Raising a Bilingual Child: Where to Start & What to Expect

Article by: Eliana Echeverry, Speech-Language Pathologist

Bilingualism has become a coveted skill for many individuals, and I mean why not? Bilinguals have been shown to have more sophisticated cognitive flexibility such as that needed to shift between tasks/activities, enhanced social communication skills including higher sensitivity to the perception of nonverbal language (body language/tone of voice), increased perspective taking and empathy , and higher problem solving/reasoning skills. But before it is a choice or a desired skill, it is a cultural identifier that surrounds families. It is what keeps children connected to their previous generations and serves as a liaison between new ones. It is not only the language, but it’s also the culture that teaches us about who we are and where our families have come from. For many families, especially those who are transplanting and/or growing their families in a new country, their language and cultural ties are their sense of home and what keeps them connected to a bigger community. 

As a bilingual (Spanish-English) individual I have always been interested in language acquisition, the advantages/challenges of being bilingual, and now, as a speech language pathologist, how to support bilingual children and families in my practice. 

For this blog, I decided to poll a few of my closest friends and colleagues on what they would like to know regarding bilingualism. The most common questions I received were: 

  • How can bilingual parents/caregivers support bilingual development?
  • How can monolingual parents/caregivers support bilingual development?
  • What is typical for bilingual development?

Getting Started 

First and foremost, families must consider what is important to them and what works for them. It is likely these will change over time; however, I would encourage a family to identify their values and priorities as related to language as an initial step in determining the best approach for a child’s bilingual development.  I recognize that families may not always feel like they have the choice in implementing what is important to them, especially if someone else is making conflicting recommendations. I hope to reassure you that there is no right or wrong path to this journey, while encouraging you to do what feels right for your child and your family. 

It is important to note that being bilingual does not necessarily mean you are equally fluent in all languages. That is not realistic given the many  factors that go into bilingual development including exposure, community, and life experiences, to name a few. It is also noteworthy to share that an individual’s bilingualism will shift as they grow depending on their community, and that is okay. There is no such thing as the ‘perfectly equal’ bilingual, so I encourage you to embrace the varying degrees of bilingualism that may exist for yourself and/or your family members. 

For families embarking on a bilingual journey one of the first steps is deciding how bilingual you wish your child to be.  Is it important that they be fluent across all language domains, including reading/writing, or will the focus be on speaking and listening? Is there someone in particular you want your child to be able to communicate with? Who will the child be communicating with? This might include other relatives, friends, and caretakers who will also play a role in your child’s development. These questions can help guide your approach. 

Bilingual Approaches

Next, families can choose their bilingual approach. There are a few commonly used approaches which include: one parent-one language, minority language at home, and time and place dependent language use. In one parent-one language one parent speaks only one language to the child, and the other parent speaks another language. This works well for parents that speak different languages. The minority language at home model, works well for parents who speak the same minority language. The minority language can be thought about as the language that the child has less exposure to. In this approach, parents and caregivers are intentionally focused on using the ‘minority’ language when they are communicating with and around the child. Lastly, the time and place dependent model can be used in addition to the first two strategies and can involve dividing language use by time of day, alternating days/weeks, separating languages used by location (home vs school, spaces, activities) and making those spaces language dependent . 

For monolingual parents/caregivers who are looking to increase their child’s exposure to different languages the time and place dependent strategy may be the most feasible. The best strategy is through immersion. If you have native speakers of the target language in your community, then having those individuals communicate with you and your child in the target language is a great way to build your child’s bilingualism. I would encourage you to learn the language as well, using some of the methods described earlier to structure your child’s exposure. Additionally,  listening to music & books in the target language, attending cultural events, cooking traditional foods, and playing games in the target language immerses your child in the language and culture. Communities may also offer classes or gatherings based around the target language you are interested in. Places like Facebook, MeetUp, and your local library are great resources. Remember to go back to your goal and determine what is feasible for your family. 

The use of these approaches is likely to ebb and flow for parents and caregivers, and that is okay. But as is true for any goal, it is important to have a point of reference to guide you in being intentional about your approach. The more balanced bilingual you set out to be the more balanced your exposure to the languages must be. This takes into account the length of waking hours of the child, who they spend their time with, and what activities they are doing. It may be most helpful to look at this model from a weekly stance rather than daily to determine the approach that is most suitable for your family, while ultimately remembering the best approach involves lots of language models.

