In some families, children automatically become bilingual. When a child interacts with one or more caretakers (whether parents, other relatives, or a non-family member such as a nanny) in one language, and interacts in a different language with other caretakers, the child will automatically learn both languages. However, many families speak two or more languages at home, but do not interact with their children in each language. If children do not interact in a language, they will not learn to speak it or understand it!
In many intercultural families, children do NOT become bilingual–but there are reasons this happens. If you want your children to be bilingual, they can! Just don’t assume it will happen magically. Your children must use each language you want them to know, and they must continue using it as they grow older.
We really wanted our children to learn English (my native language) as well as my husband’s native language. My eldest son spoke both languages until age three. Then, my husband went on a six-month long business trip. When he returned, my son could not understand their language. He would have regained the skills quickly, but my husband could not bare the gap in communication. He began speaking English (thought I begged him not to!). He thought they would resume the native language later. They could not. To this day, my husband’s family believes my children will somehow just “catch on” to their native language. I know from my career experience in language acquisition that this will not happen without a lot of work!
Here are a few myths that people believe about children and bilingualism–if you want your children to be bilingual, you really must not believe these myths!
- Myth: As long as my child hears us speaking our language, he will learn it.
Truth: Hearing a language will do nothing for the child’s speaking skills, and little to help him understand a language if he isn’t required to respond by speaking in the language. For a child to be bilingual, he or she needs very frequent practice hearing and speaking a language. Many people can passively understand languages they cannot speak. (The linguistic terms for this are receiving comprehensible input in a language and producing comprehensible output. There are many ways to practice new languages, but these two activities MUST occur for a person to learn to understand and speak a language.)
- Myth: Once my child has learned a language, he or she will never forget it.
Truth: Children often lose languages they do not continue to practice. This happens all the time. To be bilingual for life, be sure your children continue to practice their languages either with you, playmates, other family members, or in close and frequent social circles like church or community groups.
- Myth: My child will always feel proud to know and speak a second language.
Truth: Many adolescents go through a stage when they reject all languages except the mainstream language, or the one spoken by most of their peers. This is painful for families, but it is a normal stage of growth. Families should continue to use the native language with children. There are gentle methods parents have used successfully to keep children speaking the native language should this occur. As an example, a child in the US may tend to temporarily reject his or her native language of Spanish. He might say “Mom, can I have $10 to see a movie with a friend tonight?” The mother can gently refuse to answer until the child repeats the question in Spanish.
- Myth: My child can speak two languages with me. We’ll just switch when we want.
Truth: In almost all cases, children will eventually speak one language with each parent, and other languages will feel uncomfortable to speak with that parent. A child may speak one language with the mother and a different language with the father. There are exceptions to this, such as a parent with two native languages (such as a regional language and Hindi for a parent from India), or a family that speaks three languages–one all together, plus each parent has his or her own native language. In these cases, a parent can develop a clearly established pattern in which he or she uses both languages with the child, and the child will follow this pattern.
- Myth: Some children are confused by speaking more than one language in the home.
Truth: Children learning more than one language at home may speak later than others, and they may do things such as insert a word from one language into a sentence they are speaking in another language. This is just because their brain is developing pathways monolingual children do not need (and will also not benefit from later!). Of course, some children have hearing problems or issues which would cause challenges in communicating in a single language (such as autism). In these cases, seek a specialist to determine the right course.
- Myth: My child can always learn my native language later. For now, I will help him or her learn the language of the community where we live.
Truth: As an ESL teacher in the United States, I can tell you for certain that children learn the language of the community in school and from friends. They often lose or reject the minority language of their parent–so this is the language to enforce if you want your child to learn it. It is a great idea, of course, to help your child practice the community language too–but this can be done by enrolling him or her in a playgroup, attending social functions (such as religious services) together and using the community language there, reading stories, playing vocabulary games, and so on. Using the community language as your mode of communication with your child is not necessary for him or her to learn the community language–and may result in your child not learning your native language.
- Myth: My child will learn my language when he’s older because he’ll visit my country.
Truth: First, if a visit is the bulk of the child’s experience in the language, he or she is unlikely to develop fluency in the language, even if the visit is a long one. If language practice continues after a visit of two to three months during which the child is hearing and using the target language each day, then this may help the child to develop fluency.
Note also that if your child speaks a widely used language, even during a visit to your native country, people may use the more common language with your child rather than your native language! For example, let’s say your family speaks Spanish and lives in Ecuador, but you live in Canada with your children. You dream of visiting Ecuador with your children so that they can learn Spanish. You may be surprised to hear your relatives using ENGLISH with your children, even those who know almost no English. Grandparents figure they can more easily say “apple” in English than they can teach your child to say “apple” in Spanish. This is a common scenario that happens because communication is important to family members like grandparents who rarely see your children, while language learning is important to you!
Take it from me: if you want your children to become bilingual, begin using both languages with them at an early age and continue using each language. Do not switch the language you use randomly! Do not think children will learn a language that they hear you speaking with your spouse. Unless you speak it with them and require them to respond, they will not learn to use the language!