Aug 05, 2015


How to Build a Bilingual Home

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Contributing Author: Amanda Morgan

This article was previously published.

I remember my first summer working at a migrant school and watching in amazement as a tiny three year-old girl sat between two friends, cheerfully carrying on one conversation in perfect English, and another in perfect Spanish, her shiny dark ponytail flipping as she turned her head from one side to the other.  I had probably taken Spanish classes for about as long as she had been alive, but knew she had already attained a goal I am still far from reaching!  Raising your child with the ability to speak two languages is an amazing gift.  Here is some information that might help you as you begin this great undertaking.

How Language is Acquired

The current understanding of language acquisition is three-fold.  First, there is a biological component.  A child’s brain is wired to acquire language.  It isn’t wired for any language in particular; it is wired for language at large, and is therefore prepared to develop connections for any language- or languages- to which they are given adequate exposure.  (This is why babies adopted internationally acquire the language of their adoptive parents, not their biological parents.)

This leads to the second aspect, which is a social component.  Children usually develop the language of their caretakers because of the meaningful and repetitive interactions they have with them.

Lastly, there is a cognitive piece to this puzzle as children begin to develop an understanding of the rules of their language.  You see this in an overgeneralized way as you begin to hear English-speaking children use words like “goed” and “drived” for “went” and “drove”.  As children begin to gain a cognitive understanding of the rules of a language their communicative powers multiply as they are able to apply each rule to their existing repertoire.

Because of what we know about how language is acquired, we are also able to make some assumptions about how we can best support language acquisition.  Any language is best supported in an environment where children and infants have meaningful social interactions with nurturing caregivers and engaging playmates.  This means they will gain more vocabulary as you talk with them while you shop in the grocery store and make dinner than they will from flashcards featuring food.  Parents and caregivers can enhance language development as they use visual cues like gestures, facial expressions, and objects as they play, sing, and talk in everyday situations.  Repetition is also key, which is greatly enhanced through the conversations accompanying the child’s daily routine.

Simultaneous or Sequential

When decided how to incorporate two languages in your home, it is important to understand the difference between being simultaneously bilingual or sequentially bilingual.  A simultaneously bilingual child learns both languages concurrently.  Before the age of three, this can lead to the two languages being used interchangeably, with phrases comprised of both languages.   (“I want jugo!”) Some mistakenly interpret this as confusion or delay, but research shows that this is normal development, and that these bilingual children do not show language deficits (in fact, they show significant advantages, we’ll discuss later on).  Around the age of two or three, children begin to compartmentalize the two languages, and associate each with their coordinating speakers and environments.  For example, they recognize that English is spoken at Grandma Kate’s and Spanish and Grandma Lupe’s.

Some parents choose to speak their native language at home and have the children learn English when they go to school.  These children are considered sequentially bilingual or second language learners.  Their home language is their primary language, and English becomes their second language.  These children go through a different process of development as they enter their new language environment and begin the task of learning a second language.

What You Need to Know

Research about bilingual children can be difficult to decipher, due to the fact that there is a multitude of factors that play into the outcomes being measured.  However, there are some things that research tends to agree on.  Here are a few things to keep in mind as you make decisions about raising your child in a dual-language home.

Advantages You’ve Probably Thought About

The bilingual child has a tremendous advantage over her monolingual peers due to the simple and obvious fact that she can speak two languages.  Her circle of influence is larger and more opportunities are open to her. This can have social implications as well as determine the types of education and career paths she can follow.

Another clear advantage, which is often the motivating factor for parents, is the fact that maintaining a langauge helps children maintain their heritage.  By maintaining a heritage language, a child has stronger ties to their extended family and a more healthy ethnic identity, both of which correlate strongly to a wide assortment of positive outcomes ranging across many facets of healthy development.

Advantages That Might Surprise You

Research has shown that bilingual children have many other cognitive and linguistic advantages:

  • Bilingual children with competence in two languages that share a writing system (as do Spanish and English) show acceleration in learning to read.
  • Language knowledge has been shown to transfer, meaning knowledge and skills in one language will often help in understanding others.
  • Bilingual children show advanced problem solving skills.
  • Children speaking two languages show more density and neural activity in the language centers of their brains, which may also influence memory and attention.
  • Multilingual children have demonstrated enhanced abilities in  attention to detail, selectivity, focus, and other executive functions.

Challenges to Consider

While children benefit greatly from being bilingual, there are some challenges to keep in mind so that you can address them properly.  The first is the fact that with more to learn, there is more time and effort required.  Perhaps more so on your part than on your child’s.  In order to raise a bilingual child you must be willing to make a commitment to support the development of both languages in your child and to offer necessary assistance to teachers and caregivers so that they may support that growth as well.

The second thing you must  consider is the language in which your child will be instructed once he goes to school.  Language barriers can create significant challenges in school, affecting performance as well as attitudes (yours, your child’s, and your child’s teachers’).  Consider whether your child will attend a bilingual school or a single language school, and be sure that your child is competent in that instructional language to ensure a positive school experience.
Raising a bilingual child is road that requires effort, but is also filled with rewards!

Best of luck to you in your journey!

Want to know more?  Check out these resources:

Multilingual Living

Second-Language Acquisition and Bilingualism at an Early Age and the Impact on Early Cognitive Development by Ellen Bialystok, PhD

Challenging Common Myths About Young English Language Learners by Linda M. Espinosa

Amanda Morgan is a graduate of Utah State University who holds a BA in both elementary and early childhood education and an MS in childhood development. She is a mom, educator and writer for her blog Not Just Cute, which focuses on the development of the whole child.  Amanda is also the author of the ebook, Parenting with Positive Guidance.

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Angélica Pérez-Litwin

Angélica Pérez-Litwin

Dr. Perez-Litwin is the Founder & CEO of ELLA Leadership Institute, a multi-platform professional development organization designed to advance the careers and leadership of women. She's the creative force behind the LATINAS THINK BIG™ national tour, sponsored and live-streamed by Google.

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  1. I love this post because there are so many myths about being bilingual. There are so many benefits and some people still believe if you speak 2 languages (in the same sentence!) you don’t know either one. And that’s absolutely the opposite! If you can use 2 languages in the same sentence it means you know them so well you are able to manipulate language with flexibility. How awesome is that! I am glad to see more peple exploring the benefots of bilingualism!

    • I agree with you, Vanessa. Despite all the information out there showing evidence that bilingualism is beneficial (socially, cognitively, language-wise), there are still myths out there. I remember being told (long ago) not to talk to my kids in both languages because they would get “confused” – not so. Absolutely not true. My friends Ana and Roxana have an excellent website on raising kids bilingually/biculturally, For more on this, definitely visit them.

  2. Beautiful, lovely, important article! I love both the scientific twist, while keeping the emotional twist — learning multiple language is often (mostly?) about maintaining heritage that is SO important. Thanks for this wonderful offering. :)

  3. Kathy Tamir says:

    My daughter grew up hearing English, Hebrew, and Spanish at home. In school she heard English and Spanish. She now (age 21) speaks all three languages and is learning 2 more that she’s interested in!


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