I’m raising my children to be bilingual in English and Spanish. Currently they are 30 months and 8 months old. My husband and I are fluent in both languages, and our families are Cuban and Puerto Rican. My main motivator to raise my children bilingual is cultural. When we visit my family in Puerto Rico, I want my children to be able to speak the language. The other important reason to raise them bilingual is the now well recognized benefits of bilingualism. Studies suggest that bilingual or multilingual individuals have improved cognitive skills not just related to language, but also in executive function. These studies found improved ability to ignore distractions and hold information, therefore improving the mind’s planning and problem solving. Other research has suggested that the “mental workout” involved in having two language systems active in the brain may delay symptoms of dementia in old age. And lastly, there is also the more practical benefit of bilingualism in this increasingly globalized society – being able to communicate with more people.
Although you may decide to raise your children bilingual, accomplishing this can be challenging. There are various ways your child can learn two languages at once. Probably, the most common scenario is where each parent speaks a different language to the child. There is also the scenario where one language is spoken at home (usually the “foreign” language) and another language (English) is spoken outside the home. For parents who do not speak a second language, a nanny or sitter who speaks a foreign language can be a good option. There are also language immersion schools for preschool or older children. In our case, we speak strictly Spanish at home with our children, but they get exposed to English by their nanny. They also hear us speaking in English to our friends or outside the home. My 30-month-old already knows which language to use based on who he is talking to. Regardless of your strategy, the key to success is consistency and perseverance.
For proper language development, it is fundamental that the exposure to each language be spoken by a person. The exposure should be as rich as possible: abundant and varied, and incorporated into the child’s activities throughout the day. Reading to your child is extremely helpful. The immense benefit of reading to children for language acquisition, even starting in the newborn period, is broadly recognized. So read aloud! And read some more; in both languages! As a supplemental exposure, learning and singing songs from music and TV media will be enjoyable and can aid in further language development.
At this point, my oldest son is becoming exceedingly verbal and can actually have conversations, but mostly in Spanish. When we go to his favorite place – the playground, he tries to speak to other children in Spanish and is met with a lot of confused faces. My next goal is to find him a Spanish-speaking playgroup where he and his peers can continue to learn from each other. I am confident he will learn more English quickly as soon as he starts preschool, so for now I am going to continue solidifying his Spanish.