Speaking multiple languages has many advantages: languages open doors to other cultures, broaden your world outlook, and often make you more competitive in the job market down the road. Parents decide to raise their children bilingual or multilingual for many reasons. Two reasons seem to be most common: heritage and future prospects. Whatever the reason you decide, here are three quick tips we found useful in our experience:
- Speak to and interact with your child in the target language from the earliest age. It is never too early. Infants or toddlers may not be able to speak back right away and may only speak in one language for a few years, but that doesn’t mean their passive knowledge of the minority language isn’t growing. By speaking to the child in your life you are not just helping them build their vocabulary, you are developing their listening skills, training that ear, and building a foundation for her or his speaking skills.
- Read books together with your child. There is a difference between interaction, i.e. “kitchen talk” on the one hand, and reading “ABCs” and children’s literature. Books often often convey diverse themes critical to language development that adults tend to skip during routine daily conversations. When children are little, alphabet books offer simple words and concrete ideas: a cat, a zebra, etc that are easy for kids to digest. Additionally, picture books offer stimulating illustrations that can be used to build up more complex ideas and abstract concepts, such as “a hungry orange cat likes to drink milk after a long nap.” One of our favorites in Ukrainian is АБЕТКА published by Ivan Malkovych with excellent illustrations by Kost’ Lavro.
- Immerse your child in the target language. It is important to offer your child diverse language immersion settings that reinforce your daily efforts. Anything your child does in their majority language should also be done in the minority language/s. This can take several shapes:
- Provide similar early education materials in both the majority and minority languages – coloring books, pre-K workbooks, alphabet flash cards, etc
- If you as the primary caregiver are not fluent in the minority language, seek out resources that will make your job easier: listen to nursery rhymes in the target language on Youtube (you can always cover-up the screen of your phone or tablet) or play audio books for children
- For older children, allow them to watch cartoons in the minority language – either original content or dubbed American series & films (much of this is available for free on the internet)
- Organize playdates with children who also speak the target language or even just have your child be present while you and other adults socialize in the minority language
- Visit and/or travel in the country of the target language if at all possible
Lastly, the internet has many misconceptions about raising children bilingual or multilingual. Think critically about the information you receive on this topic and seek out authoritative sources. For example, we found this article on bilingualism to be highly informative. In their scholarly article, Dr. Krista Byers-Heinlein and Dr. Casey Lew-Williams review what the science says about six of parents’ most commonly asked questions concerning early bilingualism – such as are bilingual children confused, does bilingualism make children smarter, and others. Make sure to inform yourself so you feel confident in your child raising decisions.