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Planning to raise your children bilingual? Decisions, concerns and plans

Updated: Nov 5, 2021

Language is identity, emotion and belonging. Teaching your child your native language in a context where there is another dominant language is about more than just building your child’s linguistic skills, but is also about sharing your cultural identity with them.

Even before becoming a parent, I knew that I wanted to speak to my children in my mother tongue, so that they’d feel at home when visiting our family in Spain. And I loved the idea of teaching them jokes, songs and new words in Spanish, like a special bond between us.

Now, after five years’ commitment to this endeavour with supergirl Nora and lively toddler Luca, there may well have been a few bumps along the road, as I haven’t always been as consistent or conscious as I am now, but I do believe that the effort has been worth it, even if the results aren’t always certain.

A brave effort with unpredictable results

Parenting is hard work. And bilingual parenting is even harder work. Having said that, raising my children as a Spanish native speaker living in Italy has helped me be more conscious of their upbringing and reflect on how my actions affect them, and… it’s also a lot of fun! All the anecdotes, misunderstandings and our unique sentences in Itañol.

But it’s true that it takes time and effort, and best of all… it’s highly unpredictable. When I heard this from one of the mums on the amazing podcast “Entre Dos”, where two bilingual mums share their experiences, worries and challenges raising their children in Spanish and English, I was relieved to find out I wasn’t the only mum feeling that things weren’t going quite as I’d expected. Raising your child in two languages isn’t a straightforward equation of if you do A plus B you’ll get C. There are so many factors involved — family dynamics, psychological issues, as well as cultural and social prejudices — that sometimes the results are not always quite the ones you dreamed of. Like my mum always says: “Every child is a world.”

I know this may sound discouraging, but far from it! It’s about celebrating even the smallest of victories (when out of the blue, they speak to their sibling in the target language, or when they ask you to change their cartoons to Spanish), instead of getting frustrated because they aren’t speaking perfectly the language you’re trying so hard to teach them.

Who said it was easy? A conscious decision

Before I became a parent, I always thought that creating a multilingual environment for my children would come naturally. However, when you live in a country where your language is not the majority language, it’s not that easy to be consistent and speak to your children in your native language ALL the time. It’s a conscious effort — you have to constantly remind yourself and your children to use that language. Discussing this issue with other bilingual mums, we all agreed that in some contexts when you may be with people who don’t understand your native language, you’re more likely to switch to the dominant language because you don’t want to exclude anyone, or you may simply be self-conscious about it.

And this is even harder if you’re not a native speaker and want to teach your children another language that you’re fluent in or that you simply love speaking. Our British linguist, Rachel, is one of these brave mums, who has tried to share her passion for French with her daughter. But when you’re not living in a French-speaking country or have a community who speaks the language, it’s difficult for the child to see a need for that language or have the motivation to speak it. However, the results she has seen, however small, have been of unimaginable value for both her and her daughter. In this episode of the podcast “Bilingual Kids Rock, another non-native mum raising her children in French in an English-speaking country talks about her experience and reminds us that it’s not about searching perfection, but progression.

So, what can you do to make sure your child learns your native language and identifies with your culture? One of the key things you can do is to plan their exposure to the minority language.

When you struggle, plan the exposure

It’s a theory developed by Dr Annick De Houwer, founder of the Harmonious Bilingualism Network (HaBilNet), that refers to a neutral or positive experience of family members in a bilingual setting, as opposed to “conflicting bilingualism”.

So, how can you create a harmonious bilingual environment for you and your child? I think these ideas could be a good place to start 😉

1. It’s (insert your language here) time!

If you can’t speak your language to your child all the time, set aside specific times in the day where you will all speak only that language. This could be when playing with them: Sit with them on their bedroom floor, down at their level, and, as neuropsychologist Alvaro Bilbao says in his bestseller “El cerebro del niño explicado a los padres” (The Child’s Brain Explained to Parents), they’ll open up to you like a book. This special time can be extremely meaningful, because not only will you be talking to them, but you’ll be listening to them, too.

Another great time is when picking them up from nursery or school, where they’ll have spent the whole day surrounded by the dominant language (unless they go to a bilingual school), and asking them how their day was. In our case, my daughter always sets off talking in Italian but, little by little, throughout the conversation, I keep replying in Spanish or repeating what she’s said in Spanish, and eventually she switches to Spanish, or at least ends up talking in her lovely Itañol.

