Raising Bilingual or Multilingual Children: What’s “normal” and What’s Not?
Statistics Canada states that 11.9 % of the population speaks a language other than English or French at home. There are many benefits to raising bilingual children, but the question that often comes up is: How do I do it?
HOW DO CHILDREN LEARN TWO LANGUAGES?
- Two at once – this is when a child is exposed to both languages from birth or before age 3. Until about age 3, the child will use elements of both languages at once.
- One after the other – this is when a child learns the second language after age 3, (when first language has already been learned). Children will likely imitate and memorize short phrases or sentences in their second language before they start to create their own.
There are some worries or concerns that parents might have about trying to teach their children more than one language, but they are not the case.
- Bilingualism does not cause a language delay!
- It is not necessary for a child (or adult) to be equally as fluent in each language
Also, some things parents may observe while raising bilingual or multilingual children can make them feel concerned that they’ve made the wrong decision; but, not to worry! They are really just a normal part of developing multiple languages:
- A child learning more than one language may say their first word later than a child who is only learning one
- A child learning a second language after the first might go through a period where they only use their first language even though they’ve been exposed to the second
- A child learning a second language after their first also might go through a ‘silent period.’ Younger children may stay in this phase for longer and it could last several weeks to several months
- A child learning more than one language will “code switch” or “code mix” by using sentences that have a mix of both languages
RED FLAGS FOR LANGUAGE DIFFICULTIES IN BILINGUAL CHILDREN
That being said, there are some things to watch for to make sure that your child is developing both of their languages well. If you notice any of the following, there may be cause for concern:
- Child is not making the “p”, “b” or “m” sound by 2-6 months of age
- At 6-15 months of age the child is using less than one new word per week
- Less than 20 words (both languages combined) by 20 months
- No word combinations (e.g. more juice) by 30 months of age
- Child is not meeting developmental milestones in his/her first language
- Imitation is echolalic (i.e. automatic “parroting” without thought/engagement)
- Silent period is prolonged
- Child is experiencing word finding difficulties
HOW CAN I MAKE LEARNING TWO LANGUAGES EASIER FOR MY CHILD?
ONE PARENT, ONE LANGUAGE
There are many suggestions about how to raise a bilingual child. While studying second language acquisition at the University of Western Ontario, my professor suggested that parents employ the “one parent one language” strategy (each parent speaks a different language). I have made this suggestion to clients, friends and family, and have gotten positive feedback from them about how well it works. I think the reason it worked so well is because one parent spoke English as his first language and the second parent spoke a different language as her first language. Speaking your first language comes more naturally, so one language, one parent is likely more natural and comfortable. If a parent is more comfortable or fluent in his first language he will then be providing a better (and likely more grammatically correct) model to his child – and we all know well that children learn the most from the models we give them!
One Parent, One Language is only one way to go about raising a bilingual child. Experts suggest that a child should be able to acquire two languages no matter how they are presented (both parents speak both languages, one language at home, one at school, etc.). The key is CONSISTENCY! You will likely be more consistent in establishing these patterns if it feels natural, so do what works best for you and your family.
If you are concerned about your child’s language acquisition, consult a speech language pathologist for more information!