Methods to raise bilingual and multilingual children

Taking the decision of raising your children with several languages and even two mother-tongues is perhaps one of the best choices for a family that has the right resources and commitment to do so. Most of these families will do it since the parents have different nationalities or they are now located abroad. The particularities as well as the levels of complexity within each and every family will differ greatly, specially when considering the number of languages spoken, how similar or different are them, the amount of exposure and in general the characteristics of the environment the family is developing. All of these will off course have an impact on the learning processes for your children, however despite some evident challenges, there are some methods that will assist families to succeed when raising bilingual and multilingual children.

Languages as a natural process 

It is very important to clarify that most children will have the capability to learn a language without following rigorous or specific methods, however studies and the experience of hundreds of families demonstrate that having a background structure for the learning process is always a good idea as it makes the task simpler.

Note that regardless the method chosen or the self stablished structured created within each family, some keys of success when raising bilingual or multilingual children are determination, consistency, exposure and reinforcement. Language is indeed a natural process but when a couple or several are mixed together some elements might be considered. Read our article about the benefits, the myths and the facts of raising bilingual and multicultural children.

Popular methods and structures

OPOL: One parent, one language

This method is perhaps one of the most used language systems. It consists on each parent speaking their mother language to the child at all times, regardless the situation. It is important to mention that this method requires the help and support of others that do speak the same language their parents do, so that way the child can listen to the language interaction. A good idea is to consider a native speaking nanny or au-pair, playdates, having family or friends visiting or making video/phone calls with the family and off course making trips to the home country or places sharing the same language.

mL@H: Minority Language at home

With this method all the members of the family speak the minority language at home and the community/local language with everyone else when outside. It is not necessary that the minority language is native to both parents. It can be said that this is one of the most successful methods when we talk about family systems, as the child hears both parents interact in one language from the time they are born until they are integrated in school, therefore is very helpful if you want to raise competitive bilingual children.

An element that shall be considered with this method is that the child will not be as good as his monolingual peers, but in most of the cases the child will catch up when starting school around 5-6 years. If you are concerned and want to ease the adaptation, one of the parents can speak the community language during the adaptation process and switching back to speaking the minority language once the child is integrated.

Time and place

Consists on speaking a language on a specific time of the day (from morning to afternoon, from afternoon to night), during a specific activities (use one language at home, use another for extracurricular activities/classes), under certain situations (cooking, reading) or choosing some days of the week for each language.

This method can be positive as the child has the opportunity to watch and listen to both parents or family members interact on both languages, however it shall be noted that it has a high complexity as it requires a lot of structure and discipline. It might be difficult for very small children to understand, but can be a great option if you have a very structured life and older kids. This method is the one bilingual schools use the most.

Mixed language policy

This method requires using both languages interchangeably rather than using one language under specific circumstances. Families can use any language as they please. This method is mostly used in large communities that are already bilingual or in extended or large families where enough of its members speak both/multiple languages. This system is great as it requires very little planning and also helps the child to understand the idea of bilingual or multilingual cultures. The main disadvantage is that, as it doesn’t require so much structure, the child (and the adults) can easily start having preference over one language, they can mix languages in one sentence or start creating new words and slangs. Perhaps situations that can be solved over time, but if not done actively the languages will be learned with certain weaknesses.

Your family, your language

Bilingualism and multilingualism are still debated by many, mostly due to misinformation and ignorance about the infinite benefits it has not just for the children raised this way but for the future adults they’ll become.

We strongly recommend you to continue reading about these topics as it will give you all the necessary arguments and self-assurance regarding this parenting style. Remember it is your family, your language and consequently your culture.  Be sure to choose the method that fits the best with your family lifestyle, because as mentioned before, the main keys for succeeding at it are related to the consistence and effort put into the process from you and your family.

Remember it is vital to count with the support from all the family members as well as from the closest network, this way the goals that have been settled will be easily achieved over time.

About the author:
Maria Teresa Rocha Vidaurri
Graduate on Primary Education (Mexico)
Specialized in arts, games, music and rhythm as stimuli for the perceptive and motor skills development
Teacher at Escuelita Latinoamericana (Aarhus, Denmark)
Trilingual mother of 3 bilingual children

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