Growing Up Bilingual – Guide For Parents

I was brought up in a bilingual home from birth. My native language is English, but my mother tongue is Bengali. I was born in England in the 1960s to Bangladeshi speaking parents. My parents spoke Bengali to each other but made a conscious decision to speak a mixture of English and Bengali to me while I was growing up. One of the reasons for this was because they were very keen for me to integrate into school and within the community that they had adopted as their home.

During my first experiences of the school I realised that to survive and communicate with my peers and those around me, English was the only language that I should use. Growing up in North Manchester in the 1970s, bilingualism in schools was not understood nor was it particularly valued.

My parents decided never to impose Bengali on me as a spoken language; however, that didn’t stop my parents speaking Bengali within the household. Looking back, over the last 40 years, as a native English speaker and a fluent Spanish speaker I truly regret that I grew up in a society where bilingualism was not valued. Not being able to speak Bengali fluently (the language of my parents) is a linguistic tragedy and yet I can speak Spanish even though I have no cultural ties or heritage associated with Spain.

As a failed French students at 16 years old,  my experience of learning French had been purely classroom-based and so I decided that I wanted to learn Spanish.  One of the main reasons for this was because my older sister was studying Spanish at degree level and would often visit Spain. She returned to our home with amazing tales of what a beautiful, romantic and charismatic country Spain was.

I grew up during a period in British history where grammar was literally erased from the school curriculum. I found it very hard to put the pieces together when learning French and therefore at 16 I found myself to be a failed linguist. Little did I know that while passively listening to my parents speak Bengali with family and a friend, they were in fact, sowing the seeds of bilingualism.

In the summer of 1987, my life changed, my sister brought home two people from Spain who would become my lifelong friends.  I spent every summer with two families from Castilla La Mancha and was lucky enough to be completely immersed and surrounded by Spanish. It was also a period when there were no emails so to keep in touch with my friends I would I would write long postal letters updating them on my studies and my plans.

By the time I started University in 1988, I was pretty fluent considering I had only been learning Spanish for two years. One of the key things I decided to do while learning Spanish at 16 years old was to take a completely different strategy to the one I had used when learning French in school. I decided to learn Spanish as if I were a three-year-old and so started with very simple books, fairy tales, songs and rhymes.

I built up my knowledge, and my confidence by listening to pop songs. I watched lots of Spanish TV, dubbed version of Friends and followed all the South American soap operas. Many may question my taste in music and TV, but it worked for me.

Using a non-academic approach to learning Spanish and immersing myself within the language and popular culture enabled me to unlock something that been dormant within my bilingual brain. Many parents who bring up their children in a country where the mother tongue is different to the host country worry that their children will not grow up bilingual. Especially when despite the parent speaking to their children in the language of their heritage the children speak back to them in English. I beg to differ, I truly believe if you continue to speak to your children in their mother tongue and create an environment where the language of their cultural heritage is constantly being reinforced then by default your children will grow up bilingual.

Nevertheless, if they have not practised speaking in the language of their parents, then it is true that they may struggle to converse in that language. Therefore it is important for parents to encourage their children to speak their mother tongue in an environment that is fun, natural and unthreatening, but if they are not ready then respect the silent period.

It’s not a strange phenomenon that they may only answer you in the language of the host community, it’s a survival technique that your children are using to blend in and assimilate. But if the experiences of their mother tongue and parental culture are positive then throughout that silent period where they seem bent on not uttering a word of the parental language, their bilingual brains are busy at work processing vocabulary, grammatical structures, meaning and context in both languages.

I spent nine years during my early career working with hundreds of bilingual children. I worked in two local authorities in the UK working one-to-one with bilingual children; in a British bilingual school in Alicante and I was one of 45 UK Primary teachers recruited to pilot the British Council and Spanish Ministry of Education Bilingual Project in Spanish infants schools. I have seen every bilingual environment where children can reach a level of competency in either their mother tongue or their target language if the rights steps are taken.

So as parents, never give up on striving to make your children bilingual. It is one of the most precious gifts that you can pass down to your child. If you don’t speak a second language in your home, or both parents speak different languages there are still lots of things you can do to recreate an environment where your children can develop their bilingual skills.

Keep at it and create an environment where the language of your child’s heritage is a positive one, rich with meaning, context and purpose.  If the host culture does not value the language of your ancestors, then make sure that within your home environment you do. By the time children are 12 years old (which is the time it takes for children to fully develop their linguistic skills), you will find that a lot of work has already been done. Get them listening to their mother tongue or target language soon as possible.

It’s never too late to start the bilingual journey,  there are many things that parents can do to ensure that their children grow up bilingual with the ability to communicate in all four skills of listening, speaking, reading and writing.


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About the author: AMN