One of the reasons I love Brookline is because it is such an international community. When you are walking on the sidewalks or visiting a playground, you hear so many different languages spoken. And it is not just adults who are speaking in these various languages. The number of U.S. residents five years old and older who speak a non-English language has doubled over the last three decades. The number of children who are being raised bilingually has increased, in part, because parents and caregivers better understand the many advantages that come with bilingualism.
Studies have shown that bilingual children tend to have better reading and writing skills in both languages and stronger analytical skills. They tend to test higher in areas focused on creative thinking and problem solving than monolingual children. They also tend to be more tolerant of other cultures and children who speak other languages. Often, these children have stronger family bonds given that they can talk with their relatives in their native languages. Bilingual children tend to feel special and proud of their ability to speak a language other than English, and this builds confidence and self-esteem at a young age. Also, from an economic perspective, bilingual individuals are increasingly in demand in today’s global economy.
Given the many advantages associated with bilingualism, it is not surprising that more parents nowadays are embracing it. There are no “right” or “wrong” ways to raise a bilingual child. However, some accepted strategies have proven helpful to many families. These include:
- Start Early: The earlier you introduce a second language to a child, the better. Babies can understand and begin to distinguish between different languages (even in the womb!). Children who learned a second language as infants often more likely to become fluent in additional languages later in life.
- Make a Plan: As a family, make a plan for who will speak in what language to the child. The caregiver whose first language is English (or who is more comfortable in English) should speak in English and the other in the second language. It is thought to be best to stick to this “one caregiver, one language” policy because it is less confusing for the child. When the family is all together, decide which language will be the primary family language.
- Stick to the Plan: Once it has been decided which caregiver speaks which language with the child, he/she must stick to this plan. Be patient, but persistent. It may take years for the child to respond in a second language, but continue to speak to the child in that language regardless of their responses. Repetition is key.
- Use a Variety of Tools: There are so many educational tools nowadays that can help support a child learning a second language. Children can learn by listening to music, playing games, reading books, and watching television all in a second language. Reading in a second language can, in particular, significantly help a child to learn it. Many of these learning tools are at one’s fingertips now thanks to smartphones.
- Develop a Support Network: Identify other families who are also raising children with the same second language and get together with them. It is beneficial for children to see and hear other children speaking their second language. It can also be important for adults to bounce ideas and suggestions off of each other. Many neighborhoods have non-English playgroups and tutoring programs – all of which are great resources for children and adults.
- Travel: If possible, expose a bilingual child to countries where the primary language is his/her secondary language. Full cultural immersion is often the best way to become comfortable with a language. Exposure to other cultures at a young age will help to broaden a child’s mind and global perspective.
Raising a bilingual child can be challenging, but also hugely rewarding for everyone involved. Patience and persistence are critical. In some cases, it may be several years before one sees the fruits of their labor. Children will inevitably push back at one point or another during the process. One day, though, things will seemingly all fall into place. The child will begin to realize what an extraordinary gift it is to be able to communicate in another language and to know and appreciate a world of other cultures and traditions.
About the Author:
Gladys Ruiz is the Director of Little Children Schoolhouse in Brookline, MA. After more than ten years working in Early Childhood Education, Gladys opened the Little Children Schoolhouse to provide a nurturing, loving environment—an extension of her student’s home and family life—in Brookline. Pre-K, Preschool and Daycare programs for toddlers and infants include extra activities, such as weekly music, yoga, cooking, science activities, and field trips. Both full day and part-time enrollment are available.