What to Expect When Raising a Bilingual Child

What to expect when raising a bilingual child 

Stepping into the world of raising a bilingual child can feel a little bit daunting.

It’s certainly how I felt in the early days of teaching my kids a second language. 

Whether you’re a native speaker or not, you’ve probably got a few questions you’d love answered about the whole raising a bilingual child adventure….

Can I teach my child a second language while they’re learning English...or will it totally confuse them?

How much time do I need to dedicate to teaching?

When should I start?

For these answers and more, I chatted with educator and trilingual mother, Madalena Xanthopoulou from The Alma Collective.

Born in Brussels (the French part) to a Greek speaking father and German speaking mother, Madalena experienced first hand what it's like to grow up with a multitude of cultures and languages. 

She is passionate about providing not only her children with language opportunities but also provides other families with the same language engagement in London as she builds language-specific playgroups, focusing on 0-5 year olds. 

Let’s dive into Madalena’s tips and advice on what to expect when raising a bilingual child.

Set a fluency goal 

How fluent do you want your child to be? It’s so important to set fluency goals when it comes to language exposure. 

Do you want them to recognise the language, understand the language, talk in the language or master the language? 

Setting a goal will give you an idea of how much exposure your child will need and the work you’ll have to put in. 

“Some parents are happy if their children simply understand the language. Of course, the amount of work for that will be less than for somebody who wants their child to go and study in another country or to master the language,” says Magdelena. 

“Be honest with yourself to figure out what it is you want your child or your family to be able to do. What is your vision?” 

Whatever the goal, it’s important that the exposure your kids have to the language is fun!

“It's not something that's forced upon them, it's an invitation to play and engage in the language because the reality is we're building foundations for a lifetime of learning and a lifetime of language.” 

So, write an action plan down! Work out what you want to achieve and what steps you’ll need to take to achieve those language goals. 

Native speaking parents will still need to put in the work!

“Hey, I’m Italian so it will be easy for my child to speak Italian!”

In Madalena’s experience, sometimes native parents believe that their child will easily pick up the language, or a 6 week holiday with their grandparents in Italy, will have them naturally identify with the culture.   

But this isn’t necessarily the case. 

“You need many, many other things in your daily life to make sure the language is grasped,” she says. 

“It's not just because you are of a certain nationality that your child will automatically soak up this culture. You have to do something to make it happen - you have to work towards a goal.” 

Reading -  A key strategy for language learning

There are many strategies for teaching your child a second language, like play, and reading is Madalena’s go-to recommendation. 

“My favorite tool is reading to children in the language,” she says. 

“Reading, reading, reading. Literacy skills are transferable from one language to another and something that will help your child.”

Kids who can already read in English will usually be interested in finding out how to read in a second language. They know how to decode words in English and can transfer these techniques to their new language. 

You might feel like you’re failing (don’t worry, you’re not!)

Most mamas who’ve started on the journey of raising a bilingual child will probably feel doubt bubble up along the way. 

It can feel like you’re failing when you’re not seeing results fast enough.

Sometimes, we’re just a little impatient, right?

We’ve done a few lessons, we’ve sung a few songs….why aren’t they speaking any new words yet?

 

Raising a bilingual child is definitely a marathon, not a sprint. 

Be patient and stay focused on the outcome. 

Madalena suggests putting the goal for your child in writing and read that goal over when you’re feeling doubtful or frustrated by slow progress.

“If you want them to be able to travel to other countries, say to Italy to see the Colosseum, when would they do that? At age 16 let’s say. So if your child is 3 and doesn’t speak Italian yet, well, you’ve got 13 years to go! You can relax about this a bit!” she says. 

“Also, try to cut it down to little steps. If you do one song a week and say two books a week, can you increase a little bit?” 

“If you’re not getting the results you want, can you do two songs?”

“Even just by introducing maybe one word each day, after a year they’ll have 365 new words.”

“I'm sure we can do more than one word a day and I'm sure we can do more than one song a week, but you can build on that - you can increase those small steps.”

The bottom line? Keep going and going. Keep doing it!

Build rituals 

There are lots of regular routines and rhythms we go through with our kids. They play a big role in learning and are the perfect opportunity to bring language lessons into each day. 

“How about when you brush your teeth to sing a song about brushing teeth? A very simple and repetitive one,” suggests Madalena. 

“When you start singing the song, it becomes a trigger. Oh, now it's brushing teeth time! Build some small songs into daily life and keep that going.”

When to introduce a second language

“So when exactly should I start teaching my child a new language?”

That’s the big question parents ask all the time. 

I know many parents want to wait until their child has nailed English before they introduce a second language but Madalena suggests the earlier the better, even starting in pregnancy. 

“If you're pregnant and you're thinking about it, you can already start exposing your child to the different sounds and the different languages through music, through lots of other experiences,” she says.

“If the child is very young, basically a newborn to preschool, you can think about the senses. How can you make a language be livable so they can touch it, so they can taste it?”

Studies are showing that the best time to learn languages before the age of seven and Madalena doesn’t believe there’s an issue introducing a second language before kids have got a grasp on their mother tongue.

“Children are not confused by learning another language at a young age.”

“You need to give them time and even if there is an issue you can fix it. It's not a

life or death scenario. You're not going to ruin your child by adding a language at a young age.”

If you’re a mama who’s ready to start this super rewarding journey to raising a bilingual child, even if you don’t speak a word of the language yourself, I’d love to invite you to join thousands of families all over the world who have started using our simple play based language resources. 

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