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Tips For Creating A Bilingual Home

Written by Martina Aiko

Photography by Photographed by James Kicinski-McCoy

Bilingual families are on the rise in the U.S.—and elsewhere. This comes as no surprise given the benefits of growing up bilingual in an increasingly multicultural world. But, how does this translate to the family home? Short of hiring a polyglot nanny or sending your darlings off to boarding school in Europe, how does anyone manage to teach more than one language to their child?

It’s actually easier than you might think. There are some great resources available—from books, to games, and even apps—to help you and your child embrace a second (or third, or even fourth) language, and have fun doing it. And, don’t worry about setting aside hours for your child to study; one of the best ways to raise a bilingual child is to weave their second language into regular, daily life. Sound daunting? It shouldn’t. Below are a few tips to show you how easy it can be to create a home bursting with language.

Decide how to split your languages, and stick to it
There are loads of different ways to approach bilingualism to suit every situation. However you decide to approach languages, keep things consistent. Small children especially won’t understand if you suddenly say, “Now we’re going to speak French!”, but they will begin to associate certain languages with certain people or situations. Keeping things consistent will help them feel confident in their language use. Younger children just learning to speak may mix languages according to what they know, but they should eventually learn which language is appropriate when, just from what they hear.

Keep your expectations realistic
Let’s just get it out there: your child will not be fluent in more than one language overnight. Whew! Now that the pressure is off, you can meet your child at his or her level. Know that it’s perfectly normal for bilingual children to seemingly develop language skills slower than their monolingual peers (though studies suggest that their vocabulary increases at the same rate, just split over multiple languages). Don’t stress if your two-year-old isn’t chatting as much as the neighbor’s—they will catch up soon.

Narrate everything
Doing the laundry? Talk about it. Going for a walk in the park? Talk about it. Driving to an appointment? You guessed it—talk about it. This doesn’t have to be a constant monologue; if your child is able, turn it into a conversation, or an opportunity to practice vocabulary (laundry makes for great color or counting practice, for example). What’s important is that words are flowing regularly throughout the day.

Mirror words and phrases
If your child speaks to you in their “other” language, or mixes the two, mirror what they’ve said back to them in the language you expect. You may understand “agua please”, but by adding in a phrase like, “here’s your water” instead of just acting on their request, you give your child an opportunity to hear the word or phrase in the language you want them to speak in with you. Eventually, your child will learn when they’re expected to use which language just by following your example—no nagging correction needed.

Vary your language use
Don’t underestimate the power of singing! Most kids love music, and will enjoy singing and dancing their way to bilingualism. When you’re on the move, don’t forget things like finger-plays (“This Little Piggy” is a popular example). They’re great for when kids are getting restless on the bus, and are the kind of catchy, fun activity that help words stick firmly in their minds.

There is so much research that stresses the importance of reading to support early language development, and that becomes even more important when your child is growing up bilingual. Reading exposes children to words they wouldn’t necessarily come across in every day life, expanding their vocabulary immensely. You don’t have to spend a fortune on books, either. Ask a local library if they could get hold of books in your language, or rotate books with a friend who speaks the same language, too. If all else fails, talk about the pictures in books you already have, or make up your own stories!

Find friends in language
Nothing motivates kids like hanging out with their peers, so why not find some friends to practice their language skills with? Maybe there is a group already organized near you (check social media—you would be surprised what you can find), or maybe there’s someone at your kid’s school with the same linguistic background. Head to the park or somewhere else fun, and let the kids run wild. The desire to communicate in play should be enough to motivate lively chatter, whatever language you’re aiming for.

Accept that things may not turn out as you expected
Know that your child will go through phases of improving one language faster than the other, and that’s okay. Maybe they’ll favor one language over the other, and that’s okay, too. In extreme cases, they might only be willing to use their favored language. In that case, know that any exposure they’re getting to a second language is going to pave the road to future bilingualism, should they decide to come back to it.

Don’t worry if you don’t manage to do all of these things, or to catch every slip in your child’s language use. As long as you’re keeping fun, relaxed chat flowing throughout the day, you will be well on your way to creating an effective bilingual home.

For even more information on creating a bilingual home, be sure to check out The Bilingual Advantage.

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