Raising A Bilingual Child: Fears, Myths, and the Importance of the Mother Tongue

Raising A Bilingual Child: Fears, Myths, and the Importance of the Mother Tongue
Parenting Bilinguals

Raising a child brings amazing rewards as well as tremendous anxiety.  Parents can easily feel overwhelmed with the bombardment of high-stakes competitiveness in education and sports while having access to fewer traditional safety nets such as external family support to help with the burden of childcare.  Immigrant families are likely to experience an even higher level of anxiety as they try to ensure that their children assimilate and learn the dominant language while also providing for their family and raising their children.   For both immigrant and nonimmigrant families, thoughts on how to incorporate bilingualism in their children’s early development can easily be fraught with many fears based on unfounded myths. These myths include:

  • Fear that their child’s English (or dominant language) will be stunted or delayed;
  • Fear that their child will be confused by having more than one language;
  • Fear that introducing a second language will delay language development.

Despite many studies refuting each of these fears, they still persist simply because they appeal to what we as adults think of when we think of language learning. However, young children are not miniature adults and do not follow the same learning curve as adults.  Nor are they empty vessels waiting to be filled.  Babies and young children are  biologically primed to be extremely receptive to language input as a key mode of communication and as a result they can easily distinguish between different languages and sounds. Studies show that babies as young as seven months old are able to distinguish between phonetic differences, pitch and duration in different languages. (1)   This ability for quick language acquisition is a a biological evolutionary trait since young children have to quickly learn how to communicate with their caregivers to meet their needs.   Likewise, adult caregivers naturally and automatically communicate through what is referred to as “baby talk.”  “Baby talk” occurs in all languages and is defined by how adults naturally talk to babies and young children in ways that provide better articulation of language, a more varied pitch, repetition, slower annunciation, and more expression. (2)

The use of multiple languages does not hamper language development or delay it in any way.  In fact, multilingualism is the norm for most of the world’s population and language development in children continue in a natural progression irrespective of the number of languages being learnt.  However, every child’s language development is different and varies according to biological make-up, the amount of external stimulation he receives and his natural developmental curve.  For this reason professionals discourage comparing one child to another but instead focus on general trends in the natural progression of a child’s development.   While adding a second or third language may change the mix of language focus by adding more syntax rules and phonetics to master, it does not delay the learning of language; but rather strengthens it.

It is true that children may mix languages as they continue to acquire mastery of the languages. This is a very normal part of language development and it is also very temporary.  It does not mean that the children learning multiple languages are confused by the different languages, but rather that they are working out the logistical differences between the two (or more) languages; thereby making code switching between the two easier as mastery of the languages is achieved.  As language development progresses, a child will able to communicate in any one of the languages at a time depending on with whom he or she is speaking to and what language is being spoken.  On the other hand, mixing both languages is common when both parties speak both languages.  The ability to speak both languages and to mix them interchangeably  enhance effective and creative modes of communication between parties.  It does not represent regression or deficiencies in language development, but rather an advanced form of self expression and communication.

How can parents support language acquisition?

  • Be patient and remember that language learning is not something that happens immediately. Observe your child without intervening and ask yourself what he or she needs to feel comfortable in communicating in both languages.  What a child needs varies and greatly depends on personality and family circumstances.  For example, a Mexican family living in Austin shared with me their experience regarding their daughter who was learning English at school.  In their home, they only spoke Spanish but at school their daughter was learning English.  When the daughter came home from school, she began to feel very anxious about her language development in English.  Once the parents gave her permission to speak in English at home and demonstrate that they as a family could be relaxed at speaking both languages, the daughter’s anxiety went away.  After a short time adjusting to English to help their daughter over this hump of acquiring a new language and to feel more comfortable switching between the two, the family transitioned back to Spanish as the language for their home.  Just knowing that her parents were supportive of her speaking both languages was what she needed to help her over the hurdle to master her second language.
  • Establish a strong connection to the mother tongue/s.  Parents have an important opportunity to impart the language/s they feel most comfortable with to their children.  Whether it be Spanish, English, Mandarin or any other language, communicating to your child in a language that allow you as a parent to express yourself more fully helps develop important relationship bonds between child and parents and important language skills by the child.  By establishing a strong connection to the mother language/s, a child is able to develop a broader and more complex understanding of the language/s along with more depth and better understanding of nuances within the language/s.  This deeper understanding of a given language can then be easily transferred to the learning of other languages.  However, if a parent is afraid of speaking to their child in a language that is most natural to him or her for fear of introducing a language that is not the dominant language, then he or she can actually make it more difficult  for that child to learn the dominant language by not fostering that important foundation in communication through language and relationship bonding.

Establish A Strong Connection with The  Mother Tongue/s:

  • Take time to read together books in your language.  Find books that your child find interesting.  For young children, find books with  beautiful images and colors and shorter texts. Talk about the story afterwards and ask your child engaging questions.
  • Sing songs together.  Children love to sing and singing is one of the most effective ways for people of all ages to learn language.
  • Play fun games together such as memory games, strategy games where you talk about your strategies and other fun games that encourage language communication.
  • Share stories with your child.  Children love to hear stories about when you were younger.  Use these stories as a way to connect with your child and engage in rich language learning.
  • Ask your child to share stories with you.  Encourage imaginative story telling prompted by images, toys or situations that appeal to your child.  Be engaged and listen to your child while helping your child practice communicating in your mother tongue.
  • Share adventures and experiences and then reflect on those experiences afterwards.  Simply going to the park, participating in family or community events,  and visiting a local museum can create shared experiences and new adventures for you and your child.  Talk about these adventures in the moment and then reflect on them with your child afterwards.

Adding a Second/Third Language:

Some parents rely on nannies, daycare or preschool to provide their child with access to a second language.  However, parents can facilitate language learning in another language even if it is not their primary language. Here is how:

  • Introducing a language through basic daily routines such as meal time and bath time is a great way to develop new language skills while not sacrificing the richness  of language acquisition from the mother tongue.  Routines provide a great context to demonstrate that there are multiple ways of saying the same thing and adds richness to vocabulary and context.
  • Reading bilingual books together increases language awareness and vocabulary in both languages.
  • Singing songs in the second language in addition to the mother tongue is important for positive association for the language and for language development itself.

For more reading:

Sing and Ye Shall Learn! Why Singing is Important to Language Acquisition

Julie Slim, an Artist who’s Multilingual Voice Connects and Inspires

Learn to be Bilingual By iPhone: The Story of MamaLingua

Context Is Key!

How Parents can be Ambassadors of a Second Language & Culture

Please Read!…To be Bilingual.

5 Tips for Using Bilingual Books in the Classroom & Home

The Spanish Promise — Start Where Language Begins: At Home

Raising a Bilingual Child – With One Bilingual Parent