Raising a bilingual child

by | Feb 22, 2021

If you live in a household where more than one language is spoken, speech and language therapist Rhoda Naidoo has some tips on raising a billingual child.

Becoming a parent comes with many new challenges and many checklists, and language stimulation seems to be one of the last concerns. However, it is important to realise that language decisions can affect your baby for the rest of their life. Let’s delve into language development in a bilingual child.

One way of acknowledging the importance of a child’s culture and heritage is by raising them to be bilingual. Being a bilingual speaker also encourages stronger self-esteem for the individual.

Raising a bilingual child does not come without challenges, but the benefits outweigh any challenges one may face along the way.

What are some benefits?

Being a bilingual speaker comes with many advantages. Some of these include:

  • It has been found to increase brain power
  • It provides a child with an academic advantage
  • It offers increased awareness of diversity of cultures
  • It can offer competitiveness later in life, for instance in the workplace
  • It can be easier for a child to acquire a third language and improve their social life.

What’s the best approach?

Remember to speak to your child in both languages. Let him/her hear the languages being used in daily conversation, during your work interaction phone calls and written language. The more the child is exposed to both, the easier it will be for the child to grasp the grammar of the language and use it in the correct context.

So that the child does not confuse the two languages, it’s best if each adult in the household speaks one language to the child only. If you speak English and the child’s other parent speaks, say, Swedish, then you should each consistently speak your language to the child, and not mix them.

When the child does make grammatical errors or mispronunciations don’t be too harsh when correcting them. You do not want the child to feel stigmatised for making an error as this could cause them to retreat and stop using the language entirely.

Encourage every small step toward the acquisition of the language, as this will help your child to gain confidence and this will help further learning.

Some parents don’t feel “qualified” enough to teach their children their home language and that shouldn’t be a factor. Teach your child what you know and explore how to broaden both your horizons going forward. Doing this can also encourage a stronger bond with parents and their children.

Start as early as possible, however, it is never too late for a child to be introduced to another language. Therefore, if you haven’t spoken to them in a second language from birth, it can still be introduced at any stage of their life.

Above all, if a chosen method of teaching the child the language isn’t proving successful, change your method, don’t give up on the language. With technology definitely increasing in the current generation, it can also be used as a tool to assist with the language acquisition.

You may allow your child to watch videos that use the selected language. Thereafter, open up the conversation between the two of you to discuss the contents of the video. Use lots of song singing and nursery rhymes to help with learning vocabulary.

The road is long…

Reading can play a vital role as your child grows. Once they start to learn the language, you should continue reading in both languages. This will allow the child to become familiar with both languages in a written context. It is also a special time for the parent and child as the bond between them strengthens with this bedtime routine.

Although conversation can be an important way to start the journey, parents should also look at resources to encourage the learning. These resources don’t have to be expensive books, but can be free resources that can be downloaded from the internet or books from a library.

It also helps having a support system in place such as other parents who are also raising bilingual kids, grandparents and friends who may share this journey with you. That takes the load off one person and also allows the child multiple partners to acquire the language. This will also assist the child in learning different forms of how people speak that language.

Some parents would prefer that their child shows more liking for one of the languages. In that case, the language that is to receive more attention would naturally be the language that the child becomes more proficient in. It would be encouraging for parents to set aside times or family routines and activities where they use one language then have the other language for different activities.

Some challenges…

Bilingualism doesn’t cause speech delays but, in some cases, it can make a child less fluent in a one or both the languages. If this does become the case, note that it is completely normal. Some frustration may arise when you look at another child that is monolingual especially if your bilingual child seems to be struggling to learn both languages. Parents can also become disheartened if a child shows a preference for one language over the other. Another concern is most parents have busy schedules and may find the process time-consuming and this eventually causes them to stop trying.

Final thoughts

Don’t compare your child to other children who speak the same languages. Every child is different and we use milestones as a guideline. If your child appears delayed with their language acquisition then you should seek assistance from a professional.

Ensure that all activities or interactions pertaining to the new language are fun and easy-going. This is most likely to encourage the child to continue on the path. It is a new adventure for the both of you, so be kind to yourself and enjoy the journey.

Guest Editor: Bailey Schneider
Guest Editor: Bailey Schneider

As someone with a Swiss German Dad, I sadly wasn’t taught Swiss German and it’s something that bothers me as an adult. I’d have loved to be bilingual. It’s for this reason, that I’m insisting my Greek husband teach our sons Greek. It’s difficult though when my husband wants to converse with the boys – it’s easy to slip into English and we have to gently remind each other to persevere with the Greek. It’s putting in the hard work and foundations now, that will pay off later.