Raising a Bilingual Child

First steps to introducing your child with multiple languages

Raising a Bilingual ChildIt was important to Vancouver mom — and professional musician and family counsellor — Sarita Galvez and her husband Hussein Moradi that their children be fluent in her mother tongue, Spanish, and that they understood Farsi, the language of their father. “It was a challenge, but we so enjoyed teaching them,” she says. “For us, it wasn’t only about them being fluent in the language but also the culture.”

From birth, Galvez’s three children, whose names each contain both a Spanish and Persian component (Gilberto Ramin, 11, and twins Luna Ziba and Shirin Libertad, 7), have heard Spanish from their mom and Farsi from their dad, using English only when all together. Galvez admits it was a bit of a culture shock for her children once they were enrolled in daycare, but they soon improved their English. Now all three are fluent in English and Spanish and have a working knowledge of Farsi — and they are also excelling in a French immersion program.

why now?

Exposing your toddler to another language may seem daunting, but the experience enhances their cognitive development, and unless they have very severe cognitive problems, children adapt remarkably well to multi-lingual situations, says Dr. Richard Clément, professor of psychology at the University of Ottawa and director of the Official Languages and Bilingualism Institute.

Having each parent speak a different language is a common way to bring kids up bilingually, but according to Clément, “What is most important is a positive attitude towards the multi-lingual situation, and that both languages are equally valued. Otherwise one language will start to dominate, and your child will learn very fast that one is the favoured language.”

getting started

There are resources out there to help teach languages, but unless they are comprehensible to your child, they won’t have much of an impact, says Dr. Clément. Your toddler isn’t going to become fluent in another language just watching a DVD, but he may pick up some of the words if you interact while watching or when listening to a language CD, and then talk about it together. Here are three ways to inspire a love of another language in your little one.

1 BY THE BOOK “Read, read, read,” says Monique Levesque, a teacher with 21 years of experience, the last 12 at École Whitehorse Elementary. “Even if English is your only language, reading to your children in English will give them the vocabulary development that will help them decode other languages.” Check your local library or specialty bookstore for board books in the languages your child is learning.

2 MAKE IT FUN As a native French speaker, Dr. Clément’s father designated Saturdays as the day the whole family spoke English. “It created a context of play and a very relaxed atmosphere,” he says. Galvez says her family connects their languages to everyday life by celebrating Latin-American and Persian festivals as well as all the usual North American ones.

3 SUPPORT NETWORK Outside the home, try to connect with people who speak the language your child is learning. Search for a language play group where your child can interact with other kids the same age — your child may even develop a friendship in which he can practice his new linguistic skills. You might also consider hiring a childcare provider who speaks the language you are teaching. Exposure is key, states Dr. Christopher Fennell, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Ottawa. “Babies soak up language like sponges,” he says. “If parents want to increase the bilingual nature of the household, it appears that the more 50/50 exposure that a child gets, the more balanced bilingual she will be.”

Lola Augustine Brown hopes that her own toddler, Perdida, will have the natural flair for languages that she always dreamed of for herself.

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