Bilingualism is the norm
As parents raising bilingual children, we are encouraged by the fact that more than 60% of people speak more than one language at home in the world. Bilingualism is by far more common than monolingualism. In Europe, more than 80% of primary school pupils were studying a foreign language (in a 2014 EU study) making second language acquisition the norm.
With proven benefits for children and society
We’re also supported by new studies that come out each year emphasizing the importance of multi-language acquisition at an early age. Raising bilingual children is now considered very beneficial for early childhood development.
Bilingual children benefit from improved social and emotional skills — giving them the ability to empathize more and see the world from different perspectives. Additionally, children who learn another language at a young age are known to have improved cognitive function. They also have better executive functioning skills, such as self-regulation and cognitive flexibility that support long-term learning and development.
In addition there are many social and economic benefits to bilingualism. Children who speak more than one language at home, especially from multicultural families, “have better family relationships and stronger ethnic identities than those who cannot. Good family relationships and strong ethnic identity are positively related to other desired outcomes, including academic achievement,“ say co-authors Erika Hoff and Cynthia Core in their research What Clinicians Need to Know about Bilingual Development.
The most common reason to learn a new language, though, still holds true — it will help children succeed in life. One estimate puts the value of knowing a second language at up to $128,000 over 40 years.
Yet raising bilingual children is a challenge for many parents
So with all of these tailwinds that are so positive for bilingualism, why do parents struggle so much with teaching their children another language and how can we as parents improve those odds? There are a few challenges here that almost all parents can relate with, if not some, then all.
Challenge #1: My partner doesn't speak the minority language
It’s difficult to commit to raising children with certain skills, especially language skills, if it’s a form of communication that is not shared by the entire family. This happens when a partner doesn’t speak or understand the minority language. While the One Parent, One Language rule is helpful in introducing language, it still doesn’t fully bridge the gap and could lead to the minority language being phased out.
Why is it a challenge? : A partner who doesn’t speak the minority language makes communication in that language harder at home because it impacts the flow of information. Either children are left to translate as they speak or it cuts out the parent from communication entirely — which is not a fun way to spend dinners together.
What happens next? Since the minority language isn’t a shared one, when conversations require all parties, it’s easy for the minority language parent to default to speaking in the majority language.
How can families overcome this challenge? It’s important for the partner to be supportive of the language goals and the primary way to support it is to lead by example. The partner should try to learn the language — while not always easy, it’s a way to show the importance of that language in the family, but also a fun way to bond with children over the shared experience of learning together.
Challenge #2: My child only hears the minority language at home (not outside the home)
When families live in areas where the minority language is rarely spoken outside the home, it makes it hard for parents to offer opportunities to hear, speak and experience the language in different ways.
Why is it a challenge?: This impacts the child’s perceived importance of the minority language. If a child sees that the language is not heard or used outside the home, it can have a subconscious effect on the child’s view of the language — what good is the language if I don’t “need it” to communicate?
What happens next?: It slowly eats away at the child’s need and then eventually their desire to learn the minority language.
How can families overcome this challenge? In today’s virtual age we have a huge advantage. We can still demonstrate the importance of a language while still staying in the home. Virtual classes, face-time with family and friends, even programming that comes in different languages (our son watches Paw Patrol in Spanish and German!) can be a starting point to show how the language is spoken by others. Local playdates or classes, attending cultural events or even restaurants from the heritage language can demonstrate that there are places in the community where we can still use and practice the minority language.
Challenge #3: My child only answers in the majority language
Children may not always feel they have the words or the comfort to respond in the minority language and may rely on the majority language to help to express their thoughts or emotions.
Why is it a challenge?: While the child is understanding the language, they are not actively practicing speaking the language. If they don’t feel comfortable speaking the language at home, a safe environment to learn and make mistakes, they will be less willing to speak outside the home.
What happens next?: The loss of speaking practice may lead a child to be less confident in their communication of the language and can lead to passive bilingualism where they only practice listening.
How can we overcome this challenge? Offer a comforting space to practice speaking the language without forcing it on the child. Try having the child only speak the language back to you during certain activities or times of day. Introduce new vocabulary through reading books in the minority language. Have the child tell you about the stories they read or discuss the book using the minority language. Lead by example — you may not know all the words in the minority language so take this opportunity to show how you speak and learn despite not knowing everything!
Challenge #4: My child rejects the minority language
Similar to challenge #3, a child may reject the minority language altogether and may not be open to speaking or hearing the minority language at home.
Why is it a challenge? The child no longer sees the minority language as useful and has lost complete interest in learning.
How can we overcome this challenge? This one is a tricky one because parents will need to start back at square one. Without forcing the child to use it, it’s important to rebuild that desire to learn. Take the child on a trip to a neighborhood, city or country where the minority language is spoken. Demonstrate how you use the language in this setting and have them navigate through it on their own (showing them the limitations when you don’t know the language — and the benefits when you do). While it may take several trips, months or even years to work back that desire to learn, know that it’s okay and a part of the learning process for young kids. Forcing communication will only make them pull away more, while focusing on the desire and benefits of learning will keep the learning a positive experience for the child.
Challenge #5: I don’t feel I have enough support and resources to teach my child the minority language
As the founder of Enlingos and a parent raising a trilingual child (with one language neither parent speaks natively) I’ve found that the outcome of learning can be deeply influenced by the efforts that parents make at incorporating the language. This can be hard to do when you can’t find the right resources and can be downright exhausting when you have so much more on your plate to juggle.
Despite the support we may have from a community of other bilingual parents it may feel like we’re isolated and alone in this journey, especially when the people near us don’t place the same value on bilingualism that we do.
While there may be many challenges or roadblocks on this path, one thing that we shouldn’t do when we feel this way is give up on the journey or let our child see that we are uncomfortable or ashamed of using the minority language. Language learning is a life-long learning process for all of us and while we may fail at times, and we probably will, we have to continue to see and project bilingualism as the important gift that it is.
We can always feel that we can do more to get our kids more fluent in the minority language, but what’s important is to free ourselves from the guilt and comparisons we make.
As parents we need to be proud of what we’re accomplishing and passing on to our children — in the end they will recognize, appreciate and value our efforts.