Tag Archives: language

Raising Bilingual Children

bilingualHow do you do it?

One Person, One Language: each parent or caregiver consistently speaks only one language to the child. For example, mother speaks only Mandarin to the child, father speaks only English. Or Grandma speaks only Russian while other family members use English with the child.

Family Language at Home (also called minority language at home): family members all speak their family language. The child will learn the community language later, as she goes out into the community, attending preschool, kindergarten and onward.

Foreign Language Child-Care: some families hire an au pair or nanny who speaks a different language from the family, others place the child in a child care setting where another language is spoken.

Exposure to Other Languages: some families dabble in languages, perhaps teaching the child how to count or name animals in another language. They may read books, watch videos, or sing songs in the other language, or use it in occasional conversation. They may seek out language based playgroups.

Does it work?

The key components that affect whether a child learns a language are exposure and need. Are they exposed to the language in multiple ways by multiple speakers? The greater the exposure to a language, the greater their chance of learning it. Do they need to use the language to interact with people they care about and to get what they want? This will increase the chance they will learn it

So, if you’re just offering occasional exposure to other languages, where they don’t need to use the language in return (for example, reading books or watching videos) they will likely have only a basic familiarity with the sounds of the language and the ability to say a few words.

If a child is exposed to several hours of engaged interaction each week, where they are motivated to communicate with the speaker, like at child care or via one-on-one care by a nanny or an extended family member, they may learn to carry on basic conversations.

If a child is immersed in a language for more than 30% of his waking hours, he is likely to become completely fluent in that language. Interacting with more than one person in that language will build his skills, so many parents seek out language-based playgroups, story times, and other activities so the child can interact with other adults and with other children in that language.

Some children observe closely to figure out what’s the “important language” and focus on that. For example, if they notice that Grandma speaks Spanish to them most of the time, but speaks to other people in English, they realize they can speak English with her and get the interaction they want, so there’s not a lot of need for them to learn to speak Spanish (though they may understand it well.)

Is it a good idea to start a second language early, or is it better to delay?

Parents worry that learning two languages at once (simultaneous bilingualism) will be confusing. They wonder if it’s better to wait till a child knows one language well before starting the next (sequential). Most experts say it’s fine to start from birth – it is as if the child has two “native languages.”

Babies are born with billions of neurons (brain cells). They spend the first few years of life building trillions of synapses (connections) between those cells. For language especially, these first few years are the most “sensitive period” in their lives when they are primed to learn language. At 6 months, human babies are able to differentiate between any sounds that human beings make.

But as children age, they begin to “prune” some of the synapses they’ve built. Connections that are important get reinforced, but things which they aren’t using in everyday life may get cut. So, by 11 months, a mono-lingual baby no longer hears differences that aren’t important in his family’s language. For example, a Japanese child can no longer hear the difference between ra and la, because it’s irrelevant in the Japanese language.

If a child is raised bilingual, it extends the learning and pruning period: at 11 months they can still distinguish between all sounds. By 14 months, they recognize all the sounds that are important to both their languages, but don’t distinguish other sounds.

Are there disadvantages to learning two languages early on?

If only the family language is spoken at home, and the child has minimal exposure to the community language before starting preschool or school, it’s not unusual for her to struggle a little in the first few months of school, but usually within 6 – 9 months or so, she catches up to the native speakers.

If the family speaks multiple languages, the child will of course sometimes make mistakes, like asking “Where you are?” instead of “where are you?” or calling something by the wrong name. This is not much different than the mistakes a mono-lingual child makes, like calling a cow a sheep, or saying “I have one books.” Children outgrow this. Bilingual children may also mix multiple languages into one sentence, especially when they know that the person they’re speaking to knows both languages. When they’re speaking to a mono-lingual person, they’re more likely to stay in one language.

Bilingual children may seem to know fewer words, and be slower in language development (perhaps 3 – 6 months behind peers in either language). However, if you add together the words they know in both languages, the total is almost always higher than it is for those who speak one language.

If you’re worried, here are a few red flags to watch out for: less than one new word per week (in either language) for 9 – 15 month old children; less than 20 words (in two languages combined) by 20 months; no word combinations (like ‘red ball’ or ‘give cookie’ or ‘see doggie’) by age 2 – 3 years.

Are there benefits to learning two languages early on?

Early childhood is the easiest time to learn multiple languages. Speaking the language of his heritage can help connect him to that history, and to his extended family. Knowing multiple languages can help your child in school and in her future career in our increasingly global society.

Multilingual children have been shown to be better at problem-solving – they are more flexible thinkers. They are also better at filtering out distractions and concentrating on the task at hand. Knowing multiple languages may help them feel at ease in different environments. Being aware of the need to adjust their language depending on whom they’re speaking to may increase empathy overall.

Want to learn more about language development and how to encourage it? Look here.


