Maybe we should start by asking what is a “truly bilingual” child?
Is it a native accent? Is it perfect grammar? Is it expansive vocabulary? Is understanding and using sarcasm and double meanings? Or is it all of these combined and more? Truth is there is no one-size-fits-all measurement for the universal understanding of what a truly bilingual child or person is.
“My child is bilingual” is still a matter of pride among parents
and the great news is that the number of parents hoping to raise bilingual children is growing and growing. In the U.S. alone, the proportion of bilinguals has practically doubled since 1980, and it does not seem to be slowing down. Looking at statistics from other parts of the world, this trend seems to be reflected globally.
— but perhaps the numbers aren’t revealing the entire truth. It’s one thing to speak two languages, but are all these people ‘truly’ bilingual? If not,
How do you ensure you raise your child to be ‘truly’ bilingual?
We often get this question from parents… What is considered a “truly” bilingual kid
So, the term ‘truly bilingual’ is relative. It’s easy to claim you’re completely fluent in a language if that is the only language you speak. But when you’ve grown up with two languages, there are obstacles that arise, leading the languages to compete with each other. For example, by using one language at home and one at school, your child might have a fully formed vocabulary related to academic subjects like geography or physics in only the one he was taught in. Or, perhaps, your child might be able to express humor and sarcasm in one language better than the other, simply due to more practice and observation from an environment where that language is used. Languages are complex entities. They carry so many nuances, technicalities, and other aspects that make it difficult to determine what are the benchmarks for being included in a definition of true bilingualism.
Everyone has a different opinion of what it means to be truly bilingual, making a truly bilingual child in the ‘ear’ of the beholder. I’ve often heard people citing a perfect accent as one measure for determining it. But that seems to be an unfair criterion, judging by the many immigrants who, though carry a strong accent, have such expansive vocabulary it shames many mother-tongue speakers. What about being able to understand, speak, read, and write in two languages? Again, this may be problematic, as I would call many people bilingual who never learned to write in that second language. When living in Morocco, I discovered that though nearly all of my peers grew up bilingual (with French and Arabic as verbal equals), many of them still struggled in their school’s Arabic classes, mainly because they weren’t accustomed to reading and writing. Not to mention, there are plenty of American-Chinese who never learned Chinese characters, but speak Chinese and English fluently. By living in the States, learning Chinese characters may have never become a necessity for them, and so speaking the language is enough. Do we hold that against them?
Clearly, there isn’t a simple way to define being ‘truly bilingual’.
Depending on your own personal situation, you are bound to have your own idea of what it means. With that in mind, you should reflect and decide what the term means to you, as this will help in determining the steps needed to get your child to that desired level. You may start by thinking about why exactly you want to raise your child to be bilingual. Is it so he can communicate with his grandparents effortlessly? Is it so he can have the opportunity to study or find work in the other language? Or, perhaps, is it for the cognitive benefits that come with bilingualism? Professor of psychology, Ellen Bialystok, conducted research showing that compared to monolingual children, bilingual children are better at executive-function skills like focusing, multitasking, and weeding out unnecessary information. These benefits will likely spill over into their academic performance as well as overall well being. Thinking about such factors is a crucial first step in raising a truly bilingual child, as it will help you set expectations and benchmarks during your child’s language learning process.
Why do you want to raise your child bilingual?
Once you know the reason behind choosing to raise a ‘truly bilingual child’, whatever that might mean to you, think about the skills needed to get there. If you’re simply concerned with basic communication with family members who only speak one of the languages, speaking and listening skills would be the main ones to focus on. If, however, you want your child to be able to study or work using the other language, writing may also be necessary. Perhaps, it’s important to you for your child to ‘sound’ bilingual, i.e. not carrying an accent– this may be useful if your child will be spending time in the country of that language. If that’s the case, especially when your child is in his early stages of language development, remember that the best way to speak a language without an accent is to have high exposure to natives of that language. When you’re not currently located in a country that allows for that, speak, read, and sing to can spend time speaking to your child. The more exposure, the better, and oftentimes it truly takes a village.
During this reflection stage, however, the truth is that achieving a perfect version of bilingualism (no accent, massive vocabularies, and no jumping back and forth between languages in conversation) is pretty rare. So be prepared to adjust your goals as you jump on this language learning rollercoaster ride. All children are different, and depending on the amount of exposure in their environment, they will learn at different rates and levels. My best advice is don’t compare your child’s linguistic skills to those of your friend’s kids and more importantly even don’t compare the linguistic skills between your own kids. Some kids are blabbermouths from day one and others just need a bit until suddenly a linguistic tsunami takes over and they speak in full sentences.
Use day-to-day activities to help your child become bilingual
Some factors might not even be in your control, so don’t be harsh on yourself or the kids. The most effective way, in my opinion, to familiarize your child with a target language is simply by speaking, reading, singing, storytelling, playing games, etc. using that language. ..creating a need for your child to want to use that language. Your home is the one environment in which you have full control, so take advantage and make it a language-learning haven. Make it FUN!
