6 Tips for Raising Multilingual Children

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Yay, thanks for sharing María José! Playing games and cooking time are great ideas to help children learn the language…

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If you’re like most of us, you started to appreciate your own parents a lot more when you became a parent yourself. “Jeez, Mom, was I like that? Thanks for putting up with me!”

Even if your parents were multilingual, though, they may not have seen the point of raising you to be so. Times were very different back then. If that’s the case, you probably wish they had held your nose to the language grindstone when you were younger. Today the world is a small, fast place where fortune favors the multilingual.

Anyway, now you are up to bat and your kids are the victims lucky ones who get to learn a foreign language. You have a huge advantage, obviously, if you or your spouse are multilingual, but you can still pull it off even if you are not. Here are 6 tips for raising multilingual children:

1. Start with “why.”

For your children to speak another language is a challenge for you, not for them. Kids’ brains are wired to soak up information of all types, especially language. They eat languages for breakfast, sometimes literally!

If you had a tough day at work it can be difficult to worry about one more thing on the to-do list at home. But just remember that you are making an investment in your child’s future. (It could be your own too, in a lot of ways!)

Could anyone have imagined today’s Internet, as we know it, in 1990? Think about what crazy things will happen between now and 2030, when your child will be venturing out into the world.   An extra language will be a huge bonus even if you have to wait 20 years for them to thank you for it.

2. Consistency, consistency, consistency

If you are multilingual, decide which language your child will speak every day at daycare or preschool and speak the other one at home. If your spouse is multilingual, have him or her speak only that language to your child while you speak yours. If neither of you are multilingual you will have to be more creative (see below) or consider a language immersion preschool program.

The overall point is to choose a path and stick to it. Do not get sloppy; do not mix and match languages; do not skip occasions for your child to practice. Multilingual kids do mix up languages (which is frequently hilarious), get sloppy, and try to get their parents to speak the language they choose at home. Try to keep things on the straight and narrow. You need to demonstrate that the language is relevant day-in and day-out.

3. Other kids are “force multipliers”

Other kids are natural born language teachers and will be the best ones your child will ever have. They know how to put words in context because they are the context. Even if you or your spouse are not multilingual, you can arrange play-dates with other families who are or you can enroll your child in a language-immersion program.

Youngsters of preschool age (or even a bit older) have generally fantastic attitudes about helping others learn languages. They get a kick out of sharing words that they just learned; it all seems new and wonderful to them!

4. Travel

Traveling to a country that speaks the target language is the original, “old school” way of getting your child to practice a foreign language. They speak because…. they have to! Just make sure your child “branches out” and plays with kids and interacts with people other than tourists. It is also a great cultural experience for your child, especially if the foreign culture is kid-friendly!

5. Foreign language media

OK, you probably think your child watches too much TV or YouTube already. Yeah… us too. But hey, we live in the real world. If they are going to watch cartoons, why not try to get them to watch them in a foreign language? Let’s call it edutainment. The easiest method is simply to find the names of some foreign cartoons and search for them on YouTube. The same goes for dubbed versions of American classics. Foreign language satellite TV or radio channels are also good option if you have them.

You can also look into some technical tricks to access streaming media in foreign languages on the Internet from other countries. To be honest, laws haven’t exactly kept up with technology in this area, and although we’re not encouraging any illegal activities, let’s just say that the idea is out there, people are doing it, and edutainment concepts can change people’s lives, even adults (see www.planetread.org).

6. Traditional classes & Language immersion preschools

You probably know what traditional language classes look like; chances are you were in one yourself. It simply means that you had, for example, one hour of class about the Spanish language as part of an overall program taught in English. If your Spanish class was advanced enough, the teacher could probably conduct it in Spanish, but it was just for that one block of time for that class. Language immersion programs give more exposure to the foreign language, so it’s definitely the best option, if possible (you can read more about Language Immersion Preschools here.)

For your child to get the most out of a traditional class, you need to make sure it is being supplemented with activities outside the classroom. You can ask your child what new words he learned each day or even ask her to teach you what she learned. (She will probably get a kick out of it!) Play-dates and similar activities with foreign-language speakers are good ideas above.

Do you have any tips of your own for raising multilingual children?

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  • I am a huge advocate for bilingual education! Raising bilingual (or multilingual) children is a big task and one you need to decide before your child is born. It was a discussion for my husband and I and we agreed I would speak to them in spanish and he in English. But here is the thing — I was raised in Spanish, loved in Spanish, sang to in Spanish so it flowed naturally. For me raising my children in English would be foreign to me, despite having been raised here. Why? Because I was nurtured in Spanish, not English. I didn’t even know any songs or stories in English! Many parents ask me how I do it and I always say, first YOU have to be comfortable and authoritative in that language. If not your child will feel it and know it. Second, there are are other ways to teach a second language — do it by play. So have times when you play games in spanish, or cooking time in spanish. This can ease your doubts and in turn you are passing on the feeling and culture associated with that language. Sorry, I could go on all day! Thank you for this! 🙂

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