Raising bilingual children: The infant and toddler years

We live in an increasing interconnected world.  Today, the ability to speak a second language is becoming increasingly important, and science has shown the younger you start learning the easier it is.  So, how is a monolingual parent supposed to help their child learn another language?  

Photo: USAID

SILVER SPRING, MD, October 13, 2011—We live in an increasing interconnected world.  We have become a global society.  Many of the goods we buy are from other countries, movies and music are shipped to other parts of the world, and we can video chat with people on other continents as easily as we can talk to someone who lives down the street.

It used to be that speaking more than one language in the United States was common only to diplomats and immigrants who arrived speaking their native language and learned English. Today, the ability to speak a second language is becoming increasingly important, and science has shown the younger you start learning the easier it is. 

Aside from the increasing global nature of our society, there is also a demographic shift underway in our country. According to the 2010 U.S. Census, Hispanics are the fastest growing segment of our population, increasing 43% between 2000 and 2010.  In 2000, 82% of American households reported speaking only one language in the home. According to a report by the U.S. Census Bureau, by 2009 that number had reduced to 80%, with 12% of bilingual households also speaking Spanish. 

With the reported increase in the Hispanic population, the number of bilingual households is likely to continue increasing.

Regardless of what you think about the shift, the reality is that more and more places you go, you see signs in Spanish or hear the language being spoken on street corners or in stores.  We are becoming a multi-lingual country and being able to speak more than one language is a boon. 

Think about the advantages bilingualism brings.  Aside from being helpful when traveling abroad, it also will help your child once they enter school.  The Center for Applied Linguistics (CAL) says that being multilingual improves school performance and increases overall problem-solving skills.  They also report that research suggests bilingual children are more creative than monolingual speakers and score higher on standardized tests. 

Being multilingual is a plus on both college admission applications and job applications as well.

Research shows that bilingual students score higher on standardized tests. Click to enlarge.

But when should you start teaching your child a second language? From birth, if possible.

A recent study conducted jointly between the University of British Columbia and the Universitat Pompeu Fabra in Barcelona demonstrated that infants as young as 4 months old can distinguish between different languages.  Babies raised in monolingual households lost this ability by 8 months, while bilingual households did not.  This study demonstrates the importance in starting exposure to a second language early in life. But it is never too late to start.

Further, research has shown that language development is not slowed in infants and toddlers by learning more than one language, but rather improved. CAL says that mixing two or more languages in a sentence is not language confusion.  Other studies suggest substituting one language for another while developing their ability to talk is simply a matter of remembering the word for something in one language and not the other.

Bilingual children don’t learn fewer words as a result of having 2 languages, but rather they are learning the same number of words just in 2 separate languages.   

So, how is a monolingual parent supposed to help their child learn another language? 

The best and easiest way for a child to learn a language, whether it is their first or second language, is immersion, meaning that they are surrounded by that language regularly.  So what can you do if you want to raise a bilingual child, but only speak one language yourself?  For infants and toddlers, the options are slightly more limited than for older children, but it is also easier for them to learn a second language at this age, so the extra effort will be worth it. 

If you want your child to learn a language that is spoken by other members of your family, say your mother-in-law speaks the language you desire, ask those family members who speak the language to assist in teaching your child.  Schedule regular visits with them, the more the better, and ask that they only speak to your child in the second language.   This can also be done with other members of the community who speak the second language, or with a babysitter or nanny. 

There are also bi-lingual daycare centers, although English and Spanish tend to be the most common languages at these centers, so if you’re looking for another language, say French or Chinese, you may have to look harder. 

Another option to increase exposure to the second language for very young children is to look for DVDs of children’s programs in that language, or check to see if the DVDs you’re buying have language options. 

Play groups with other bilingual children offer a good place for your child to learn and practice their second language. Photo by Abigail Batchelder. Click to enlarge.

Frequently, you can change the language in the settings menu.  Usually the options are English and Spanish, although sometimes you can find French. Once again, other languages require more investigation and searching.  Be careful with DVDs imported from other countries.  Not all DVDs are compatible with American DVD players.  You need to make sure the region listed on the DVD case is compatible with your player.  Some players can read multiple regions, but check the specifications on your machine and the DVD you’re planning on purchasing first.  There are 8 regions in total.  American DVDs are region 1.  Japan, Europe and the Middle East tend to be region 2. 

When your child gets old enough for play dates, you can try to find a group that speaks the language you are trying to teach your child.  While you might not speak the language, the other parents involved will often be bilingual, allowing you to coordinate with them.  This method also allows your child to make friends that speak the second language, thus encouraging greater use of the second language.

As your child ages your methods will have to change, and you can incorporate other strategies.  But starting at a young age can make the difference between having a child that can easily switch between languages and one that struggles to make sense of another language. 


Follow Brighid on Twitter at @BrighidMoret and receive updates on when new columns post on Facebook. Read more about first time parenting issues in Parenting the First Time Through at The Communities at The Washington Times.


This article is the copyrighted property of the writer and Communities @ WashingtonTimes.com. Written permission must be obtained before reprint in online or print media. REPRINTING TWTC CONTENT WITHOUT PERMISSION AND/OR PAYMENT IS THEFT AND PUNISHABLE BY LAW.

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Brighid Moret

Brighid is a freelance writer and first time mother.  She holds an MA in Writing from Johns Hopkins University.  Find her on Facebook @Brighid Moret


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