The Dos and Don'ts of Raising a Bilingual Child

K. Emily Bond

international flagsI look at my son and think, How lucky. He doesn’t have to cook or clean or do the laundry. He doesn’t even have to wipe his own butt. But what makes him really lucky is his spongy, adaptable, forever-expanding brain that is ripe and ready for picking up foreign tongues.

According to research from some very smart neurologists in London, brain images from bilingual children suggest that learning multiple languages increases the "grey matter" density in the brain. Therefore, toddlers that grow up bi- or multilingual gain cognitive advantages over their monolingual peers.

For those of you wanting to raise a polyglot of your own, here are a few dos and don’ts from Christina Bosemark, founder of the Multilingual Children's Association, co-founder of the Scandinavian immersion school in San Francisco, and mother of two trilingual daughters.

DO ...

  • Start now! Is 18 months too early to introduce another language to your toddler? No, explains Bosemark. “At birth!” is the best time to start. If you and your partner are bilingual or have different native tongues, communicate with your child early on in those languages. 
  • Be persistent. "You have to look at it from the ages of zero to 18 and ask yourself, ‘What do I need to do during this marathon?’” Bosemark says. Raising a bi- or multilingual child does have its challenges but “the kids don’t suffer ... it’s more of an exercise in discipline for parents [than it is for them.]"
  • Give them as much exposure as possible. Even if you and your spouse are strictly monolingual, exposing your children to other languages with books, DVDs, and songs is effective and fun. You could also hire an au pair or sign them up for a playgroup of Spanish-speaking (or whatever language interests you) children. Finally, if you have the option of enrolling them in a bilingual or international school, take advantage of that. Programs usually start in kindergarten, “on the late side,” says Bosemark. But see if you can find one in your area with a pre-kindergarten curriculum.

DON’T ...

  • Have unrealistic expectations. "In order for your child to have a native command of another language, they need a fair amount of exposure,” Bosemark explains. That being the case, expecting your daughter to learn four languages is probably a bit impractical. A third of her waking hours should be spent with another language in order to communicate fluently as time goes on. Her little brain is capable of picking quatre languages up, but if proficiency is the name of the game, take it easy.
  • Say "no" if he’s right. Because we live in Spain, my son has a lot of exposure to Spanish. Yet neither my husband nor I say agua. We say water. Our son doesn’t say water because he has no interest in saying water. Water is agua and that’s how it is. Well, according to Bosemark, “He’s right. It is agua! And it’s water, too.” Instead of correcting him with a no, we acknowledge his correctness with a yes and ...
  • Worry! There’s a lot of anecdotal evidence out there that toddlers learning two or more languages develop slower linguistically. Bosemark says not to worry. “It’s never been validated,” and bear in mind that “they’re taking on a double load.”

They can handle it. They’re toddlers.

Image via dno1967/Flickr

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