In some countries, it's common for kids to learn two or more languages at a time and to use them daily to communicate and understand people around them — in fact, some kids grow up in places where four or more languages are spoken.
In countries such as the United States, there may be a dominant language; i.e., the one used by the government, schools, and the community. With this in mind, parents who speak an additional, "heritage" language may face a dilemma: Should we teach our children only the dominant language or should we try to raise them bilingual?
Although it's important to learn the prevailing language in the country where you live, for many people it's also important to have their kids learn the language of their parents, grandparents, and older siblings.
Deciding whether to teach your kids one or more languages is up to you. You may think they need to "start over" in a new country and that they only need to learn the dominant language. However, there are some advantages to raising bilingual kids.
What Bilingual Means
Being bilingual means understanding and expressing yourself in two languages, and being able to convey your thoughts clearly in both. Being plurilingual means having these skills in more than two languages.
Many people think English is the official language in the United States. This is not really so; whereas some countries have official languages, the United States does not. In fact, in 2004 the United States had around 336 spoken or recorded languages. Some U.S. states, though, are officially bilingual. For example, in Louisiana, English and French are the state's official languages; in New Mexico, the official languages are English and Spanish; in Hawaii, they're English and Hawaiian. So, being bilingual in the United States is not new.
Advantages of Being Bilingual
Some research shows that kids exposed to several languages are more creative and better at developing problem-solving skills. Other studies suggest that speaking a second language, even if only during the first years of life, helps build cognitive abilities so that a child will have an easier time learning other languages in the future.
Some experts say that if parents and kids don't speak the same language at home, communication between them may suffer. As a result, parents may lose some control over their children and, over time, kids might turn to negative influences, such as gangs, to regain the sense of belonging they no longer experience at home.
Helping Kids Be Bilingual
Several methods can help kids be bilingual. In each, it's very important to expose kids to both languages in different settings and to help them understand the significance of learning each language.
Two approaches are recommended:
- The one parent, one language approach means that each parent speaks a different language at home during the early years of their child's life. For example, the mother may talk to the child only in English, while the father may use just Spanish.
- The minority language at home method allows parents to establish a usage for each language. For example, while kids would only speak Spanish at home, at school they would speak English.
With any method, try not to mix the languages. That is, when you talk to your child in your heritage language, don't mix it with English in phrases or sentences. However, you shouldn't be surprised if your child mingles words of both languages in one sentence. When it happens, correct him or her by casually providing the proper word in the language you are using.
Many materials can help your child learn a second language, including language learning CD-ROMs, video games, videos, and DVDs; music CDs; and battery-operated dolls. It's also easy to find bilingual books and cartoons in Spanish such as Clifford, the Big Red Dog and Dora, the Explorer. And of course, there's always the Internet.
When exposing kids to a second language, keep in mind their hobbies. For example, if a child likes soccer, watch a match in one of the Spanish-speaking stations. If your child likes music, check for the latest albums of artists singing in English and in their native language.
For young kids, use childhood rhymes, songs, and games. As your kids grow, be persistent and creative with your approach. Some parents send their kids to language schools so that they learn the language using a more formal method. Many families also send their kids to their country of origin to spend more time with relatives, either during the summer or for longer periods. Keep in mind that it's also important to have friends who speak a heritage language.
Is There a Cultural Loss?
Some of your culture and some ties are likely to be lost if your child is raised in a new country; however, it's up to you to choose whether you want to pass your cultural heritage to your kids or not.
There is, indeed, an "American" culture. However, remember that for centuries, many people who arrived in America looking for a more promising future kept their native languages and cultures at their homes and in their neighborhoods. However, they learned to speak English and blended in with the American lifestyle. These cultural identities still exist in many families after many generations. For instance, there's an Italian or Chinese neighborhood in almost every big city in the United States. And Mardi Gras, Cinco de Mayo, and St. Patrick's Day are celebrated with enthusiasm every year.
Fluently speaking a second language may lead to significant cultural benefits. Children learning their cultural heritage language can communicate with their relatives and strengthen family ties beyond the borders. They're also likely to be willing to know the history and traditions of their family's country of origin. Understanding where they come from helps kids develop strong identities and can help them determine where they'll go in the future.
Can it Delay Speech Development?
In some cases, learning two languages at a time may slow language development in comparison with monolingual children. Linguists say that bilingual children may reverse word order in a sentence but, just as kids who speak one language, they'll understand what they mean. As a side note, correction should always be subtle so that a child doesn't feel inhibited.
Some parents are afraid that talking to their kids in another language will hinder English learning at school. The truth is that before they go to school, children will have been in continuous contact with English through TV, the Internet, and friends. Parents are usually surprised by their children's ability to learn English when playing with English-speaking kids in the neighborhood or at kindergarten. Once they start school, kids quickly catch up with their classmates. Then the nature of the problem for parents shifts to how to prevent their kids from speaking only English.
Some kids may not be very excited at the thought of speaking their parents' language. By nature, children want to be like their classmates. For example, if their friends speak only English, they might also want to speak just English. Parents who want their kids to speak a second language should continue to speak it at home, regardless of how reluctant their children might be.
Raising Bilingual Kids
Teaching a second language to kids might be a challenge. The fact is that most immigrant families lose their native language at the third generation, but this need not be your case.
Ultimately, your kid's fluency in another language will be influenced by many factors, including personal motivation and parental support. First, decide the level you'd like your child to reach in your heritage language and, then, search for the appropriate resources, such as books and multimedia materials, formal education, or temporary immersion.
Raising kids to be bilingual may help them acknowledge the importance of their culture and heritage, as well as develop a strong personal identity. And it might even be a useful advantage at work when they're adults!
Reviewed by: Steven Dowshen, MD
Date reviewed: February 2015
Originally reviewed by: Carlos D. Rosé, MD