Raising Bilingual Children: Enjoy the Journey and Get Ready for Hard Work

By Ruth Pinkus-Resnik

As a mom of two bilingual children, ages 18 and 27, I can tell you it is not an easy task to raise children who speak multiple languages. There is much more support and knowledge on the subject today than 20 years ago when I was just starting my own journey as a parent. Research during the past 15 years has shown that children are not only capable of learning more than one language but that there are significant benefits to be gained as well.

Even with this new understanding of bilingualism, we still have a long way to go to reverse some of the myths that have been created throughout the years that are still in the minds of many people today.

Some myths are:

• There is only one method to becoming bilingual.

To become fully bilingual requires a long and multifaceted process that includes consistency, practice and motivation. In families in which the home language is other than English, parents can offer their children the gift of their home language in addition to learning English.

The way in which children start their trajectory to bilingualism varies.

Some children are exposed to one language first, usually at home, and add a second language later when they start school. Other children have exposure to two languages from birth. Often the parents will speak to the children in their home language and an older sibling will speak to the child in English.

Regardless of the method, the process of learning multiple languages is not even. There are times in which children speak more often in one language then the other, or they even refuse for a time to speak one of the languages. The key is not to give up and to keep trying to motivate your child to use both languages.

• Children acquire new languages very quickly and easily.

Children tend to learn a second language faster than adults but that does not mean that they acquire the level of proficiency needed to succeed in school in a short period of time. They need many years of study and practice to get to the academic level of proficiency in a second language and having a very strong foundation in their first language is essential for a successful acquisition of the second language.

• Children will get confused if people speak to them in different languages.

Children have the capability of speaking more than one language and they are not confused by using both of them. Children tend to mix the languages because they lack the vocabulary in each language to express themselves, so they use the one they have available. When that happens we just need to offer the child the word they are missing in that language to be able to have the complete sentence in one language.

Helping children achieve full bilingualism is a long process and sometimes not an easy task but there are some tips you can use to motivate them:

• Offer your children opportunities to practice each language by planning play dates with other children who speak one or the other language.

• Find events in the community related to your culture in which they speak the language that you want to reinforce.

• Go to the library for story times in which they use the languages you want your children to use.

• Be a role model by learning or using both languages yourself.

• Express to your child how wonderful it is to be able to speak many languages.

• Work with your preschool teachers to help them bring your home language to the classroom and make your child feel proud of it.

Through extensive research done during the last 15 years there is consensus about the lifelong benefits of bilingualism. It is our responsibility to embrace and honor children’s home language while they acquire a second language, in this case English, as well as encourage English-speaking children to learn a new language.

Bilingual children can expect many benefits from their dual language mastery including:

• Developing a brain flexibility that can be transferred to other areas

• Building a foundation that allows them to understand differences

• Becoming connected to their roots if one of their languages relates to their ancestors

• Being better prepared for a global economy that requires the use of other languages.

I hope this information helps you in this journey with your child. Enjoy the trip; it is worth it!

Ruth Pinkus-Resnik has an M.S. in Child Development and Family Relations and 30 years’ experience working with young children. She is the Education Coordinator at Family Connections, a bilingual Free Parent Participation Preschool for children age 0-5 in East Palo Alto, Menlo Park and Redwood City, and a consultant for the Early Childhood Language Development Institute of the San Mateo County Office of Education.