case, our two languages are German and English, there are literally thousands of possible combinations. Before we look deeper into how to raise bilingual children, we thought we take a look at the seven reasons why we’re raising our child to be bilingual.
There was never any doubt that we would raise Miss M to be bilingual. We had both decided independently, but had never really discussed it. It wasn’t until we started to look more deeply into how we should best raise Miss M to be bilingual that we start to find more benefits to why we’re raising our child to be bilingual.
1. To enable her to communicate with family
This was perhaps the initial reason why we wanted to raise Miss M to be bilingual.
My family lives in Australia. Apart from my sister-in-law and a cousin, all of my family speak English and only English with any fluency. My Dad can speak about 10 words of German (including Kinder, Garten and Kindergarten). Mum spoke about 15 words, but some of hers were pretty situation-specific, like Blindgänger (literally blind flyers, used to describe unexploded bombs which are still frequently found in our area of Germany).
Peter’s family are German. Many of them speak English and some members of his extended family live in New Jersey. However, in order to speak to closer family members, such as Oma (my mother-in-law), Matilda needs to speak German fluently.
We want both sides of our family to be involved in her lives and not just following via Instagram. For this, she needs to be able to communicate with both. At the moment this means having the kind of one-sided kid conversations about something that happened at kindergarten or playing Barbies or dinosaurs with her, but we know this will become more meaningful as she grows.
2. To understand her culture and heritage
Language is such an integral part of our culture. Sometimes it is subtle, sometimes not so subtle. One of the reasons why we’re raising our child to be bilingual is to allow her to understand her cultures and where she has come from.
A simple illustration my show how language reflects our culture and vice versa.
In fairytales in English, the last line is normally “And they lived happily ever after.” In German fairytales, the line is “Und wenn die nicht tot sind, leben die noch heute,“ which translates to “and if they are not dead, then they are still alive today.”
This more matter of fact approach to life, even bluntness, is typically German. It is ingrained. There is nothing in the German version about happiness. Either they are dead, or they are not. Germans generally don’t like beating around the bush.
Another example is formality. In German, there is the siezen form of you, used for respect for someone in a higher position, who is older or just for a customer at the bakery or authority. When Germans try and use this level of formality in English, they will often get quite discombobulated. In English, formality is more about mannerisms, tone of voice, perhaps the use of a sir or madam. It is much more subtle, which is not something Germans are traditionally good at. It is actually quite amusing to watch.
We want Miss M to understand the differences and be confident and respectful in both languages.
We also want her to understand the local traditions and where they come from:
- to sing nursery rhymes in both languages, even if the meanings of those nursery rhymes are not pretty in either language (In English, “Ring a Rosie” is about the black plague, while Germans sing about foxes stealing geese and hunters will shoot them if them don‘t put the geese back.)
- to sing Christmas carols loudly in both languages and St Martins or carnival songs joyfully
- to understand the hidden meanings of songs she hears on the radio
to know about traditional German and Australian foods and be able to make them.
- to understand Sorry Day, Australia Day, German Reunification Day and why Germany pays so much in restitution to Israel.
Culture is more than just language, but language is a key element of it. Bilingual children have the benefit of more than one culture.
3. To boost her cognitive development
Being bilingual has been shown to be positive for cognitive development.
Studies have shown that bilingual children – providing they have reached a certain level of proficiency in both languages – perform significantly better on most measures of verbal and non-verbal intelligence. One theory is that bilingual children are better at focussing because they are constantly having to block out one language and select the words for what they want to say from another language.
However, they have also been found to be better at problems solving and generally out-perform their monolingual classmates at school across the board, including in non-language areas like mathematics. Being bilingual was found to promote enhanced mental flexibility and strong concept formation skills.
If we can give Miss M an advantage at school, that is a good reason to raise her to be bilingual.
4. For the health benefits
Another reason why we’re raising our child to be bilingual is for the health benefits, especially later in life.
Two studies have been conducted in Sweden into bilingualism and Alzheimers. The first study found that those who spoke a second language fluently would be diagnosed with Alzheimer’s on average 4 years (in age) later than their monolingual counterparts.
In the second study, which involved a greater number of test subjects, those who spoke more than one language fluently were able to postpone the effects of Alzheimer’s by an average of 5 years. Anyone who has a loved one suffering from Alzheimer’s will recognise this benefit.
These findings were supported by a more recent study that used MRI to map the brain function of bilingual and monolingual test subjects. It found that bilingualism makes changes to the brain structure that are linked to resilience against Alzheimer’s disease and mild cognitive impairment. These changes particularly affected the areas that control executive function and attention tasks.
Apparently, bilinguals also tend to have lower levels of stress or cope better with stress than monolinguals. This could even be another reason why we’re raising our child to be bilingual.
5. For the career advantage
We have no idea what Miss M will want to be when she grows up. At the moment, she normally wants to be a palaeontologist and run a dinosaur park. Who knows whether she will end up doing it.
However, both Peter and I have worked for multinational law firms. With clients and colleagues from all over the world, we understand how important languages are and how many staff are sought out specifically for their language abilities. For many, the requirement is fluency in the local language and in English, as proven at least by studies in an English-speaking country.
It is not just law firms and multinational corporations that value the language skills of their employees. Employers all over the world are now more likely to employ the candidate who is bilingual or multilingual over the one who is monolingual. Whether it is in a position dealing with tourists or just a position with foreign suppliers, customers or in a multilingual neighbourhood, or even an astronaut on the way to the space station: language abilities are increasingly valued in the workplace.
Our decision to raise Miss M to be bilingual will hopefully give her an increasing number of opportunities in the workplace later, whether as a summer job or permanent position.
6. To ensure she is curious and has an open mind
In general, bilingual children are more open-minded. They are quick to accept differences in race, ability or language as they themselves speak two different languages and that is normal to them.
Bilingual children also have improved social skills, so that they will generally make friends easily, are better listeners and will become skilled at managing conflicts at an early age. This places them in an ideal position to mediate conflicts in the playground.
In a world still struggling to find equality, raising our child to be bilingual is part of our small contribution to a brighter future. If she and other bilingual children are more open-minded and accepting, perhaps a solution can be found to some of the issues facing the world – because she is in a majority: more than half of the world speaks more than one language on a daily basis. In light of recent events, this is a very timely reason why we’re raising our child to be bilingual.
7. We want to give her the world
Our final reason why we’re raising our child to be bilingual is because we want to give her the world – literally and figuratively.
We want her to travel and see the world and learn about new cultures. Being bilingual supports these activities and can enrich her experiences as she can understand more of the language and culture.
Being bilingual has been found to make it easier to learn subsequent languages. She can choose a third, fourth or even fifth language and become fluent in those much easier than someone who is raised to be monolingual.
We want her to have friends from all over the world, from who she can learn and who will help enrich her life. Being bilingual will facilitate this development and help give her friends all over the globe.
We also want her to be able to study and live wherever she wants. Living and working in another country, such as I did in Brussels, is a great way to meet new people, expand your horizons, gain valuable professional experience and see the world. We would love for her to have this option, should she wish.
Why we’re raising our child to be bilingual
These are just our 7 key reasons why we’re raising our child to be bilingual. There are of course many other benefits to being bilingual, and research is regularly revealing more reasons.
Have you thought about raising your child to be bilingual? Are you raising bilingual children? Do any of these reasons resonate with you?
In an upcoming post, we’ll look in more detail at some of the other benefits of being bilingual. However, if you are looking for reasons in the meantime, such as to convince a reluctant relative of your decision to raise bilingual children, check out our free list of 12 benefits of being bilingual. Just subscribe to our emails and get access to this and all our other Little helpers.