By Maritere R. Bellas
When I began my own process of raising two bilingual children in the United States, there were no resources available in our community that would expose them to Spanish, my native language. It was important for me that they were raised to be fluent in Spanish. I wanted them to grow up connected to me, my culture and their Hispanic roots. It was also important because of all the advantages and opportunities that are available to bilinguals in their future careers.
Today, my children are adults and they use their bilingualism to keep in touch with their families and friends that speak Spanish, when traveling to Spanish-speaking countries, and in their places of work.
If you are thinking about raising your child with your mother tongue, or with a second or third language, the following suggestions can help you in the process of raising bilingual.
Align your expectations to your family’s reality.
Before introducing a new language to your children, whether it is at birth or later when they are older, it is important to maintain realistic expectations that match the reality of your family. That way, there are limited challenges and disappointments during the process.
Consider these questions:
Besides you, or your partner/spouse, what other sources of exposure to the language will your child have daily? Does anyone else in your circle (family, friends, neighbors) speak the language? Are there activities in your community that promote, cultivate or celebrate the language? Are there schools, after school programs or dual immersion programs that you would consider?
How important is fluency? Do you want your child to acquire the native level or just conversational level?
Your answers to these questions will help you in developing a language plan that will support you in raising bilinguals.
Define the method of learning to use at home.
Once the decision and commitment of raising bilingual (or multilingual) has been established, then you choose a method to follow. Every family is different and there is no one-size-fits-all approach. It is important that the method or strategies used are compatible with your family’s needs and dynamic. Here are the most common methods to choose from:
One Person, One Language (OPOL): In this method, each parent chooses one language to use with your child. In the case of a bicultural family, each parent chooses their mother tongue; if the parents are both bilinguals, one parent chooses the minority language. This method is also used by families that want to reinforce two languages at home different from the majority language outside the home.
Minority Language at Home (MAHL): In this case, both parents speak the same language, and it is the language used by the family.
Time and Place: This method is widely used by multilingual families. They chose times during the day or during the week to practice each language: speaking, reading, watching videos, listening to music, and playing. They alternate between languages.
Add gentle bilingual reinforcements into each day.
Even though extracurricular activities, online language learning programs, flashcards, subscription boxes and other resources to practice or learn a second language are helpful, the most important thing is to take full advantage of a child’s daily routine to reinforce language learning.
Speak the language. If you speak the language, even if you are not completely fluent, start by adding simple words and phrases in your daily interactions with your child.
Listen to music by native artists. Music is a powerful tool to practice pronunciation and learn grammar structure. Find age-level songs that are short and fun, introducing your child to basic vocabulary so they are engaged through repetition. As your child becomes more fluent, add popular traditional songs and don’t forget to dance and have fun!
Schedule play time using the target language. Any time we are playing with our children, we are building connections. What better way to nurture that connection than using the target language! Come up with fun activities to do together, but also join the spontaneous play your child creates.
Read, read, read. In addition to all of the benefits from reading, books are a wonderful way to introduce vocabulary and words beyond daily conversations. If pronunciation is an issue, consider audiobooks.
Use chores as a time to teach. Daily chores can also lead to learning additional vocabulary as well as culture. Cooking and typical foods from the native country can also be a great learning tool.
Supplement with screen time. Depending on your child’s age and your family’s guidelines around screens, there are apps, videos, and television programs that can stimulate interest in the target language.
Listen. Observe. Modify.
When raising bilinguals, we need to keep in mind the needs and development of the child. Their interests might change as they grow older, and that can impact the way they learn. The family language plan should be revised every year to tend to those changes in the child.
Remember that consistency is fundamental, but flexibility is key as you navigate your child’s bilingual journey. It is a process that hopefully leads to a life-style that your entire family can enjoy.