Speaking more than one language to your child

Most children will have no difficulties learning more than one language at the same time.  If you choose to teach your child more than one language, here are some tips and FAQs to help you.

Strategies for teaching your child more than one language:

There are different ways to teach your child more than one language. As a general rule, it is best to use the language that you are most comfortable speaking, or you are strongest in most often. For example, if you are more confident speaking Arabic, then this is the language you should use with your child most of the time. This will provide better examples of vocabulary and give your child more opportunities to learn – after all they spend a great deal of time with you!  Ultimately, you need to do what is going to work best for you and your family.  It can be most helpful to decide on a plan or a “family language policy” together and stick to it. Below are some ideas for creating a family language policy.  

“One parent, one language”:

As the name suggests, this approach involves one parent speaking only one language (e.g. Mandarin) while the other parent speaks English or another language (1). This model can work well for families in which each parent speaks a different language. This approach may also work for families in which grandparents speak another language and your child sees and talks to them regularly. For example, if your child’s grandparents care for them on a regular basis, they could choose to speak their first language only to them, while you speak another language. 

“Use your home (first) language at home”:

With this approach, you would choose to speak only one language within the home (1). While outside of the home, you and your family would speak English (or local language). This would work particularly well for families where both parents speak the same home language.

When should I start teaching my child another language?

Babies start to hear our language during the third trimester of pregnancy. Not specific clear words and sounds, rather the tone, rhythm and intonation of the language spoken around them.  From the day they are born they can hear speech sounds more clearly and they start learning the sounds of language from then on.

Babies are born with the ability to learn any language. They are able to ‘tune in’ to the speech sounds they hear around them and then learn to say these sounds.  So if a baby is only hearing the sounds of the English language, these are the sounds they will be able to say as they start to speak in words.  If they only hear Mandarin, then the speech sounds of that language are the ones they will learn.  Therefore, if a child is hearing the sounds of two or more languages, they will be able to learn to say the sounds of those languages (e.g. English and Mandarin, or French and Russian etc). 

However, you do have a choice about when/how to start.  You can teach both/all languages at the same time or one after the other as below.

Simultaneous acquisition: This means your child would begin learning both languages at the same time, from birth, or they start learning the second language before the age of three (1).

Sequential acquisition: This means that you would start to teach your child the second language after they have a strong grasp on the first, or generally speaking, after the age of three.

Of course, when you introduce a second language will depend on your family and what will work for you.   If you would like to learn more about how babies learn to speak, I highly recommend the podcast by Western Sydney University called ‘BabyLab’. You can find it here https://play.acast.com/s/babylab.

Tips for speaking more than one language with your child:

  • While developing your “family language policy”, consider which language you are most comfortable speaking in, and use that most often. No matter what approach to teaching more than one language you use, it is very important that you are consistent and stick to it as a family!

  • Try to give your child as many opportunities to listen to and speak both languages. If possible, organise visits to and from other people who speak the same language (e.g. grandparents).
  • Support your child’s language development by reading and telling stories, singing songs, playing dress-up etc with your child in both languages. It is best to use one language at a time, rather than switching between languages in the same activity. For example, you might read your child’s favourite book in one language (e.g. Mandarin) and then read the same book in English at a later time. There is no end to the activities you can do. Get creative!
  • Consider what your child is interested in and try to incorporate that into learning the language. For example, if your child is interested in playing a particular game, try to play that with them using only one language. You may choose to do the same with a different game, using the other language. ‘I spy’, ‘Who am I?’ and even memory cards are great games to increase your child’s vocabulary.
  • Particularly for older children, make use of the technology we have available. Listen to radio programs and watch movies in both languages. For example, some titles on Netflix will allow you to change the language as well as add subtitles.
  • Make use of the communities around you. Where possible, try to connect with other people who speak the same language as you, whether these be community groups and programs or online communities (consider internet safety!). You may choose to organise playdates with other children who speak the same language, or if possible, reach out to family who live overseas.

FAQs:

Will learning more than one language affect my child’s language development?