A Guide to Raising Bilingual Children.www.cnn.com/2012/11/28/living/parenting-bilingual-children/index.html

Raising Bilingual Children. www.linguisticsociety.org/files/Bilingual_Child.pdf

Multi-Lingual Children’s Association, a comprehensive site with lots of resources: www.multilingualchildren.org/index.html

Video: interview about raising bilingual children:

photo credit: woodleywonderworks via photopin cc

Child Development Milestones

When we look at child development, we always want to look at the whole child, not just one set of skills, so experts have divided developmental milestones into the 5 categories below.

Children develop skills on a fairly predictable timeline, but can have uneven development – for example, a 24 month old may have the motor skills we expect of a 30 month old, and the communication skills typical of an 18 month old… if you look at that same child 6 months later, they may have surged in their communication skills. Temperament and interest levels have big effects on which skills they focus most on, but parents can also ensure they have opportunities and encouragement to develop in all these areas.

It is helpful for parents to have a good working knowledge of typical development (see the resources post for great information) so they know if their child is on track, and children may also benefit from occasional screenings to make sure children are progressing well. (You can complete the ASQ developmental screening online anytime.)

Gross Motor (aka Large Motor)

These skills include: running, jumping, throwing, kicking, climbing, and dancing.

To build these skills, ensure that your child has plenty of time and opportunity to move: playgrounds, indoor gyms, hikes in the woods where they can balance on logs, going up and down stairs, tumbling on a mat. Try for a mixture of free play time where they explore movement on their own, and playing together. Kids love wrestling with parents, dancing, chasing around the house together, kicking a ball together. You can teach basic skills of any sport – just don’t expect them to follow rules yet!

Fine Motor

Fine motor skills allow a child to pick up and manipulate small objects. These skills help them to feed themselves, dress themselves, hold a pencil, and other essential skills for independence.

You can help build these skills with activities like: coloring / drawing / painting, threading beads onto a pipe cleaner, threading pipe cleaners through the holes on a colander, putting dried beans inside a bottle, taking lids on and off containers, feeding them small and slippery finger foods (like diced peaches), letting them feed themselves with a fork or a spoon, and stacking blocks.

If your child tends to still mouth small objects, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t let them use small items ever…  but you should supervise them when they play, and put small items away when you’re done.

Social-Emotional Development

These skills can be seen when your child copies your actions, notices the emotions of other people, shows empathy for others, or plays games where they are pretending to be/do something.

These skills are primarily built in interaction with others. However, children can also learn a lot about social interaction and emotions by reading books or watching TV. When you read to your child, talk about the emotions the characters may be feeling. Talk about the ways they are interacting with each other – are they being nice? Mean? How does their behavior make the other characters feel?

Language & Communication

Communication is not just saying words out loud. Especially for a young toddler, we want to know: do they seem to understand the words that are said to them (e.g. Can they follow simple directions – like ‘close the door’? If asked to point at a picture of a cat, can they do so? Do they point/gesture to indicate what they want? Do they follow your gestures? Can they name a few familiar objects?)

The best way to build language skills is to follow your child’s lead… rather than throwing language at them about what you see around you, first watch them. What are they looking at? What has their attention at the moment? Talk to them about that, giving them words to describe what they see.

Cognitive Development: Problem-Solving

This is about using tools, and solving challenges. For example, a child who sees a toy you put on the counter out of reach, then gets a stool and pushes it over to the counter and climbs up on the stool to get the toy is a great problem-solver! (And a frustrating child to parent!)

To build problem-solving skills, give them challenges: puzzles, shape sorters, tasks that require multiple steps (first you take the lid off the box, then you put the toy in, then you put the lid back on the box), sorting objects by color or size or other characteristics, and putting toys away in their proper places. Allow your child to become frustrated without always “rescuing” them from that frustration. Notice their triggers, and signs that frustration is building, and move in for a little extra support, but don’t just take over and do the task for them – they can learn through those challenges. You can sit with your child and provide emotional support for their feelings of frustration while still encouraging them to keep trying to solve the puzzle. You may suggest things they could try, but don’t do it for them.

It can be helpful to watch other children at the playground in your child’s classes to get a sense of typical development, but try not to compare your child too much to other children. They all develop in their own way at their own pace.

I still remember something that happened when my now 20-year-old was a toddler. I was very proud that they were stringing together simple 2 word phrases – ‘throw ball’, ‘more crackers’, and ‘doggy book’. Then I talked with a friend who had a child the same age… she said her child had said the day before ‘Hey Grandma, Grandpa, come downstairs, breakfast ready.’ I was devastated, feeling like there was something wrong with my child. But then later in that conversation, I shared how my child had played at the park that week, climbing up the ladder on the slide, sliding down, then climbing up the slide itself and sliding back down. The other mom sheepishly admitted that her child could barely climb on and off the couch!

That’s when it became clear that at that moment in time, my child was working on physical skills and hers was working on verbal skills. Developmental theorists will tell you it all evens out in time, and I can also tell you the same from my experience. Those two children are now a sophomore at Oberlin College and a sophomore at Reed College, and both very bright independent young adults with solid skills in all developmental areas. It all works out in the end…