One of the biggest challenges for bilingual parents is how to raise a child bilingually. There are two scenarios possible.
The first one is when everyone in the family speaks the minority language at home and there’s another language outside. In this scenario the child will acquire the second language quite easily as there is a good balance between both languages.
The second scenario is when one parent speaks the minority language or each parent speaks a different minority language. Parents will often choose the One person One language method.
The earlier you start the better. There is no limit to what age a child should start. And don’t panic if you see the child not being able to speak either language properly at first. Research has shown that bilingualism doesn’t lead to any delays of any sorts. It is natural that your child might mix languages at first. A monolingual child will use other strategies such as using words like “this thing” or “like” … a bilingual child will use his other language to fill in the gaps. Later on, as his/her vocabulary improves you will find that the bilingual child will no longer mix languages. While it is sometimes true that bilingual children start talking later, experts say the delay is temporary and the advantage of knowing two languages outweighs that small disadvantage.
Claude Hagège talks about the warning threshold of the 11th year where children build filters and no longer hear sounds like they used to. This critical age limit doesn’t make it impossible to learn a language it just makes it more difficult to speak the language without the accent. Also teenagers develop a fear of making mistakes, which makes it harder to learn another language. Finally the world of a child is a little bit less complex than an adult and therefore the repertoire of words isn’t as complicated.
Everything is going well and suddenly parents find it very challenging to maintain their child’s bilingualism. This often occurs when your child starts school. Here are a few tips to overcome this “bilingual rebellion”:
1.Don’t give up: I have had parents coming to me in distress saying things like “my child refuses to speak French to me”. This phenomenon is natural and happens a lot with a minority language, especially when the child starts school. Don’t take it personally; your child is not rejecting you they are just trying to build their own identity. They are trying to fit in with the others but speaking a different language is being different. Be strong about your own cultural heritage. If it really harms your relationship with your child maybe find a compromise that meets you both. Maybe set up a (flexible) rule such as speaking the minority language at certain times during the day, or different places in the house. I met a family that had geographical limits within their home: The living room was English, Dining room French etc… Such rules are hard to maintain on the long run but are worth trying. The key is to remain consistent and to make the experience fun.
2. Value bilingualism: A strong partnership between both parents is essential in maintaining bilingualism. This doesn’t mean both of the parents need to speak the language fluently. It just means both of you need to value the language spoken at home.
3. Encourage your child: Both of the parents need to encourage the child in his “bilingualness”. It is important to encourage your child and to understand what it means to be bilingual (see section The bilingual child below). You need to remember that although bilingualism is common, the world still sees it as an exception and if your child is in a mainstream school they will be seen as someone different because of their bilingualism. It is therefore important that they are assisted in growing up with this gift so that it is seen as a gift and not a handicap.
4. Maximise the exposure to the second language: I have found that although parents don’t need to both be fluent, it does help to understand the languages spoken to maintain bilingualism within a household. When the child interacts with Mum or Dad, if everyone understands the languages spoken, it means everyone is included in the conversation. If only one person speaks the language, make sure you interact with them as much as possible and supplement it by turning the TV/radio on, travelling to the country, talking to family members etc.
3.Find a motive: It is important that the child realises that the minority language is spoken elsewhere, not only at home. They need to see that many people speak their language, not just Mum or Dad. If children can interact and play with their language, they will understand the need to speak the minority language. Having friends over, or enrolling your child in a playgroup where the minority language is spoken will really help.
It can be hard to raise bilingual kids and there are some common mistakes that are to be avoided if you want your child to be confident in the language. Here are three mistakes that need to be avoided:
1.Make fun of them: Your child will come up with the cutest little mistakes and at times, it will be very hard not to laugh at them. However, children are very sensitive and the last thing you want is to discourage them. Children need to be reassured and praised rather then laughed at.
2.Correct them: While it is important for children to be corrected you need to be careful not to crash their confidence. Children that are corrected too much in their second language will be reluctant to speak out of fear they will say something wrong. One way to correct your child can be to just rephrase nicely what they said so that they hear the correct way and don’t forget to praise them as much as possible!
3.Test them: Learning a language should be fun. It shouldn’t be something they need to be tested on. If they feel they are assessed/judged they will no longer want to engage in the language.
4.Be inflexible: You need to be consistent of course but be flexible. Speaking a second language shouldn’t be a burden for your child. Try to make it as natural and fun as possible or it will become a struggle for everyone in the family, especially when your child gets older.
A bilingual child has a multicultural identity. He is bicultural i.e. he has access to two worlds. Because he grows up with two languages, he values both languages equally, language A and B are just as important. It is often very hard for a bilingual individual to say which language –out of A or B- is their native language. In a way, bilingualism is their native language. To say that A is more important than B, would be to underestimate one language.
Language isn’t only a tool used to communicate; it is also an important symbol, which shows that you belong to a particular group. It is part of your identity. When a child enters school he needs to fit in with everyone else. This is why children will try to adapt to the country they live in and sometimes refuse to speak the language spoken at home.
Reactions of some professionals can jeopardise the linguistic development of a bilingual child. Indeed, some professionals (teachers, speech therapists etc.) might encourage a bilingual child with speech delay to give up his/her language in order to maximise the use of the language spoken at school. These professionals don’t see any benefits in the fact that the child already has a language. On the contrary the child is seen as having a “linguistic handicap”. However, research has shown that switching to just one language could have negative consequences on the linguistic development of the child. An individual is emotionally attached to a language, this attachment can be cultural, linguistic, social etc. Trying to eliminate a language means removing a part of oneself. To avoid speech impairment, it is important to keep a structured setting in order to help the child in his bilingual development.