Photo by the author.
I WAS BORN IN THE NETHERLANDS. Because of our small population of just 17 million, I’ve always been exposed to a second language — not many people speak my own. Five years ago, my Argentinian husband and I became grateful parents of a little girl. That was the start of our duo-lingual family. We never really discussed how to teach our native language to our child, though we were convinced of the so-called ‘One Person One Language’ approach. This means that the parents consistently speak only their native language to their child. In my case, I spoke Dutch and my husband spoke Spanish. It was very important to us that our daughter learn both languages so that she could communicate with her grandparents and learn about our separate heritages.
Nowadays, more and more monolingual parents are deciding to expose their children to a second language, whether it is from their own teachings or an outside instructor or caregiver, like an au pair. Whatever your approach, here is why my husband and I were successful nurturing our little linguist.
We started early.
The best time to teach your child a second language is the same time that she’s learning her first one. So vamos! The earlier you introduce it, the easier it will be for your child to pick up its unique sounds. Besides, the younger the child, the less likely they are to care about errors. She’ll just happily chatter away, not even realizing she is using different languages. For her, these are just new words, it doesn’t matter if they are Spanish, English, Dutch, whatever.
We teach new words immediately in both languages.
If you don’t want to do formal lessons, you can introduce bilingual basics by telling your child how these new words are translated in a second language. When teaching new a new word to our son, we point out an object and tell him what it is called in Dutch and Spanish. This way, the sounds of the new word are already becoming familiar.
We create a natural learning environment.
The best way for a child to understand a new language is to hear people speaking it regularly. If your children are exposed to conversations, they’ll begin to pick up the sounds and the natural accents of those conversations. If you are a monolingual parent, I would recommend agreeing within your family about when you should speak and teach the second language. For example, only on the weekends.
We collect all the relevant materials.
We always make sure that the books, music, and movies we have at home are either in Dutch or Spanish or English. Besides that, we always ask the grandparents to bring books and toys from our home countries when they are visiting us. If you start early, you really don’t need to enroll your child in formal language classes — there are so many materials available in libraries, bookstores and on the internet that will support your bilingual teaching.
All that being said, there are a few disadvantages to raising multilingual kids.
Bilingual children speak later.
While there’s no scientific evidence that actually proves multilingual children start speaking later, it is believed that there’s usually a 3 to 6-month delay compared to monolingual children of the same age.
Bilingual children are going to mix their words more often.
Mixing words is very common in children learning more than one language at the same time. From time to time, our daughter’s teachers will not understand something that she’s trying to say, though she always makes herself clear. But mixing words is a temporary phenomenon — by age 5 it had mostly disappeared from our children.
Raising a bilingual child is a very big commitment.
Teaching your child a second language or raising her bilingual is a long-term investment. It will require extra effort on your part to provide enough language exposure, extra encouragement and keeping the language rules consistent.
But to complete my story, three years ago we moved to the US. Our daughter started preschool and within six months, English became her first language. She sings, talks, dreams, plays and answers in English and she’s become the ‘teacher’ of our 18-month-old son. Although his vocabulary consists of only 5 words, he understands all three languages perfectly.