10 steps to raising a multilingual child
Most families that have the opportunity to raise a bilingual or multilingual child can come to a amicable agreement whether to pursue it or not. But, sometimes we are asked, “What do I do if my partner isn’t supportive of me speaking my native language to our child?” This is very sad but also understandable. There can be a fear of being left out, not knowing “the secret language”, or concerns if it’s good for baby. Many of these common misconceptions are answered on this site, as well as the key advantages you can list when arguing your case. Some brave souls keep going despite lack of support. We salute you — wanting to speak to your child in your native language is something your child will benefit from, guaranteed. And in the meantime, your significant other may well come around. Some parents go off on the other extreme and speak a language that is not their mother tongue to baby from birth, just to provide early language exposure. Luckily, most couples find a way that’s acceptable to all parties, as well as beneficial for the baby.
Some people just want to plunge into raising a multilingual baby, especially if bilingualism and multilingualism are common in their community. This lassiez-faire approach is great, as it means the parents are comfortable and committed to the concept, and this attitude promotes learning. However, for others, multilingualism can turn the prior communication pattern in the family on its heels, so it pays to be well-prepared. Also, informed parents spot warning signsearlier and know what to do when problems arise such as speech and hearing difficulties, one language lagging behind, or the child’s refusal to speak a language. Educate yourself about your baby’s language milestones, and you will no doubt marvel at these just as you cherish the first time he rolls over, sits up, and takes his first step.
What do you want to accomplish with multilingualism? Do you want to share the heritage language of your family or just help your child learn a foreign language without the necessity for study? The motivations are many and varied, but the practicalities are similar. First, how many languages you choose depends upon the practical elements in the household. For example, can someone within the immediate family provide meaningful language exposure in another language? Do you live in an area where there are plenty of foreign speakers?
Generally, the number of languages within the household is the number of languages baby gets on his plate, maybe with one extra. So, most parents who don’t speak a foreign language themselves typically don’t go beyond bilingualism for their child. On the other hand, when each parent speaks a different foreign language, they may venture for those two, the community language and possibly one more, i.e. four languages.Beyond four simultaneous languages, the success rate starts to fall significantly. Researchers claim that a child needs to be exposed to a language 30% of their waking time to actively speak it. Regardless of how many languages, you do need regular exposure and creating a need for baby to use them — plus the ability to maintain that for alt least the first five years of the child’s life. If you’re able to provide that for the languages you want her to learn, go for it!
Your family should discuss a few issues to make sure everyone is on the same page. Who should speak what language to baby? The two most common and among the most successful language systems are One Person One Language (OPOL) and Minority Language at Home (ML@H). If you have the opportunity and desire, you could add a language beyond what the family provides through an outside source like an immersion program, a nanny or au pair. This is perhaps the easiest way for parents who don’t speak any foreign languages to give early language exposure to their baby. Is there a time specific rule you’d like to apply? For example, both parents will speak the minority language during the weekend even though one parent may only be a rudimentary speaker of the language. This is a perfectly legitimate solution, as well. Actually, there are endless variations, and we have an entire section in our discussion board on this subject alone.
The ideal time to start multilingualism is even before your baby is born. Only recently, with the help of modern technology, have researchers been able to actually see what’s going on inside the head of infants. As it turns out, a baby knows important things about language even before birth, and he gains fundamental verbal skills long before he utters his first word. So, why is it a bad idea to postpone it? You could say the brain is “primed” the first three years of life with synapses at a peak, busily setting up the optimal neural pathways to mediate language. This construction of the brain’s language chip continues, but at an ever-slowing rate until late childhood. Even if you don’t start from birth, the earlier is truly easier for both you and your child. By the early teens, thebaby’s special abilities are completely gone. Besides, the younger the child, the less likely they will care about blatant errors. They’ll just happily chatter away until your ears are ready to fall off. What better learning conditions can you ask for?
Before your baby is born, everyone will have an opinion about the names you’re considering for your little one. Once the name is given, most people drop the subject. The same is true of multilingualism. Everyone will no doubt have an opinion before you start, but once you begin, they will just accept it. The best tactic is simply to not ask for support or approval from your friends and extended family. We’ve found it’s better to never open the door for negotiations — simply inform them of your decision. Most opposition you encounter can be politely ignored with a nod or a smile. You might simply say, “That’s interesting” or “That’s a good point.” If it’s someone whose opinion you really care about, gently educate them. Well-informed explanations will go a long way. Dispelling common myths on multilingualism and show them the advantages instead, should help you persuade them.
Get your support from others like you. Most things are more fun and rewarding if you share them with like-minded people. Not only do you have a peer group to discuss the art of raising multilingual children and benefit from the experiences of others, but you will build a network of other speakers of your minority language. Equally important, it gives your child the opportunity to hear, speak, and interact with other children in the minority language. This is an enormous motivator for them (this time, group pressure actually works in your favor!) And playgroups are among the best and easiest ways to do it. They may even remain friends with a few of the kids for a long time. Play friends are probably the best way to ensure continuous language exposure over the years — especially when Mom and Dad lose the coolness factor.
Having books, music, movies, and toys in your minority language is both fun and useful. There are other household items such as place mats, tableware, posters, etc. that also are helpful. Tangible items that can be played with, mouthed, and shaken will provide a more realistic reminder to your child of the language. In our product section, we have compiled a list of favorites among many parent-recommended products.
Unfortunately, there are many things that can undermine the best laid language learning strategy. The most difficult ones include divorce or loss of a parent. Less dire ones might be that your Russian-speaking nanny just quit, or your child was wait listed at the immersion preschool you had counted on. Each situation has to be evaluated, but with flexibility you can get back on track. It’s certainly not the end of the world if your child gets less exposure to the minority language for a period of time. She will remember what she has learned when you’re able to increase the language interaction again.The dangerous threshold to avoid is refusal to speak. In this situation, you’ll have to be creative and try to find increased exposure to the minority language. Or, you may have to change your goals. Is passive knowledge sufficient for now? You can still bring the language to active use later, and it will be much easier for your child than for someone without the foundation you have already set. That, in itself is a gift beyond measure. But whatever you do, keep your child in contact with the language in some way!
Raising multilingual children does require patience, and there will no doubt be frustrating times. But, of course, parents of monolingual children experience frustration, too! Don’t worry if your child doesn’t speak his languages as quickly as his friends or with the same proficiency in all of the languages. Reality doesn’t always fit our plans. Focus on the success, marvel at what your child cando, and praise, praise, praise! Remember that if you don’t try, you don’t accomplish anything. Rest assured that when your child says, “I want a hug” in your own language, you’ll almost cry with pride. At that moment, it won’t matter that it took some extra effort or that you had to wait a bit for the result.
Raising a multilingual child is an immensely rewarding experience. Many of the world’s parents are raising their children with more than one language, so go for it!