How to Support Language Development

I was recently asked about strategies I recommend using with bilingual children, and if they are different from recommendations for monolingual children, and the answer is “No” when looking at typical language development. The best way to develop language for a child is through language exposure. Language strategies, such as auditory bombardment, include using lots of language throughout the day. If you think you’re talking a lot, you could probably talk to some more! Narrate all that you’re doing for the child. Listen to songs/stories in the target language. Look at picture books/albums to describe people/things/places in the target language. Activities such as story time, I Spy games, and pretend play are also great strategies to use for all children acquiring language. There is a big market for educational shows/apps, which will be explored in more detail in another topic, but my overall recommendation is to adhere to American Academy of Pediatric regarding screen time for young children, especially children under 2. There is a convenience and a benefit to having access to the target language through technology, however, in order to reap any benefits, the use of screens must be interactive.  There is no higher quality of interaction than human connection and interaction. Last but not least, I would encourage you to meet the child where they are with their interests while being mindful of using these activities to develop your targeted language(s).

It’s never too early to start, given that babies can identify language as early as 25 weeks in utero. I’d also like to say it’s never too late to start either! For most of us bilingual adults we have a minority and majority language, but we are still bilingual. So as parents and caregivers, pick up wherever you are in this journey. I would encourage you to aim for consistency in fostering the minority language if you want to intentionally grow a child’s bilingualism. For non-native parents and caregivers, I encourage parents to speak to their children in the language they are most comfortable in, ensuring strong high quality language models. Model expectations for language use but avoid requiring your child to ‘say’ the word/phrase. Acknowledge and praise all languages used, especially in the younger years. As children develop and enter school there may be other options regarding dual language programs and more specific conversations regarding expectations of language use at home, but as they are developing language, praise the language they are using without any requirements to say it in another language. 

What’s Considered Typical Development?

Now that you are talking to your child nonstop the questions regarding typical development start to rise. I cannot stress enough that being bilingual does not result in delays in development. By 18 months, bilingual children should be using single words consistently and once they have 50 words, they will begin to combine words. A child may not have the same words in both languages, but that doesn’t mean they have less language. For example, if a child says ‘agua’ but not ‘water’ that still counts as a true word.

Bilingual children may code mix and code switch, which is typical for child and adult speakers. In fact, this is found to be a resourceful language strategy that can help repair communication breakdowns. Some other characteristics for bilingual development may be that a child understands what you say to them in both languages, but they may only be speaking one language. That’s okay. Continue your language approach. 

When to Seek Support:

  • • If your child misses other developmental milestones (i.e. rolling, sitting, crawling, walking) or experiences feeding difficulty.
  • By 6 months if your child is not engaging in vocal play or babbling. 
  • By 15 months if your child does not yet have first words in any language/combination of languages.
  • By 18 months if your child has fewer than 20 words combined in both languages and is adding fewer than 1 word/week.
  • By 24 months if your child has less than 100 words and has limited vocabulary/word combinations and is not 50% intelligible.
  • If at any point your child experiences prolonged periods of not using words. 
  • By 3-4 years if your child is not using grammar rules of their native language(s).

The advantages are undoubtedly documented. However, given the varying family dynamics and degrees of bilingualism, parents and caregivers may still encounter many questions regarding the development of bilingual children including: how to develop bilingualism, how to determine when there might be a language delay or disorder, and how to best support a bilingual child.  

If you have any questions or concerns about bilingual language development, I encourage you to seek a consultation with a bilingual speech/language pathologist or by a professional who has knowledge of the rules and structure of both languages. I look forward to connecting with families and educators and sharing more information on bilingual development across different environments, assessment components, and bilingual development of school aged children. Please email me (eliana@kidsensetherapygroup.com) with any questions!

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SOURCES

1 Bialystok, E., Craik, F., &; Luk, G. (2012, April). Bilingualism: Consequences for mind and brain. Retrieved January 02, 2021, from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3322418/

2 Markman, E. (2011, April 28). Bilingualism and children’s use of paralinguistic cues to interpret emotion in speech*: Bilingualism: Language and Cognition. Retrieved January 2, 2021, from https://www.cambridge.org/core/journals/bilingualism-language-and-cognition/article/abs/bilingualism-and-childrens-use-of-paralinguistic-cues-to-interpret-emotion-in-speech/D580C0D75C3E6DCF62922EEE2DF46851

3 Greenberg, A., Bellana, B.,& ; Bialystok, E. (2013, January). Perspective-Taking Ability in Bilingual Children: Extending Advantages in Executive Control to Spatial Reasoning. Retrieved January 2, 2021, from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3593058/

4 Bouko, C., Carton, J., Limacher-Riebold, U., O’Malley, M., & Rosenback, R. (2020). How to Raise a Bilingual Child-Practical Guide for Parents with Ready to Use Activities. Retrieved January 02, 2021, from https://bilingualfamily.eu/wp-content/uploads/2020/11/PEaCH-Handbook-eng-rev3.pdf. Published by: PEaCH Project funded by the Erasmus + Programme of European Union. 

5 Byers-Heinlein, K., & Lew-Williams, C. (2013). Bilingualism in the Early Years: What the Science Says. Retrieved January 2, 2021, from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6168212/

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