Language Matters October 2010: Bilingual Children

Dear Language Friend,

Bilingual upbringing will help – not prevent – learning. Early exposure to more than one language makes language acquisition in later life easier. Rest assured that LingoStar will advise you what to do to turn your children into little language experts.

Contributed by Doris Anne Heidemann

Thanks for reading!


What is meant by the bilingual upbringing of children? 

Raising your children to speak and understand two languages is known as bilingual upbringing. Ideally, parents should be native speakers so that the child will get a native speaker’s command of both languages. In a wider sense, though, bilingual upbringing can include bilingual parenting in a foreign language if one or both of the parents are not native speakers. In any case, it is rare that children become completely equilingual, or a native speaker in both languages. This newsletter focuses on bilingual upbringing of children by both native and non-native speakers. This is not as extraordinary as it might seem to many of us in the Western world. For example, in many African countries, bilingualism or even multilingualism is very common.


How does one introduce and maintain bilingualism in the family?

There are many different methods, however two of the most important ones are the OPOL approach, which stands for One Person One Language, and the Time or Place Oriented Method, which means that the whole family uses one particular language in a particular place or at a particular time. In either case, the proficiency the children acquire will highly depend on the language skills of the parents and other relatives.


But why should a monolingual family raise their children bilingually?

There are some plausible reasons to do so: First of all, the younger one is the easier it is to learn a foreign language, provided that one gets regular input as a baby or toddler. Second, since English is a lingua franca in most countries, a child that learns English as a second language at an early age will be able to better communicate with people all over the world later in life. Third, a bilingual child is definitely better equipped for a professional career than a monolingual child. Moreover, learning a second language will involve the child in another culture, which means they will also be bicultural. Finally, for children with a mixed ethnic background, bilingualism may help them to find their roots by communicating with relatives.


The controversy – Natural or Unnatural?

It should be noted that there is some controversy regarding bilingual upbringing among experts. Linguist Leo Weisgerber warns of the detrimental effects by claiming that by nature man is monolingual, so raising children bilingually is unnatural. Most linguists, though, disagree with this opinion by referring to studies that have revealed the positive effect of bilingualism. According to them, speaking two or more languages increases the child’s intellectual potential and is advantageous for concept formation. Thus, children become aware at an earlier age of the arbitrariness of language: A cow could have been called dog and vice versa.


Also, bilingual children definitely reflect a higher adeptness of divergent and creative thinking than their monolingual peers. And finally, how can bilingual upbringing not be natural when the majority of children in the world grow up speaking more than one language? The only snag about bilingualism is that children may be late speakers and initially mix up their languages. They also may refuse to speak their second and weaker language at certain times, but patience at these stages of development will definitely pay out. Just stick with your routine of speaking both languages. Considering all the advantages of bilingualism, you should definitely opt for it even if you or your partner are non-native speakers. Give it a try!