Your interactive guide to living abroad as recommended by local mums | Last updated 8 months ago



A major consideration for families when moving abroad is how they and their children may deal with living in a bilingual or multilingual environment. Whatever the particular situation, whether a monolingual family planning a move abroad or parents of different nationalities eager to maintain both languages, you will encounter challenges that require some patience and effort to overcome.

Having said that, being bilingual is undoubtedly an advantage in life; it not only allows you to communicate with a wider range of people and opens doors in the world of work, but research has also suggested that it increases mental agility generally and is conducive to flexible thinking and improved problem-solving skills.

The antiquated idea that learning a second or third language will confuse a child and even slow down their progress in their first language comes from the fact that many bilingual children start to speak a little later than their monolingual peers. Every child is an individual and the way they process new information and the speed at which they can actively reproduce the language will vary from child to child. While it is true that in many cases a bilingual child may take a few more months to start speaking, they usually then go on to perform equally well academically; if not better.

Children in a bilingual education system such as Catalonia, Wales and Canada have consistently shown superior results in examinations when compared to their monolingual counterparts. Children who are raised in a bilingual environment are aware of the cultural bridge they represent and can often glean a great deal of self-confidence from this rich and complex identity and, as a result, may be more sensitive to cultural divirsity.

So, when do children assimilate language best? The answer is quite simply, from birth. Extensive research into this question has suggested that the later in life a person comes into contact with a language, the harder they will have to work in order to master it. That is not to say that a 4 year old is already to old and without hope of becoming fluent in a second language and there are many things parents can do to aid their plight. In order to help bilingual children, families should establish clear linguistic patterns. Preferably speaking their native tongue to the children consistently. Multi-cultural families should decide who speaks what to whom and stick to it to avoid additional confusion between languages. In the case of monolingual families living abroad, the boundaries are simple – the parents' native language at home and the second language outside.

Having a support network beyond the walls of the family home is a highly valuable asset in helping your child's language development. Spending time with other families who have the same language set up increases the chances that the minority language will be practised and maintained by your child. Children, like adults, learn a language better in response to genuine motivation and necessity. Such playdates can provide both. It is also a great source of support for parents and a forum for sharing ideas and concerns.

But are there any disadvantages for bilingual children? Common difficulties encountered include initially mixing up languages and “borrowing” words from one language when they cannot remember or do not know it in the other. This is usually a tempòrary phenomenon and decreases greatly as the child's vocabulary grows in both languages.Other children seem to have an inate ability to compartmentalise languages and their fluency in both increases simultaneously; this will depend in part on the amount of exposure they receive to each language. Another temporary disadvantage for bilingual children is the initial academic effort of learning to read and write – this is also an additional workload for parents raising bilingual children but one which is well worth the effort.

Basically, the extent to which a child develops their second language will depend on their personal motivation and parental support. Parents should avoid disciplining refusual to speak the minority language as that will only make it more difficult for the child to relate to it as part of their own identity rather than something external that is being imposed, making it much more likely for them to reject it completely. If a child is reluctant to speak the minority language a parent can help keep it alive by simply translating what the child has said in the first language into the second language before going on to respond to it. This can feel a little tiresome at times, but all shadow of a doubt as to whether or not it is worth the effort, will fade away the first time the child surprises you by singing a little song or saying I love you in the second language.

Patience, support and understanding are required by parents raising bilingual children and, as with all aspects of parenting, there will be moments when parents doubt their methods. If a parent is consistent however they will notice how, as their children grow, speaking two or more languages becomes an entirely natural ability and one which is highly coveted in today's global society.

Our language skills dictate where we work and live, who we socialise with and marry, and breaking down language barriers increases our options in all fields of life – which is unarguably a wonderful gift that our children will grow up to be very grateful for.