3 Tips for Raising Bilingual Kids

Linguistics experts share their best tips on bringing up baby in two different languages

Illustration by Helena Garcia

Illustration by Helena Garcia

Given Canada’s multicultural roots, it’s no surprise so many children are growing up with more than one language under their belts. In fact, Statistics Canada reports that 17.5 percent of the Canadian population, or 5.8 million people, speak at least two languages at home. My native French speaking husband and I wanted to be one of these families. But when our daughter, Chloe, was born, we realized we weren’t sure of the best approach to take.

Start Early

Begin teaching your child a second language as soon as she’s born. “Given adequate exposure, children who learn two languages from birth have a good chance of acquiring native-like competence in both,” says Fred Genesee, PhD, a psychology professor who specializes in second language acquisition and bilingualism research at McGill University in Montreal. Some research indicates a child needs exposure to a language 40 percent of the time to attain this level of competence.

From the moment we brought Chloe home, my husband spoke to her in French while I spoke in English, an approach known as “one-parent-one-language.” Gerald Boisvert from Mississauga, Ont., and his wife also use this method with their kids, now 12, five and four. “My kids know they are to talk to me in French,” he says.

French Immersion Tips

The OPOL approach ensures children get approximately equal exposure to each language. But there is always the risk that they’ll prefer one language. The key? Look for ways to make the less-used language part of your child’s life outside your four walls. For example, consider enrolling her in a bilingual daycare or a play group in that language.

Don’t Fall to These Common Myths

Raising a bilingual child isn’t without its challenges, and along the way some common concerns might crop up.

  • Delayed Language: Despite parental fears, speaking two languages to babies won’t cause a clinical or significant delay in language development later on. That said, bilingual children do display some minor differences in fine grammatical details and it may them a bit more time to perfect proper usage than a monolingual child. “The early milestones of language development happen at the same time for children who learn one language or two,” says Johanne Paradis, PhD, a professor in the department of linguistics at the University of Alberta in Edmonton. A bilingual child will babble the same way as a monolingual infant does. She will also produce her first words around her first birthday, and will combine words into two- or three-word “sentences” around two years of age.
  • Language Confusion: Despite choosing the OPOL approach, we worried whether Chloe would be able to tell the languages apart or know which language to speak with each parent. But around the age of two, children begin using their languages appropriately with each parent; most of the time your child will speak in French to the French-speaking parent, say, and in English with the English-speaking parent. Still, there are some differences between a bilingual child’s language use and growth when compared to that of a monolingual child. For example, your bilingual child might mix two languages together in one sentence or demonstrate a better vocabulary in one language than the other. These differences are completely normal, says ­­­­Dr. Paradis. “There is no evidence that [learning two languages simultaneously] confuses a child, or that they never learn to speak their languages properly.”

Don’t Give Up!

Vancouver mom Zobeida Slogan spoke in her native Spanish to her daughter Kiana, now four, from birth. But keeping up the routine of teaching a language that her husband doesn’t understand quickly became a challenge. By the time she was pregnant with her second daughter, Skylar, now three, Slogan had all but given up. In an effort to continue exposing their daughters to Spanish, the Slogans hired a nanny from Peru for the first year of Skylar’s life. And next year, the family is taking a month-long trip to Mexico. Slogan’s advice? “Speak the second language at home even if the other partner is left out,” she says. “Sing songs in the language, make friends with people who speak the language. Don’t give up!”

Find out more about baby language with our article on Assessing Your Baby’s Speech.

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