In this MumAbroad Life blogpost, Canadian mum and writer Erin McGann gives eight top tips on how to raise a bilingual child. After nearly a decade in the UK, Erin moved to live in Heidelberg, Germany, with her husband and son. She spends her time visiting every castle and open-air museum, and loves sewing, archery, and historical reenactment. You can check out her travel blog, and follow her obsession with half-timbered houses on Instagram.
When my son started school in Canada, we decided to put him in a French immersion school. Despite growing up on the border of French-speaking Quebec, I’ve never been overly comfortable with speaking French myself. I wanted my son to have that ability. However, two years into French immersion school in Canada, we accepted a job transfer with my husband’s software company and ended up moving to Heidelberg, Germany with three months’ notice.
None of us could speak German.
I’m a firm believer in committing when you move to a new country, and not looking backwards. Our son had just turned seven, and had valiantly been working on French for two years at school, so we didn’t feel like plopping him into a full German school would be fair. However, we wanted him to learn German as soon as possible. We found a bilingual school that used the local curriculum, and he began his first year there.
It wasn’t easy, there was frustration (both ours and his!), meetings with his teachers, and lots of tutoring help after class. Now he’s in his sixth year, and a functionally bilingual child. I’ve learned a lot about what to do, and not do, when you want your child to become bilingual and speak another language fluently. Here are my best tips.
Do make a plan and commit to it
Whether you’re starting from birth with a strategy like One Parent One Language (OPOL) or starting later like we did, make sure both parents are on board and committed to the process. This is a project that will take a lot of work on everyone’s part, and being explicit about it is really important.
Do be patient
In both immersive school situations, it took my son at least one school year to speak much in class, and two school years to really contribute regularly. Speaking is often the last thing to come. We would practice basic phrases at home, like asking to go to the bathroom, so he would feel more comfortable with it. We watched films in French, and then later in German, together with the subtitles on, but I didn’t quiz him on it.
Don’t panic and quit too early
It may seem like nothing is happening at first, and there will be people that will tell you to stop. If you are really concerned, visit a speech pathologist that is familiar and supportive of bilingual and multilingual families. However, this process is just not a quick one and it will take years for your child to be fully comfortable in more than one language. Even if they aren’t speaking much, there is a lot of activity going on behind the scenes processing the language.
Do find a community
There are loads of other parents out there raising their kids bilingual, trilingual and more. A survey by Lingoda found 85% of US language learners also want their kids to learn another language so you’re not alone. Connecting with other parents will give you some support and ideas for new materials, books, apps, and shows. If your child goes to an immersion school, try connecting with other parents there. There’s also a great Facebook group called Multilingual Parenting with families teaching their kids every combination of languages imaginable, and they are a great resource.
Don’t compare your child to other kids that only speak one language
It’s a myth that learning more than one language causes a speech delay in children. But, we all see the social media updates of parents displaying the piles of books their kids have read or the special story they’ve written. It’s hard not to instantly compare our own children’s progress, but resist the temptation. The progress is different for kids learning more than one language.
Don’t assume it’s too late
If you didn’t start your child on another language from birth, that’s fine, start now. I’m pretty sure my son had not heard more than 15 words of German before we moved to Germany, and he started learning when he was seven years old. Five years later, his best friend is a native German speaker and they speak that language together. He translates on the fly when he’s playing Minecraft with German speakers and English speakers.
Do get them to teach you too
Kids love teaching their parents things. Even if you’re fluent in the second language you are teaching your child, it’s likely they will learn some slang words eventually that you don’t know. Encourage them to share it with you! My son loves teaching me the correct pronunciation and explaining the nuances of vocabulary. We even watch German TikTokers together and he explains the jokes when I don’t get it.
Don’t forget to praise as well as correct
It is very easy to get into the habit of correcting your child’s language every time they speak. When I was young, my mother corrected my French so often, I just stopped speaking it with her because I was so discouraged. Remember to praise their efforts, even if they aren’t perfect. It’s a lot of hard work they’re doing, and it deserves to be recognized.
It is an incredible gift you’re giving your child when you support their language learning. While it’s not easy, remember you’re not alone. You’re worthy of praise as well!
Read more about bilingualism and multilingualism The Top 10 Problems of Growing up Multilingual
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