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A bilingual baby learning a second language.
dads & mums

the low-down on raising a bilingual baby

6 minutes

03/09/2021

Are you thinking of raising your child to be bilingual but are unsure how to go about it or even whether it’s the ‘right’ thing to do? You’re definitely not alone. It’s something lots of parents-to-be and new parents ponder (and often worry) over. Below we list some of the wonderful benefits of speaking two languages to baby, as well as debunking a few bilingual myths – but remember, it has to be right for you.

  1. You can start at any time

  2. There is no right or wrong way

  3. It does take work

  4. It’s never too late

  5. It won’t hold them back

  6. The many benefits of bilingualism

1. Bilingual baby: you can start at any time

Wondering when to start teaching baby a second language? Well, experts believe the best time is between birth and three years of age. That’s because your little one’s brain is like a sponge at this point, absorbing absolutely everything that crosses its path.

2. Bilingual baby: there is no right or wrong way

There is no right or wrong way to teach a baby two languages, but it is important that you’re consistent.

Whatever the circumstances surrounding your decision – you might have moved to another country, are multilingual yourself, have a partner who speaks a different language to you or are simply keen to give your child a head start in life – the best way to successfully raise a bilingual baby is to make a plan and stick to it.

As with everything when it comes to babies, different techniques work for different families, but some ideas for teaching baby a second language include:

  • Language rotation: where you speak one language to baby one week, and another the next.

  • One person, one language: where one parent speaks to their baby in one language, and another parent (or family member) speaks to them in a different language.

  • Time and place: where you choose either a time of day or a certain place to speak a specific language to your child. For example, you might speak French or Mandarin at home, but English when you’re out and about.

3. Bilingual baby: it does take work

When it comes to raising a bilingual baby, in addition to being consistent in terms of exposing baby to a second language, it’s also important that you’re reasonably constant. i.e., that they hear this language as much as possible.

As developmental psychologist Erika Hoff wrote in a 2015 review article on bilingual development: “For everybody trying to raise a bilingual child, whatever your background and reason, it’s very important to realise that acquiring a language requires a massive exposure to that language.

One idea to consider in terms of helping with this is bilingual education. In countries like Wales and Ireland for example, lots of parents send their children to Welsh and Irish-speaking schools, which means they’re fully immersed in the language on a daily basis, but often still naturally speak English at home. As well as guaranteeing constant and consistent exposure, of course, this also helps take the onus off you.

You could also enrol your baby in a weekend language class led by a native speaker or use the internet to your advantage. There are lots of educational videos, work sheets, etc, available for free online, and you’ll find lots of support from other parents of bilingual children on the internet too.

Just remember, if things aren’t working out and attempting to raise a bilingual baby is beginning to stress you out, then it’s completely okay to reassess whether it’s the right thing for you and your family.

I live in Wales but am from Surrey originally, so was a little unsure when my husband (who’s Welsh but not a native speaker) suggested they attend a Welsh school – as it’s something he always wishes he had done. Everything’s working well so far, although I do find it difficult not being able to help them with their homework. I have been trying to learn myself, but it comes so much more naturally to them. It’s true what they say about children being better at absorbing things.”

4. Bilingual baby: it’s never too late

If you considered speaking a second language to your newborn, but for whatever reason decided against it, it’s not too late to change your mind. As mentioned above, the best time to start teaching baby two languages is between nought and three years of age, but the second-best time is from four to seven and then from eight to puberty.

Raising a bilingual baby may seem daunting, but whether it’s English, Spanish, French, Greek or Mandarin, there are plenty of tools available to help you, from books to music and games. Kids love to watch the same film over and over, so try showing it to them in different languages – there’s research to say this definitely works. My other top tip would be to join a bilingual playgroup or class – you can’t learn a language if you don’t hear it and this is a great way of gaining exposure.

I’m not going to lie, raising a child to be bilingual is hard work. But then raising a child generally is hard work. For me, the positives more than outweigh the negatives.

5. Bilingual baby: it won’t hold them back

There was a point in the past where researchers thought that exposing babies to more than one language resulted in slower learning generally – especially when it came to their speech. But it is now widely accepted that this isn’t the case at all and that being raised to be bilingual is actually advantageous. Not just in terms of the opportunities speaking two languages will ultimately bring baby, but also with regards to things like flexible thinking (see below for more).

“My husband is Portuguese and when I mentioned to a friend that we were planning to speak two languages to our (then unborn) son, they were adamant it would confuse them. I went away and did my homework and discovered that this was a complete myth. My son, who’s just turned four, is now a proficient speaker in both English and Portuguese and I couldn’t be prouder.”

6. Bilingual baby: benefits of bilingualism

Still unsure whether to raise a bilingual baby? Here are some of the many benefits researchers have found:

  • Bilingual babies are more flexible and focused in their thinking, more adept at certain types of problem solving and more imaginative too. That’s because learning to speak two languages at a very early age wires your brain a little differently.

  • Immersing your child in another culture (which often goes hand in hand with learning another language) is hugely beneficial to them.

  • It can be lots of fun.

  • Speaking two languages makes it easier to learn a third.

  • Being bilingual is very desirable in the job market (for when baby grows up).

I’m not going to lie, raising a child to be bilingual is hard work. But then raising a child generally is hard work. For me, the positives more than outweigh the negatives.

If you found this guide helpful, you might like to take a look at some of the other features on our Parenting Hub? For example…

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