How to Raise a Bilingual Child

As promised from my previous blog on the costs and benefits of bilingualism, here are some strategies to create a home environment ripe for bilingualism. With its many benefits, parents may choose to raise their children as bilinguals. But after making that decision, the goal of helping their children "obtain" bilingualism becomes the next biggest concern, and it's definitely not an easy task to tackle. (The worries never seem to end, huh? Props to you parents!) Parents and family play a vital role in the process, which can either ease some parents' fears or elevate them. Don't fret though! Fortunately, there are many different strategies, which means that parents, you just need to find the one that suits you and your children the best. I'll discuss the various methods briefly and go into detail for three of those strategies. In Bilingual: Life and Reality, Dr. François Grosjean proposes five different methods in raising bilingual children. The first, which he terms the “one person-one language” strategy, consists of attempting to provide children with input from both languages. For instance, the mother speaks one language to the children, whereas the father speaks the other language. This needs to be done consistently and on a daily basis. The second method that Dr. François Grosjean discusses is the “home-outside the home” strategy, in which the native language is spoken at home and the child receives input from the other language outside of home. Thirdly, there is the “one-language-first” strategy. Typically, parents teach their children the minority language first. After the children firmly establish that language, parents then introduce the alternative language, usually the dominant language, around age four or five. The fourth strategy is the “language-time” strategy, in which parents determine times to use one language (i.e. in the morning) and times to use the other language (i.e. in the afternoon). Lastly, the “free-alternation” strategy is allowing the children to receive input from both languages without any constraints. For instance, parents may speak Cantonese at home, send their children to an English-dominant school, and then take their children to visit their Mandarin-speaking grandparents.

We can all agree that raising children takes up many resources, such as time and money, and requires a great deal of effort from parents, right? Raising a bilingual child includes all of those challenges and introduces additional issues that parents must be willing to tackle. This may involve additional time and resources. In any case, parents must be devoted to their goal of raising a bilingual child. While this is not to say that parents with lower SES cannot successfully raise a bilingual child, lower SES means fewer resources available to invest in their potential bilingual child. Therefore, parents must be extremely committed as half-hearted efforts can place their child at a huge disadvantage.

With that being said, I agree with the methods that Dr. François Grosjean discussed to successfully raise a bilingual child. Particularly, I would advocate the “one person-one language,” “home-outside the home,” and “one-language-first” strategies. The key is to ensure that the child receives input from both languages on a daily basis. With this goal in mind, the “one person-one language” strategy seems to be the most efficient and guarantees input from both languages (but of course bear in mind that this is a generalization, and may not be applicable to all families in all situations, especially for families that can only speak one language fluently). As the child develops both languages, he or she will need to heavily engage the executive control since each parent uses a different language. This increased usage of the executive control could potentially place the child on track to become a high-level bilingual and grant him or her extra practice in inhibition.

The second method, “home-outside the home,” may also help with providing input from both languages. However, I must point out that with this method, input from the dominant language is solely dependent upon the contexts outside of home. Typically, parents who use this strategy rely on the schools to teach their child the dominant language. While this is a good strategy, parents must be very mindful of the school’s attitude toward bilingualism. Most likely, there will not be much of a problem in schools teaching the dominant language to the child. However, schools may highly discourage bilingualism and thus influence the child’s view on his or her native language. If the child is not motivated to maintain the native language, then he or she may choose to be monolingual. Nevertheless, many parents, whether consciously or sub-consciously, have elected to raise their bilingual children using this method.

Lastly, the “one-language-first” strategy can be an option for parents who may be afraid to present both languages at the same time to their child. The risk with this method is that it is difficult to judge the amount of input from both languages. Nonetheless, as Dr. François Grosjean stated, this may be a viable option, especially if the second language that the child learns is the dominant language. In this way, the child has both the home and outside of home contexts to learn the second language.

Hopefully, by stating the seriousness and demands involved, I didn't scare away parents from the possibility of raising up bilingual children. However, I believe that it is important for parents to realistically evaluate their bilingual goals and their implications, judge their own resources and determination, be mindful of the school context, consider their children’s attitudes toward bilingualism, and take the necessary action to reach their goals. It may sound like a handful, but with determination and a plan, it can be worth it.