Bath time, dinner time, breakfast time, music time… Any time can be a good time to try to establish certain rules. It doesn’t have to be anything rigid or strict, but more like a game, where you could say that right now you only have Spanish/Mandarin/Arabic words in your head. That way they might try harder to stick to your language when conversing with you.

2. Full immersion with your family and friends

After exposure to words and songs every day in your mother tongue, talking to your family and friends back home is the perfect way to create a need for them to speak the target language. When you call or video-call your family, they’ll be speaking to Grandma or cousins who may be monolingual, so won’t understand the dominant language. Your child will then have to speak the target language, or at least give it a go and ask for any words they can’t find. Having said that, this could also have the exact opposite effect, and they may well remain silent and refuse to speak. This sometimes happens to us, in which case we just let them go and try again the next time…

Apart from video-calls, visiting your hometown will also see your child undergo a language sprint. Of course, this may not be an option for you every month, or even every year, but if you have the opportunity, make the most of it. In this full immersion environment, they’ll activate all their passive knowledge, have much more input from a wide variety of speakers in a wide variety of contexts and feel autonomous in this language. Instead of just those few moments a day, they’ll be exposed to your native language all day every day. Moreover, they’ll be in direct contact with the culture, music, food, habits, sense of humour…

3. Establish a reading ritual

Reading is one of the best activities any parent (whether in a monolingual or bilingual family) can do with their child. Not only is it fun, but it also helps develop reading habits, broaden vocabulary and build language skills, as Rachel explained in her inspiring article about translating children’s verse. It’s an activity you can do together from a very early age with song books, as well as with picture books, where you can talk in parentese (aka baby talk) to your child and just have fun.

At home, we have our own reading ritual: Every night (or almost every night) before the children go to sleep, we read a couple of books in Spanish or Italian in bed. It’s a great time to read because it’s a time for winding down and relaxing, but also the time when you’re exhausted after the hectic dinner and bedtime routine. That’s why it may not be the ideal time for everyone. I also try to read with them in the afternoon at the library or at home, or even when we go to a restaurant, to keep them in their chairs!

Finding books in a foreign language can sometimes be difficult if you live in a small town with just one small bookshop and a library. And buying online can be time-consuming or frustrating, because you can’t physically look at the books. However, today there are a wealth of useful resources available online, like the website Literatil, where you can read reviews about the latest children’s book releases.

My alternative so far has been to fill my suitcase with children’s books whenever I go to Spain, and to ask anyone coming to visit us to bring some books with them. That’s why I loved initiatives like Sol Book Box, a subscription service that each month sends you a carefully curated selection of Spanish or bilingual children’s books. You can find out more about this wonderful project in this episode of “Entre Dos” podcast: “Raising Bilingual Readers”. While writing this article, I remembered how much I used to love my subscription to monthly magazines “Caracola” and “Leo Leo” from Bayard educación, and so was pleased to discover that they also send their Spanish, Catalan, French and English magazines abroad. This will therefore be our new extra reading material for our reading ritual.

4. It takes a village

If you live somewhere with a significant community from your country or language, you may be able to go to bilingual playgroups or get to know other parents who are in the same boat as you. This way, you’ll be able to talk to other parents in your language in the playground or over a coffee, and your child will hear you using your native language. And the bonus here is that they might even speak to these parents’ bilingual children in the target language too (or not!).

5. The itsy bitsy spider…

Nursery rhymes and children’s songs are among the first things your child will hear. And this could be in your language. That’s a powerful thought! So, take a trip down memory lane and start singing all those nursery rhymes you learned at home and nursery. And when they’re older, you can progress to listening to online radio channels from your native country or create a playlist of your favourite songs in the target language on Spotify.

With streaming platforms and smart TVs, it’s now easier than ever to access TV series and films in your own language. This way, your child can watch their favourite cartoons in the target language and thereby enhance their exposure. However, as Patricia Kuhl explains in her famous Ted Talk “The Linguistic Genius of Babies”, when babies are learning a language, they use their social brains, so it takes a human being for them to acquire linguistic skills. Therefore, watching TV can well be an extra element in your plan, but definitely not the only one.

If you’re a bilingual parent or parent-to-be, or happen to know any, we’d love to hear what kind of things you do to create a harmonious bilingual home.

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