Notes on Parenting

Insights for parenting babies, toddlers, teens, and young adults.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Bilingualism: Raising Kids With Two Languages

Did you know that more than half the people in the world speak more than one language every day? 

     In Asia, Africa, in many European countries, not to mention parts of Canada, bilingualism is often seen as the norm, while in monolingual countries such as the US and England, the dominant view of the world is monolingual.

     In a predominantly mono-linguistic society like the US, bilingualism is a choice parents consciously make for their kids individually as well as for their family as a whole. If you are considering raising your child bilingually, this blog post might be of help. It focuses on some of the most important aspects of bilingualism that you would need to be aware of, based on research findings as well as my own experience as a mother of three bilingual kids. Let’s first look at what bilingualism really is.


The most commonly used definition of bilinguals is: those who use two or more languages in their everyday lives. That leads to the following definition of bilingualism: 
We speak of bilingualism when a person uses two or more languages in their everyday lives.

Benefits of bilingualism

You might rightly wonder if bilingualism has anything to offer growing kids; what are the advantages over monolingualism? Research into this question is mostly limited to the development of cognitive ability and is not entirely conclusive - apart from the obvious fact that kids end up fluent in two languages. Bilingual children seem to do better than monolingual children in some areas (attention span), equally well in others (analysis), or less well (vocabulary tests in the non-dominant language). For more on this, see reference 1 below.

     However, there are advantages that have not yet been researched, but are heard often among bilinguals. These do not relate to cognitive development so much as to overall personality development. I can attest to each and every one of them based on my personal parenting experience of using two languages in the home when my kids were growing up. As you read through the list  I’m sure you’ll agree that they make sense:
  • Ability to speak to relatives and friends with whom one would not communicate otherwise
  • Opportunity to become literate in more than one language as well as gain access to the (literary) culture as represented by that language
  • Ease of learning a third or fourth language
  • Open-mindedness and ease of switching among different perspectives on life
  • Increased job opportunities

How to Go About Raising Your Kids Bilingually

Research seems to indicate that balanced bilingualism does not just ‘happen’ in a monolingual setting – it is a conscious choice parents and kids make, a choice that needs consistent effort during a prolonged period of time. Following are three aspects, gleaned from research as well as  my own experience, that help foster bilingualism in kids:

1) Daily exposure

Kids need daily (or almost daily) exposure to both languages, preferably in monolingual form, meaning: there have to be moments each day when kids are fully immersed in one language without the other language coming to the rescue. Some kids use two languages on a daily basis as a natural outcome of their family’s specific situation. Immigrant children, for instance, will use one language in monolingual form at home and another language, also in monolingual form, at school and with friends. 

     If your kids aren’t in this category, you will have to create a second language immersion situation that occurs regularly if not on a daily basis, where they interact with people: talking, playing, reading, and are not just watching DVDs or TV, without the help of their first language.

2) Need

Your child will have to feel a need for the second language. Children will quickly drop a language when they sense that the need for it has fallen away. In the ideal situation, where one language is spoken at home and the other language is used outside, the need for both languages is obvious.

     Parents who know a second language well enough to comfortably speak it on a daily basis with their child and who have decided to use it for the purpose of a bilingual upbringing, will need to rely on contact with friends and/or family in order to immerse their kids in monolingual situations so they will feel the need to maintain their ability. 

     Bilingual parents would also do well to arrange for monolingual situations involving other people, as kids quickly circumvent difficulties they might have in one language by borrowing  from the other, knowing that the parents will understand anyway. Even though borrowing will happen naturally in bilingual families and is not a problem in and of itself, when the goal is balanced bilingualism there should be monolingual moments for each language .

3) A Positive Attitude Towards Acquisition of Both Languages

A positive attitude towards the acquisition of both languages is crucial in achieving balanced bilingualism. Being able to speak two languages fluently is fun! If children sense that either the parents or their environment is biased against either language, they may choose to drop it in favor of the one that is socially more acceptable. 

     Ideally, parents and children should talk openly about their bilingual upbringing, especially when the development in one language is lagging behind. Then the support of parents, friends and family becomes even more important.

Benefits of a Second Language

If the benefits mentioned above appeal to you, but raising your children bilingually is not a viable option, you might go for the acquisition of a second language without it becoming a native tongue. The time and effort expended would be considerably less, yet your kids and you would stand to gain from each and every advantage listed. Perhaps some of them is lesser degree compared to a bilingual situation, but still, understanding another language and culture from the inside out, even in moderate measure, is definitely worth the effort.


Often the acquisition of a second language brings with it the exposure to another culture. As is the case with the development of a second language it is vital for both parents and the environment – school, friends, etc. – to have a positive attitude towards the kids becoming acquainted with and appreciative of the two cultures. Again, when kids sense a bias towards either culture they may feel compelled to reject it as well as the language associated with it.

An Extra Tool

Lastly, I’d like to emphasize that the ability to speak two or more languages - or the effort to achieve it - is not a sign of superior intelligence, neither is it an indication of political disloyalty. For millions of people all over the world, a second language is simply an extra tool with which to navigate the journey called life.

Are you raising your kids bilingually? Please share your experience with us. We'd love to hear from you.

Check out the sites and books below for more information:

2) Biligual: Life and Reality, Francois Grosjean, Harvard University Press, 2010
4) Foundations of Bilingual Education and Bilingualism, Colin Baker. Multilingual Matters, 5th ed., 2011

Image courtesay of (adjusted for the article)

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