In some countries, it's common for kids to learn two or more languages at a time
and to use them daily to communicate and understand people around them — in
fact, some kids grow up in places where four or more languages are spoken.
In countries such as the United States, there may be a dominant language; i.e.,
the one used by the government, schools, and the community. With this in mind, parents
who speak an additional, "heritage" language may face a dilemma: Should we teach our
children only the dominant language or should we try to raise them bilingual?
Although it's important to learn the prevailing language in the country where you
live, for many people it's also important to have their kids learn the language of
their parents, grandparents, and older siblings.
Deciding whether to teach your kids one or more languages is up to you. You may
think they need to "start over" in a new country and that they only need to learn
the dominant language. However, there are some advantages to raising bilingual kids.
What Does Bilingual Mean?
Being bilingual means understanding and expressing yourself in
two languages, and being able to convey your thoughts clearly in both. Being
plurilingual means having these skills in more than two languages.
Many people think English is the official language in the United States. This is
not really so; whereas some countries have official languages, the United States does
not. In fact, in 2004 the United States had around 336 spoken or recorded languages.
Some U.S. states, though, are officially bilingual. For example, in Louisiana, English
and French are the state's official languages; in New Mexico, the official languages
are English and Spanish; in Hawaii, they're English and Hawaiian. So, being bilingual
in the United States is not new.
What Are the Advantages of Being Bilingual?
Some research shows that kids exposed to several languages are more creative and
better at developing problem-solving skills. Other studies suggest that speaking a
second language, even if only during the first years of life, helps build cognitive
abilities so that a child will have an easier time learning other languages in the
Some experts say that if parents and kids don't speak the same language at home,
communication between them may suffer. As a result, parents may lose some control
over their children and, over time, kids might turn to negative influences, such as
gangs, to regain the sense of belonging they no longer experience at home.
How Can I Help My Kids Be Bilingual?
Several methods can help kids be bilingual. In each, it's very important to expose
kids to both languages in different settings and to help them understand the significance
of learning each language.
Two approaches are recommended:
The one parent, one language approach means that each parent
speaks a different language at home during the early years of their child's life.
For example, the mother may talk to the child only in English, while the father may
use just Spanish.
The minority language at home method allows parents to establish
a usage for each language. For example, while kids would only speak Spanish at home,
at school they would speak English.
With any method, try not to mix the languages. That is, when you talk to your child
in your heritage language, don't mix it with English in phrases or sentences. However,
you shouldn't be surprised if your child mingles words of both languages in one sentence.
When it happens, correct him or her by casually providing the proper word in the language
you are using.
Many materials can help your child learn a second language, including language
learning CD-ROMs, video games, videos, and DVDs; music CDs; and battery-operated dolls.
It's also easy to find bilingual books and cartoons in Spanish such as Clifford, the
Big Red Dog and Dora, the Explorer. And of course, there's always the Internet.
When exposing kids to a second language, consider their hobbies. For example, if
a child likes soccer, watch a match in one of the Spanish-speaking stations. If your
child likes music, check for the latest albums of artists singing in English and in
their native language.
For young kids, use childhood rhymes, songs, and games. As your kids grow, be persistent
and creative with your approach. Some parents send their kids to language schools
so that they learn the language using a more formal method. Many families also send
their kids to their country of origin to spend more time with relatives, either during
the summer or for longer periods. Keep in mind that it's also important to have friends
who speak a heritage language.
Is There a Cultural Loss?
Some of your culture and some ties are likely to be lost if your child is raised
in a new country; however, it's up to you to choose whether you want to pass your
cultural heritage to your kids or not.
There is, indeed, an "American" culture. However, remember that for centuries,
many people who arrived in America looking for a more promising future kept their
native languages and cultures at their homes and in their neighborhoods. However,
they learned to speak English and blended in with the American lifestyle. These cultural
identities still exist in many families after many generations. For instance, there's
an Italian or Chinese neighborhood in almost every big city in the United States.
And Mardi Gras, Cinco de Mayo, and St. Patrick's Day are celebrated with enthusiasm
Fluently speaking a second language may lead to significant cultural benefits.
Children learning their cultural heritage language can communicate with their relatives
and strengthen family ties beyond the borders. They're also likely to be willing to
know the history and traditions of their family's country of origin. Understanding
where they come from helps kids develop strong identities and can help them determine
where they'll go in the future.
Can it Delay Speech Development?
In some cases, learning two languages at a time may slow language development in
comparison with monolingual children. Linguists say that bilingual children may reverse
word order in a sentence but, just as kids who speak one language, they'll understand
what they mean. As a side note, correction should always be subtle so that a child
doesn't feel inhibited.
Some parents are afraid that talking to their kids in another language will hinder
English learning at school. The truth is that before they go to school, children will
have been in continuous contact with English through TV, the Internet, and friends.
Parents are usually surprised by their children's ability to learn English when playing
with English-speaking kids in the neighborhood or at kindergarten. Once they start
school, kids quickly catch up with their classmates. Then the nature of the problem
for parents shifts to how to prevent their kids from speaking only English.
Some kids may not be very excited at the thought of speaking their parents' language.
By nature, children want to be like their classmates. For example, if their friends
speak only English, they might also want to speak just English. Parents who want their
kids to speak a second language should continue to speak it at home, regardless of
how reluctant their children might be.
Raising Bilingual Kids
Teaching a second language to kids might be a challenge. The fact is that
most immigrant families lose their native language at the third generation, but this
need not be your case.
Ultimately, your kid's fluency in another language will be influenced by many factors,
including personal motivation and parental support. First, decide the level you'd
like your child to reach in your heritage language and, then, search for the appropriate
resources, such as books and multimedia materials, formal education, or temporary
Raising kids to be bilingual may help them acknowledge the importance of their
culture and heritage, as well as develop a strong personal identity. And it might
even be a useful advantage at work when they're adults!