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Raising Multilingual Children

Updated: Oct 16, 2023

There are plenty of websites, scholarly articles, and online groups dedicated to multilingualism in children. Many debate the pros and cons of raising multilingual kids, but before we dive into this topic, it is important to understand the distinction between language acquisition and language learning. Language acquisition, which occurs more naturally through interaction and communication, is typically how children pick up their first language(s). Language learning, on the other hand, involves explicit instruction in the rules of a language, such as in a classroom or online setting.

Introducing a child to multiple languages from a young age can be a rewarding but also challenging experience for parents. Here are some common questions parents may have along with answers and guidance:

Why multilingualism?

There are many advantages to raising a multilingual child. For families where parents speak different languages, raising multilingual children can be a bonding experience. Multilingualism allows children to connect more deeply with their cultural heritage. It provides a direct link to their family's background, history, and traditions, fostering a sense of belonging and cultural pride.

Academically, multilingual children often exhibit enhanced reading and writing skills compared to their monolingual counterparts. Learning multiple languages helps develop a deeper understanding of linguistic structures, which can be beneficial for literacy skills, while exposure to different writing systems can broaden a child's cognitive abilities.

Additionally, multilingual children often develop a broader perspective of the world. They are more likely to appreciate cultural diversity, practice tolerance, and embrace different ways of thinking and living. Plus, multilingualism is an asset that can open doors in the future to so many opportunities in an increasingly globalized world.

*It's important to note that a significant portion of the world's population speaks more than one language. This is especially common in countries with diverse linguistic backgrounds, such as Papua New Guinea, Nigeria, and Indonesia. Children in these regions often grow up learning multiple languages, including the official language of their country as well as regional or tribal languages.

Shouldn't my child learn one language really well before adding a new one?

Research suggests that learning multiple languages simultaneously is often easier for children than learning them sequentially (one after the other). Young children have a natural aptitude for language acquisition, and their brains are highly adaptable during this developmental stage. Exposure to multiple languages from an early age can result in fluent and proficient language skills.

How do I raise a multilingual child?

For effective multilingual language development, it's important for children to be consistently exposed to each language. Studies indicate that a child should be exposed to a language for approximately 30% of their waking hours to achieve fluency. This exposure should ideally continue for the first five years of their life to ensure a strong foundation in each language. Try the following:

  • Storytelling and play in each language

  • Listening to and singing songs in each language

  • Watching videos, cartoons, and movies in each language, pausing to ask questions in the language

  • Celebrating cultural holidays, traditions, and cuisine

  • If possible, visiting places where the language is spoken

What if my child mixes languages?

It's okay! Initially, multilingual children may mix languages, but with consistent exposure and vocabulary development, they typically learn to distinguish and use each language appropriately. This process is similar to how monolingual children learn to fix their linguistic mistakes over time. Be sure to emphasize to your child that mistakes happen and we can learn from them.

As you can see, raising multilingual children has numerous advantages, including strengthening family relationships, cognitive benefits, and a deeper understanding of cultural diversity. However, it requires consistent exposure and support in each language to ensure proficiency.


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