How can I raise a bilingual child?
Raising a bilingual child can feel daunting to both bilingual parents and non-bilingual parents. The broad critical age for language acquisition is 0-7 years old- even before we learn to talk! The younger children are, the more malleable their brains are. The younger children are regularly exposed to a second language, the more easily they will be able to identify and separate the different sounds of that language. But how can you help your child make the jump between identifying Spanish and speaking it?
There are more ways than one to accomplish bilingualism, and there is no correct or incorrect way to do it. However, there are three heavily studied approaches to bilingualism that have shown clear success. Not every approach is accessible to every parent- a lot depends on your own level of fluency and preference. Regardless of the approach, all parents can take an active role in their child's language learning.
Three main approaches to bilingualism
The following is a summary of the three main approaches to raising bilingual children. You'll notice all of them aim at establishing a sense of order- who, when, and where do you speak what language. The general idea is that we all relate to people or contexts in a certain language, and when you make that distinction clear, then learning two languages at the same time is not confusing.
Minority Language at Home (MLaH): If you and your partner are fluent enough to speak Spanish at home full time, this can be an approach that you may consider. It is not necessary to be a native speaker, but the idea is that you commit to using Spanish consistently at home. A clear advantage is that while your child learns Spanish from you, their ability to learn English will not be hindered because they are surrounded by English whenever they venture out into the world. A considerable challenge for non native speakers is that there are several levels of fluency. Communication is made up of much more than just vocabulary. It is one thing to be able to communicate about objects, actions, instructions, etc and another to be able to make an emotional connection while speaking to someone. Of course as a parent, it is very important to establish an emotional connection with your child, and attempting to do so in your non-native language may feel foreign or awkward. If you find yourself in this situation, don't be discouraged! Like everything, using Spanish in an emotional context will feel more comfortable with practice.
One Parent - One Language (OPOL): With this approach, one parent makes the commitment to consistently speak Spanish. This is commonly used when only one parent is a fluent or native Spanish speaker. With OPOL, children are learning both Spanish and English in parallel as they forge relationships to their parents in each respective language. This approach works beautifully with one on one, parent and child time. However, when the whole family is present, conversations can become challenging. It can be difficult to speak in Spanish with your child and in English with your partner. If your partner doesn't know Spanish, it may feel excluding to speak in Spanish to your child. If you can identify with this challenge, remember music can be a wonderful way to invite non-Spanish speakers to participate!
Time & Place (TaP): This is the approach that is most commonly used by dual language school programs. The idea is to make the distinction between Spanish and English situational and based on context, rather than the person. This approach probably offers the most flexibility because you can define what place and time to be associated with speaking in Spanish. Examples include:
- Spanish at school and English at home (if you have access to a dual language school program)
- Alternating Spanish and English days at home
- Speak only in Spanish when one on one with your child, or other Spanish speakers. Speak English only when surrounded by English speakers
- If visiting Spanish speaking country on a regular basis, only speak in Spanish while visiting
What if I'm not a fluent Spanish speaker?
What if I'm not fluent enough to speak Spanish full time, or alternate days or places? A lot of literature on raising bilingual children may seem discouraging if you are not able to speak in Spanish to your child the majority of your time together. What's important to remember is that there are several stages in second language learning. By exposing your child to as much Spanish as you can offer, you will be introducing your child to the first stage of bilingualism- and that is a great head start! If your child goes on to learning Spanish in a school setting, she will already have a base to build upon. In terms of teaching approaches we have covered so far, you can still use the TaP approach to foster your child's bilingualism. You can simply make the distinctions more specific. For example:
- Find and regularly attend a Spanish speaking activity with your child
- Read in Spanish
- Sing in Spanish
- Choose a part of the day or an activity you do regularly at home, learn enough vocabulary to get you through it in Spanish and consistently *do* that activity in Spanish. For example, setting the table, sorting laundry, washing hands, offering a drink or snack. You can gradually add activities as you become more and more fluent. The idea is not to overwhelm yourself and take it one activity at a time.
Stages of Second Language Acquisition
When learning a second language in a non-academic setting like ours, children will go through various learning stages (Krashen, Terrel;The Natural Approach). Remember that language learning takes time. It's important to allow time for your child to process the input before she begins to offer any output. Music and play are fantastic ways of both delivering information, and inviting children to participate. When they are ready, they will begin to chime in!
- Silent/Receptive Stage: (~10 hrs to 6 months / 500 receptive word vocabulary) Children will often go through a “silent period” where they may not speak, but will respond using a variety of motions like pointing, answering a simple yes or no, performing acts like standing up, sitting down. While a teacher may invite children to speak, it is imperative not to force verbal participation until children are ready to do so.
- Early Production Stage: (~6 months / 1000 receptive and active word vocabulary) Children will continue to learn more “receptive words” (words they understand, but may not feel comfortable verbalizing). Children begin to speak one or two word phrases, and demonstrate comprehension of new material by answering simple who, when, where, what questions.
- Speech Emergence Stage: (~1 year / 3000 receptive and active word vocabulary) Children will use short phrases to communicate, ask simple questions, and engage in simple dialogue- examples include “I want milk, please” or “I want to go outside”. Some more complex sentences will be expressed, but grammatical errors may interfere with their ability to send their message across.
- Intermediate Language Proficiency Stage: (~1 year / 6000 active word vocabulary) Children begin to make complex statements, offer opinions, share their thoughts, and ask for clarification.
- Advanced Language Proficiency Stage: (~5-7 years) Children develop specialized context vocabulary and can participate in grade level classroom activities, and express the same grammar usage as native Spanish speakers of equal age.
Additional reading material
Excellent reads on raising a bilingual child:
- Bilingual by Choice: Great source of activities and techniques to continue reinforcing a second language and ensuring that a child retains their bilingualism
- Raising a Bilingual Child: Very encouraging book that offers easy ways to incorporate using a second language in your daily routine with your child, even if you didn't grow up with that second language yourself.
- The Natural Approach: Covers history and theory of second language instruction, and practical language instruction methodology.
Interesting articles about language acquisition, bilingual education, and using music to teach language:
- Linguistic Society of America: Raising Bilingual Children booklet
- National Association for Language Development in the Curriculum: Teaching Bilingualism
- Hand gestures help cement language understanding
- Cognitive advantages of bilingualism
- Does music help us learn language?
- Music and Language
- Using music and songs in a foreign language classroom
- The use of Music for Learning Languages
- Using Music to Enhance Second Language Acquisition: From Theory to Practice
- Foreign language acquisition and melody singing
- Improved verbal IQ with exposure to music-based, cognitive training "cartoons"
"I am picking up Spanish much more quickly than I did in high school and college because of the teacher's movements and gestures with each song. They should teach Spanish this way to adults!! My daughter is really learning the songs as well...it is wonderful to hear her singing in Spanish."
- Kristen T.