How To Be A Bilingual Parent -Part 1

Did you know that 43% of the world’s population is bilingual, 13% are trilingual, and 40% of the worlds is population is estimated to be monolingual?

There are 11 indigenous languages spoken throughout the British Isles including Welsh, English, Scots, Irish Cornish and Scottish Gaelic to name but a few. There over 100 different languages spoken across Britain by communities settled in the UK including languages such as Polish, Bengali, Gujarati, Punjabi, Cantonese and Mandarin. About a 120,000 people speak Spanish in the UK, which is set to take over English as the second most spoken language in the world at 490 million. Being bilingual in the UK is not a strange phenomenon but an everyday part of modern British life.

However, for decades, we have failed to churn out quality linguists from our education system, and the number of people studying languages at GCSE at is falling.  The reasons for this are unclear whether it’s because with English is such a dominant global language or because the quality of our delivery of modern foreign languages is antiquated. What is clear is that we need to start children learning foreign languages as young as possible if we are to prepare our children for the future.

If you are lucky enough to speak more than one language within your household, then you’re well on your way to developing bilingual children, despite the failure of our education system to develop a generation of competent linguists. However, if you are a monolingual family and you want to bring your children up speaking one or more languages to a high and competent level then what else can you do?

Even growing up in a family where more than more than one language is spoken is no guarantee that you will grow up bilingual. Understanding how to make the most of the bilingual resources within the household, giving your child the best chance of speaking more than one language and preparing them for the world is essential. So how do we understand the various mechanics of bilingualism within the household?

Where both parents speak the same language in a host country

There is no guarantee that your children will be linguistically competent if you do speak to them in their mother tongue, nevertheless, if your child does not respond to you in their mother tongue, don’t worry, you are already laying the foundations of your children becoming bilingual. Continue to speak to them and provide them with as many strong models of the language you can give. Let them experience the language in as many different contexts as possible making sure that language experiences you are providing for them have meaning and purpose. That is not to say that you shouldn’t monitor the development of your child’s linguistic skills in both the host society and parental languages.

Make sure your child is provided with plenty of opportunities and experiences in both languages. They may even mix languages at certain times or even refused to speak one language in favour of another depending on who they are interacting or communicating with. Ideally, you would want your children to be developing well in all four skills of listening speaking reading and writing. It’s key they develop to native level in the language of the country they live in. However with regards to their home language, if your child is only able to understand and converse in their mother tongue then that is still a good platform for your child to later develop their reading and writing abilities.

A primary teacher I once came across with while supporting bilingual children within a local authority told a parent with very poor English to only read the storybooks with her child in English. I explained that it was much better for the mother to talk about the story at home in the mother tongue, which would give the child the opportunity to listen to a strong model of language rather than a mother struggling to explain the story to her child in broken English. It was examples such as these where I found children were struggling in both languages and rather than developing their bilingual skills were experiencing a form of semi-lingualism which was affecting their performance at school.

Where parents both speak different language

So what if you both parents speak different languages and the children learn a third dominant language at school? Not to worry, just make sure that each parent speaks to the child in their native language. Parents may think that this would confuse the child,  however as long as each model of the language the child is receiving from each parent is strong, varied, has meaning and purpose,  there is no reason why the child will not differentiate between each language.

It may seem strange to us but children developing their linguistic skills have a brain engineered to take in and process each language because the left hemisphere is the “logical brain” where language analysis takes place.  Children normally know which language to communicate in because they are negotiating with the world around them, so they know naturally, and by instinct which language to use and in which context. Therefore respect your child’s choice when they decide which language to use.

In my family which is of Bangladeshi heritage, the dominant language is English. However, my parents, family and friends speak a mixture of Bengali and English often seamlessly moving from one language to another. My parents spent a lot of time looking after my nephews while my sister worked.

My nephew’s father’s dominant language is Bengali. However, he speaks a mixture of English and Bengali while my sister’s dominant language is English. My nephews were passively taking in Bengali from their grandparents in the context of the language used at home such as everyday instructions, commands, vocabulary associated with the household such as food, emotions, however they were not really developing their speaking skills.

My sister a university English language specialist with the British Council made a conscious decision to take her children to Bangladesh for two years while they were still under the age of 10. They attended an English-speaking school but with their cousins, family and wider society they listened to predominantly Bengali.  The two children now in their late teens understand and speak Bengali to a competent level. They now have the foundations to take this language to a much higher level, and while they did not develop their reading and writing skills, they are confidence speakers of Bengali.

A monolingual family

If you are a monolingual family, which means you speak one language at home, and it’s the same language spoken in the wider society.  There are plenty of opportunities to develop your child’s linguistic skills if there is a language you are particularly interested in your child learning.  If your child is in early years, then that is the ideal time to start them learning another language.

There is something about a child’s brain in their very early years of language development that is open to learning in different languages, in circumstances adults often find particularly challenging.  The methodology parents should use must be controlled and focused with a wide variety of audio and visual resources as well as some focused teaching from a language specialist at school or an afterschool club.

One to one with child and a tutor, in my opinion, is not the ideal setting. Learning should be interactive and with other children. Children at this age would not be learning the same way that adults learn through formal classes, board work and grammar; they are more likely to respond to a global approach which includes, play, music, songs, stories which should develop their listening skills ideally alongside siblings or other children.

Audiovisual is incredibly important because children do need to refer to a visual to process what the words mean in context. Therefore I would advocate using songs and stories that are repetitive and build the vocabulary concept step-by-step. Working on topics, will enable the child to understand of words in context but also concentrate on everyday phrases command and instructions, especially ones that you would use in every day their first language.  There are so many resources now on YouTube and the Internet which of course you must monitor and assess suitability before you allow your child to either watch these resources independently or with another adult.

One key thing I learned from my manager in my early years as a language specialist in Primary was always to develop the second language skills in the following order; listening; speaking; reading and then writing. What he meant was that you can’t say you haven’t heard, you can’t read what you have said, and you can’t write what you have read and while I’m not saying that that rule has to be adhered to strictly it does make sense.

Therefore spend lots of time developing your child’s listening skills allow them to explore words, phrases by associating them with a visual or actions. They will decipher the meaning, and that is best achieved through stories, songs and rhymes.

Many children I would work with on a  one-to-one basis in schools would go through a something called the silent period. This gave the teacher the impression that the child did not understand the target language. However, often the child was taking in the world around them watching, listening, processing and soaking in all the new vocabulary while understanding and assessing the impact the words they were learning would have on those around them.

I would work predominantly on developing their listening and comprehension skills. If I found that if they could understand a range of vocabulary as well as the difference between basic verbs and tenses, then it was clear to me that the children were successfully developing their second language skills even though they were not necessarily verbalising everything that they knew.

What was fabulous was that after some months of working with the child,  the teacher would report back that they were speaking and interacting confidently with other children in the target language. Respecting the six-month silent period paid dividends by allowing the child and their bilingual brain to process the world around them safely and was an absolute key and essential part of developing the child bilingual skills.

Other articles you can read: 

How children learn languages read here

What happens to the brain when we learn languages read here


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About the author: AMN