No!  Many children all over the world are able to learn two or more languages without difficulty. Several studies have shown that bilingualism does not mean an increased risk of language disorder (2). For a time, it may appear that your child’s vocabulary is smaller in each language than other children their age, but remember, your child is learning two sets of vocabularies! Something else to remember is that code-switching (where your child uses both languages in the same sentence or conversation) is natural, and does not necessarily indicate language difficulties.

What is the best way to teach my child more than one language?

The best way to teach your child more than one language will depend on your family situation and what will work best for you. Look at the tips above and consider what will feel right for your family, and what “family language policy” you can stick to.

However, it is important to note that it is much easier for babies to learn two or more languages than older children or adults.

My child is older, can they still become bilingual?

While there is a “critical period” theory for learning a language, older children are still able to learn a second language. Learning a language from a younger age may allow the child to sound more “native”, however, older children may find it easier to learn vocabulary and grammar (3).

What are the advantages of being bilingual?

Several studies have looked into the advantages of being bilingual. Children who are learning more than one language have been found to have increased working memory (the ability to actively keep information in your mind for a short period of time) and attention (2). One study from York University in Toronto found that children who are learning two languages have increased cognitive flexibility (the ability to switch between different tasks easily) and selective attention (the ability to focus on one thing, without getting distracted by others) (4). Being bilingual will mean that your child is able to communicate better with you, extended family members and others in the community who speak the language. They will be able to watch movies, read books and listen to music in your language. When they are older, there is the possibility of greater employment opportunities within their country and abroad.

If my child has a language or developmental disorder, should I speak one or two languages to them?

It’s up to you! There are many advantages to teaching children with language or developmental disorders more than one language, including increased cognitive skills and social communication (2). There is research to suggest that learning more than one language does not increase your child’s risk of developing a language disorder (2, 3). 

Will teaching my child my first language make it harder for them to learn English or another language?

No. While it is best to start learning a second language as soon as possible, it does not matter which language you choose to introduce first.  However, it is better to start with the language you are best at, as this will help develop a strong ‘framework’ for vocabulary and grammar (3). Having this well-established framework will make it easier for your child when learning other languages (e.g. English). 

My child doesn’t want to speak to me in our home language. What should I do?

Sometimes, children become less willing to speak to you in your home language as they get older. It is important to keep persisting, even if your child stops speaking the language. This way, you are continuing to provide your child with a model of the language, so that when they do return to it, they haven’t lost it altogether.

Tips on what to do if your child doesn’t want to speak your home language:

  • Try to find things that your child is interested in and use that to keep them motivated in speaking the language. For example, if your child is interested in a particular movie, see if you can get access to that in your language (Netflix offers some shows in other languages or with subtitles).
  • For older children, you could help them find safe online communities with others who speak the language. If you have family or friends who speak your language either in Australia or overseas, you could organise virtual meetups using videoconferencing (e.g. Skype or Zoom).
  • Pique your child’s interest by organising and/or attending cultural days and events. These may incorporate food, games, days of celebration or activities that are common in your culture. 

For more information about raising bilingual children, visit:

  • http://www.hanen.org/Helpful-Info/Articles/Bilingualism-in-Young-Children–Separating-Fact-fr.aspx
  • https://raisingchildren.net.au/babies/connecting-communicating/bilingualism-multilingualism
  • westernsydney.edu.au/babylab

References:

1. Lowry, L. (n.d.). Bilingualism in Young Children: Separating Fact From Fiction. Retrieved from: http://www.hanen.org/Helpful-Info/Our-Views-on-the-News/Are-Two-Languages-Better-Than-One-.aspx

2. Bernardo Kolling Limberger. (2013). Dual Language Development Disorders: A Handbook on Bilingualism & Second Language Learning. Dominios de Linguagem, 7(1), 284–289. https://doi.org/10.14393/DL13-v7n1a2013-15

3. Peña, E. (2016). Supporting the home language of bilingual children with developmental disabilities: From knowing to doing. Journal of Communication Disorders, 63, 85–92. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jcomdis.2016.08.001

4. Lowry, L. (n.d.). Are Two Languages Better Than One? Retrieved from: http://www.hanen.org/Helpful-Info/Our-Views-on-the-News/Are-Two-Languages-Better-Than-One-.aspx