As the conversation about bilingualism spreads throughout the country, more and more parents are looking for resources when it comes to raising their children to be multilingual.
Nancy Rhodes, director of Foreign Language Education at the Center for Applied Linguistics, says that over the last 10 years or more, they’ve seen an increase in parents going to school districts and asking them to start language programs for early education classes.
Rhodes says that the reason for the increase is because many parents now recognize that bilingualism is a tremendous asset for future careers. “The current focus appears to be on the globalized economy,” she says. “Parents are thinking about their children’s future in internet jobs, or international and intercultural careers.”
But one of the biggest challenges for parents is how to begin the process. In their book, “Bilingual is Better,” Latina moms Roxana Soto and Ana Flores describe the three most common methods of raising a bilingual child. The Minority Language at Home (mL@H) method involves everyone in the family speaking the minority language at home. In the One Parent One Language (OPOL) method, one parent speaks the minority language or each parent speaks a different minority language. And in the Time & Place (T&P) method, parents designate a specific time and place for speaking the language, such as at immersion schools or private language school programs.
Dr. Barbara Zurer Pearson, a Research Associate and Co-Director of the Language Acquisition Research Center at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, says that parents should start thinking about what method they want to pursue as soon as possible, even before their child is born. “It’s important for the parents to start as soon as possible shaping their own behavior,” Pearson says. “For example, making it a habit to speak the minority language with each other (if they can), so they don’t get used to things one way, and then have to change.” She says that couples tell her that it takes about six weeks to switch their home language before it starts to feel natural.
And starting with younger children makes the language learning process easier. Their brains are hard-wired for language acquisition and children up to three years old easily process both languages. In fact, Dr. Xiao-lei Wang, a professor at Pace University in New York, says that young children can be exposed to many languages at once. Exposing children to more than one language as early as possible may ensure native-like proficiency in these languages. “Human capacity for language acquisition at an early age is unlimited,” Wang says. “However, practically speaking, it is more realistic and manageable for parents to raise children with two or three languages successfully in the home environment.”
According to Wang, one reason for focusing on only two or three languages is because a child needs a sufficient input to acquire a language (it has been suggested that at least 25% input is necessary to acquire a language). She also says that to form a habit of communication in a given language in early childhood, parents need to speak consistently to a child in that language.
Pearson, who is also the author of Raising a Bilingual Child, says that “After about 5 [years old], the child realizes she is in a position to choose, and will choose to speak with the people she admires and who are talking about things that are interesting and engaging.”
Likewise, Rhodes says parents often find that maintaining their child’s bilingualism becomes extra challenging when their kids start school where only English is spoken. “There is a huge drop off of the minority language input,” she says. “And then they want to invite their English-speaking friends over to the house, or they want to fit in with everyone else. Their identity is closely tied to their language and communication skills.”
Most importantly, Rhodes says that literacy development in Spanish is critical for children under 5, as it provides them with input in a different way and makes language learning possible even if the child begins to refuse to speak it at home.
She also recommends doing as much as you can to reinforce the idea that the minority language is not just a family language. It’s important to emphasize that many people speak that language, especially other children. Rhodes says it is important to make it fun and create a community connection by joining playgroups, enrolling in immersion schools or language camps, and finding materials (like songs and crafts) in the target language.
Pearson says, “A child needs motive and opportunity to speak a language, especially if it is a minority language. Motive is most important.” Children have to want to learn the language, and not feel out of place by doing so.
But to parents with older children, Wang says, “not all is lost if children are introduced to multiple languages later in life. Research suggests that older learners also have advantages in learning a new language.”
To learn more about raising a bilingual child, check out these books and articles…
• “Raising Bilingual Children: Common Parental Concerns and Current Research” by Kendall King and Lyn Fogle, Georgetown University
• “Raising a Bilingual Child” by B. Z. Pearson (also available in Spanish)
• “7 Steps to Raising a Bilingual Child” by Naomi Steiner MD
• “Growing up with Three Languages: Birth to Eleven” (Parents’ and Teachers’ Guides) by Xiao-lei Wang
• “Bilingual is Better” by Roxana Soto and Ana Flores