Raising Bilingual Kids in a Non-Bilingual Household

I’ve always wanted my children to grow up knowing more than one language and now that River is here, it is time to rise to the challenge. As I progress with teaching her Spanish and French, I am realizing this is going to be harder than I thought, especially since English is my first language. However, I know the effort will be worth it as there are so many benefits to bilingualism!

Some of the foreign language books I read to River

For example, bilingual children show better cognitive flexibility. Children who know two or more languages must actively decide which language to use depending on the environment and context. This requires amazing self-control as they suppress one of their languages to engage another. Bilingual children also demonstrate better short-term memory, problem-solving skills, and attention span than monolingual children. Knowing multiple languages is a desirable skill in such a globally connected economy and can help in the job hunt later in life. Learning a second language can also delay the potential onset of Alzheimer’s! 

So why wouldn’t I want River to start learning other languages? It is a beautiful gift that will keep her mentally agile and culturally competent. 

It is never too early to start practicing a second tongue with your kids. In fact, infancy is the best time to start as babies’ brains grow at an incredible speed. Between birth and age three, the brain is in its most flexible state and within the first five years of life, a child’s brain grows up to 90%! This aids in a more natural acquisition of language as opposed to learning a foreign language later in life since adults are more focused on grammar rules and knowing all the correct vocabulary words. Children aren’t embarrassed to make mistakes as most adults are. For example, as children learn a language, they pick up on patterns such as using “-ed” at the end of a verb to make it past tense (painted, carried, etc.). This means when they come across irregular past tense verbs (ran, brought, etc.) they will still add “-ed” to the end of these words. A child might say something like “I bringed my lunch to school.” Over time they will learn these irregular verbs, but they are not worried that they “might sound silly”. Embarrassment in adults can sometimes delay the language learning process, but a child’s willingness to make mistakes greatly increases their abilities!

Some people are concerned that teaching a second language early in life can cause developmental delays. This is not true and recent studies have shown bilingual children acquire language at the same pace as monolingual children. Children do not get confused with their languages and babies at six months can already tell the difference between multiple languages by recognition of patterns and sounds. Sometimes bilingual children will go through a “quiet period” as they process multiple languages, but this just means that they are thinking critically about the world around them! 

As great as all this information is, I still find it difficult to maintain a bilingual household. Some days I start off determined to speak to River only in Spanish, but by 9am, I’ve already reverted back to English. Even though I’ve been studying Spanish for 10 years, my vocabulary is still limited and talking to River in Spanish (or French) requires constant, intentional effort. Most days, I feel like my native language is hard enough as I exhaust my mental capacity. (Mom brain, am I right?) I sometimes fear that the gaps in my knowledge will reflect in her own development. 

English is also the language in which I learned to love, and it sometimes feels harder to accurately express my feelings in Spanish and French. I feel like the words I know in English can better capture a particular idea or feeling. This makes sense since studies show people are more logical in their second language. And while this logic can be useful when considering problems or ethical dilemmas, I don’t necessarily want to be logical when it comes to expressing love for my daughter. I want to be 100% caught up in my feelings and emotions! 

However, there are definitely times that my other tongues actually do a better job of describing a situation or emotion. For example, I love using pet names for River in French since the language feels so poetic. “Chouchou, mon coeur, ma chérie” perfectly capture my feelings towards River! As much as I’d love to maintain a Spanish-speaking household, sometimes it just doesn’t seem possible, and I won’t limit myself to only Spanish or French if I feel like I can’t express an idea properly.

So how will I combat this? Will River ever learn Spanish or French if I keep showing her that English is the more prevailing and common tongue?

I’ve come to the conclusion that I can only do my best each day. The more I use Spanish and French in the home, the easier it will become. I will eventually advance in my own language skills which will translate to River’s own development. Sometimes I feel an intense pressure to do the whole bilingual thing perfectly or not at all, but I am trying to let that go. If I put this pressure on myself, it will create a stressful environment for language-learning, and I want River to feel that learning other languages is fun! 

The best way to get your kid to learn another language is just to start speaking to them with that language! Don’t feel like you have to know everything before introducing another tongue. I know people who only use a foreign language when speaking with their kid and other people who have a “word of the day” program. Do what works best for you and your family! What matters most is the attitude you model towards learning. As someone who has worked in childcare and education for almost ten years, believe me when I say kids are watching you! I am learning as I go and I probably will make lots of mistakes along the way, but modeling curiosity and a fun relationship with my foreign tongues will go a lot further than some rigid system. Since I’ve set out on this journey, I have learned so many new words by reading, singing and playing with River. My goal for my children shouldn’t be perfect fluency, but a desire to grow, and eventually, an appreciation for other cultures. If I can cultivate the joy of learning languages and learning in general, I will have succeeded. 

Sources:

Language differentiation in early bilingual development* | Journal of Child Language | Cambridge Core

Advantages of a bilingual brain – Early Childhood D

2 thoughts on “Raising Bilingual Kids in a Non-Bilingual Household

  1. Loved reading this, Summer, and that you are trying to help River to be bi-lingual. I think it’s great that you speak to her in English, French and Spanish. I love that you have given yourself permission to do your best and not try to do it perfectly. Be patient with yourself. It’s hard enough to jus teach English let alone 2 other languages!!

    Like

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