Thinking about expectations in advance is a great way to create a useful ‘guide’ or reference point for you and your family to have as you raise your child. However, life can get in the way. You may be faced with unexpected changes, such as a job offer in another country. Or, your child might need to change schools for whatever reason. Even the decisions of other people may affect you and your family, such as other families or friends who speak your minority language moving further away, reducing accessibility and language exposure. Given such changes that may occur, flexibility on your part is essential. You can’t base your entire expectation of your child becoming fluent in a language just on your next-door neighbors speaking it. You can’t rely solely on a particular teacher at school to help your child attain perfect literacy. As a parent, you must take some of these roles into your own hands as situations change. Sometimes, the entire ‘goal’ you initially thought of might need to be adjusted as well. Stay in touch with the situation, and what, at any point, is achievable for your child.
Be prepared – most kids refuse to speak the minority language
One thing that you need to be prepared for, is our children refusing to speak our home language or even worse resenting the minority language altogether. Believe me, it happens in the best of bilingual families, usually around school age, but it can happen at any point in time. Just relax! You have done nothing wrong. But at the same time
DO NOT GIVE UP!!!
You have worked hard for them to get to this point so please whatever you do, don’t stop now. Continue speaking to them in your target language, giving them opportunities in which they can and need to use that language (family trips, outings with other families that speak that language, music, books, newspapers, magazine, movies, games, etc…) Don’t expect perfect language skills and maybe for a short period of time you will feel like you are the only one beating the drum for your home language. No worries, I assure you they will at some point realize how another language does only benefit them, but be prepared it might take some time until they come to this realization.
Parents often feel disappointed to hear this, but you need to manage your expectations. For example, independently reading books on a regular basis in both languages might, for example, not be doable when also having to focus on school, sports teams, and a musical theater performance all at once. During the weekends after a very long and stressful week of exams, “Saturday School” may be too much to deal with (my kids hated Saturday Spanish school and even refused to speak Spanish to me, the minute we canceled the classes and instead used the time to meet Spanish friends with kids, Spanish was back). Forcing your child to continuously dedicate time and energy to language learning may lead to resistance. Though for some families, having strict rules on which language is allowed at home, for others this might not work as your child might begin to feel that speaking the language is more important than what they’re trying to say.
Kids are NOT like sponges, when it comes to languages, it takes dedication. The younger the better – still holds true, though
In terms of the main ways you can contribute to reaching that ‘truly’ bilingual level for your kids, experts recommend regular language exposure, lessons, trips to the home country, and, especially, interaction with native monolingual speakers. The earlier you start the better, especially in terms of forming the sounds in that language. If you’re concerned about accents, it’s crucial you ensure as much exposure to native speakers early on as possible. Also, keep in mind that for young children, the exposure must be face-to-face, though as they grow up, educational screen time can be helpful for learning vocabulary and content. Developmental psychologist Dr. Erika Hoff notes that “the younger you are, the more head start you have. The older you are, the more efficient learner you are, you have a first language you can use as a bootstrap.” Though starting early will give a great head start, it’s important to continue the learning language process as your bilingual children get older when they’ll be better equipped to learn more complex material. Languages, like most other knowledge and skills, can be forgotten when not used regularly enough. Think of this as a ‘journey’ to bilingualism, one which will take a long time and needs to be continuously traveled on for guaranteed success.
So, read and sing as much as possible in both languages to your young children– at a younger age, they have a much better ability to soak it all in. TimTimTom offers personalized bilingual books, where you can even make your child the hero of the story, enabling greater personal relevance that can keep your child engaged. Check out our blog on how to read bilingual books, so your bilingual kids get the most out of reading in two languages.
This may all be a lot to take in. Sometimes, you might feel like you’re at a loss and don’t know what else to do to get your child to the level of bilingualism you would love him to be at. All parents face times of frustration and exhaustion, so know that (a) you’re not alone, and (b) there are things you can do to give that extra fluency boost without much effort. When you’re tired, feel free to play a movie, songs, or audiobook in the target language. After all, you deserve a break too! Stay positive and motivated about the process, raising a truly bilingual child can be a daunting task, but it will all be worth it. Trust me, your children might not express it now, but they will be so thankful for your perseverance and hard work in the end.
A bilingual and personalized story that will spark your kid’s imagination and language ability.
You can customize the name and look of the child and choose any combination of two out of ten available languages.
(Some available language combinations: English-Spanish, English-German, English-Russian, English-Chinese, English-Portuguese, English-Italian, English-Dutch, English-French, French-German, Russian-German, Spanish-German.)
The books are now also available in one language
TimTimTom – Reading in Two Languages is Double the Fun