Whoever has done it will have to agree that raising bilingual children is a difficult experience. (Not that the rest of childhood is a cakewalk anyway.) Difficult yes, but enriching nonetheless. It brings with it unprecedented joy as well as the pains of frustration and doubt. Like they say, it ain’t all roses, not for the parents and not for the children.
This brings us to the question, can parents somehow make this journey easier for their children?
Of course, they can. Parents are children’s first point of contact to the world outside and therefore play as important a role in early language learning as in anything else. We have put together some rules that you, as parents, should play by to make the process better.
1. You shouldn’t consider one language superior to another.
In order to raise responsible children, it is absolutely essential for you to give equal respect to both the languages that your children speak. Never imply to your children, in any manner, that English is superior to the other language they are painstakingly learning.
This is, obviously, easier said than done. (So cliché, we know.)
A lot of our actions are unconscious and outside the realm of awareness. Even if you don’t act that way in front of your children but secretly believe it, your children will easily pick up on it because of your non-verbal cues. (Yes, your children are smart like that.) Therefore, don’t indulge in any such actions. Don’t speak ill or make fun of the culture associated with the language. And definitely, don’t treat people speaking the language as inferior.
2. You should encourage exposure to both the languages.
As important as it is to respect both the languages equally, nothing can really be achieved without giving an even exposure to both the languages. A language can’t really be learned without mastering all the subtle nuances it contains. Native speakers are your best bet here.
You may have already gotten a native tutor for your child, but don’t stop there. Please. Get your children together with playmates and arrange playdates with other children who natively speak the second language your children are learning. Go on trips to the native country. Watch TV shows in the second language. It’s not only about exposure to the language but exposure to the culture as well.
3. You should accept and support your children.
It is very important for you to accept both languages wholeheartedly. This means the difficult task of never scolding your children for either language spoken at any point in time. Sometimes your children will make mistakes in deciding the right language or picking the right words but as a parent, you have to choose to let that slide. (Pick your battles carefully, mama.)
Children are sensitive creatures. Therefore, make it a point not to put your children on the spot by asking them to recite things in one language or the other in front of guests. And never let anybody (relatives/friends/guests) make fun of your children for speaking the second language.
Another important thing to do is to support your children in their quest of learning the language. Show initiative and eagerness towards learning the language even if you don’t know how to speak it yourself. When they are watching TV shows in the other language, sit and watch together.
When your child is one of the only few bilingual people he knows, he may feel bad. It is your job here to explain how diversity is prevalent in the world and how above all, we are all people. Though we are different in some ways, we are similar in others. Don’t let his self-esteem take a hit. Support him and make him understand how very extraordinary he is.
4. You should have a plan.
Life is simpler and learning languages infinitely easier when there is a plan. You don’t need to plan every step of the way for the next 20 years, but having a basic plan is a must.
First of all, both parents must agree amongst themselves about the willingness to raise bilingual children. Children shouldn’t be caught in a crossfire where one parent blames the other for initiating the process of dual-language learning. There should also be a consensus on the second language that your children will learn.
Next, there should be some deliberate thought given to the methods you will use while raising your children. Will each of you speak a particular language while talking to them or will you get them a private tutor? (Details, details! The story of my life.)
5. You should be patient.
It is natural to have days when you doubt your ability to raise bilingual children (or children, period). Don’t give up. You have to understand that raising bilingual children is a long-term commitment. After all, Rome wasn’t built in a day.
Don’t compare your children’s learning process to anyone else’s. All of us learn differently and at varying paces. It is unfair for your children to feel incompetent just because they happen to be a little slower than the fastest language learner on the planet.
Another thing to keep in mind is frustration. Sometimes you may feel like taking it out on your children. We suggest that you refrain from doing so. Instead, breed an atmosphere of positivity. Focus on the wins, however small. Don’t pass any opportunity to provide positive reinforcement. Praise your children (frequently).
6. You should make learning languages fun.
Many times, in your enthusiasm of raising bilingual children, you may become overly excited. Limit your enthusiasm or you will overwhelm your children. Don’t go overboard with personal tutoring AND multiple trips to the country where the language is spoken AND TV shows with only the second language, etc. Establish some limits, for you as well as for your children.
Childhood is an age of innocence and fun. All activities learnt during these years should have the extra element of fun attached to them. Don’t take that away from your children in favor of achieving your dreams of raising bilingual or multilingual children.
With so many things to take care of, it is natural to be a little scared. Or even terrified. But it is at times like these that you have to trust your parental instincts. Don’t pull out your hair already. You will get enough opportunity to do so in the coming years.
Remember, you are not in this alone. Hundreds of people across the world and even celebrities like Ricky Martin, Salma Hayek, Angelina Jolie, and Johnny Depp are raising bilingual children. If they can do it (with such a hectic schedule), so can you.
We believe in you. We know that you can do it.