The Bilingual Baby

Globally, more people are bilingual than monolingual. But what effect does speaking two languages have on your child, and how can you encourage them to learn both?

If you or someone in your family speaks a language other than English, you probably want your little one to be able to speak that language, too. After all, language is a huge part of culture; studies have even shown that a bilingual person’s opinions and ideas differ slightly depending on the language they are speaking, as the associated culture impacts their way of thinking.

But bringing a baby into a bilingual family comes with a whole new set of questions and worries. Will they be able to learn both languages? Will they get confused? Will it impact their development? How can I help them?

Well, we’ve done the research, and today we’ll be going into the impact of bilingualism on child development, as well as offering a few handy tips for encouraging your child’s healthy language development - times two!

First up, can learning two languages negatively impact my child?

Let’s debunk some myths: no. Generally speaking, learning two or more languages will not have a negative impact on your child. Children are very sensitive to variations in language, from accents to polite and impolite ways of speaking. For bilingual children, learning another language is not dissimilar to learning the difference between harsh words and kind words.

So why do the rumours abound?

Firstly, it is true that children who are being raised bilingual can sometimes start speaking later than monolingual children. This is completely normal, and they will very soon catch up!

If your child is already speaking, you may have noticed that they sometimes use words from one language while speaking the other, and you may be concerned that they are getting confused. In some cases, this is just because they are very young and still working on their vocabulary! In others, it may be as simple as them knowing you will understand what they mean. Numerous studies - and personal accounts - have found that bilingual families will frequently switch between languages at home, when they know the other person can also speak both languages, but, when they are speaking to a monolingual person, they will have no trouble speaking only in the common language. I myself frequently witness this with members of my extended family, who chat to each other in a peculiar mix of Italian and English, but who have never accidentally uttered a word of Italian to me.

Lastly, some research done in the 1950s suggested that speaking more than one language put people at an economic disadvantage. As a result, bilingual and immigrant families throughout America and the UK were recommended to speak only English at home.

In reality, this study wasn’t carried out particularly effectively, and a large body of more recent research has shown that any economic disadvantages are linked to the hardships of immigrants’ lives, rather than their speaking two languages. 

Instead, being bilingual has a range of benefits.

What are the benefits of bilingualism?

Most of the benefits of being bilingual are to do with the anterior cingulate cortex. This is part of the brain associated with executive function, and studies have shown that bilinguals activate it more often than monolinguals as they monitor, suppress and switch between languages. 

Of course, the more we use a part of the brain, the stronger it gets (just like muscles!), resulting in better overall executive function for bilinguals. This includes the ability to concentrate, solve problems, multitask and think flexibly. Studies have also found a connection between bilingualism and reduced risk of dementia!

Will my child naturally pick up my language?

This is a bit of a yes and no question. While young children will naturally absorb languages, for fluency to occur the right conditions must be created and maintained. According to the Linguistics Society of America, the most important things in language development are exposure and need. In other words, children need to not only hear the language regularly, but they have to feel like they need it to communicate.

With that in mind, let’s look at some top tips for encouraging language development in your bilingual baby!

  • Start young
    It’s never too early to start speaking both languages around your child. Children absorb language the best between birth and three years old, and speaking two languages around them will only advance their skills in both!

    However, if your little one is older than three and you’re now looking into teaching them a second language, it’s not too late. Children’s ability to learn new languages is something of a superpower!

  • Use your full vocabulary
    Whichever language you are speaking, don’t be afraid to use ‘complex’ words. The richness of a child’s language environment predicts their vocabulary and grammatical development in later life. Put simply, the more words they hear, the more they will know.

  • Have face-to-face chats
    Children learn language best by speaking to a real person, face-to-face (as opposed to watching television, listening to tapes, etc.). Ensure you’re spending plenty of time chatting together!

  • Create a ‘need’
    However well a child seems to be picking up a language early on, if they don’t feel a need to use it, they may resist speaking it as they grow. For example, if you speak Spanish at home, but you yourself are bilingual and everyone else they meet speaks English, they will probably just speak English - no matter how much you cajole them.

    Family can be a great solution to this. If you have parents, siblings or cousins who only speak your child’s second language, set up a weekly video call! You can also try finding (or setting up!) a playgroup for parents and children who speak the same language.

  • Find the right method for you
    For your child to become bilingual, they’re going to need to hear both of their languages A LOT, and this can require some pre-planning on your part.

    Some parents adopt a one parent, one language approach. For example, if one of you speaks English as a first language, and the other speaks Urdu, you can each speak to your child in only your mother tongue. This way, they will not only be hearing a similar amount of each language, but will be hearing fluent speech from both of you. If you do adopt this approach however, ensure your little one is hearing both languages from other people, too!

    Another common approach is to have one language at home, and one outside. If, for example, you live in the UK but all the adults of your family can speak Korean, then you can speak Korean at home and encourage your child to learn English at nursery and on playdates. This will create that need to be able to communicate in both tongues!

Some parents also aim to speak different languages on different days of the week. However, this can cause some confusion and resistance from your little one.

  • Embrace variety
    Hearing different people in different situations speaking a language is really important for developing fluency. Again, you can tag in family members or friends to diversify your little one’s language environment!

  • Get siblings involved
    It’s not uncommon for second-born children to be less fluent in their second language than their older siblings. If you have older bilingual children, you may find they resort to the ‘more important’ - that is, the most commonly spoken - language when talking to their younger siblings. Try and encourage them to chat in their second language, instead!

  • Follow interests
    Does your little one love diggers? Then show them Bob the Builder in Russian! Are they interested in sea creatures? Buy some books on fish in Arabic! If your little one needs their second language to pursue their interests, they’ll be more likely to use it.

  • Utilise modern media
    Audiobooks, songs, videos, TV shows, books, apps… there are loads of ways to introduce more of a language into a child’s world.

  • Don’t overcorrect, do offer words
    Constantly interrupting your child to correct their use of language can be frustrating and create a negative relationship with said language. When they’re very young and using short phrases and sentences, you can repeat them back correctly, and even add expansion. For example, if they say ‘a lellow car’, you can reply ‘yes it is a big yellow car’.

    When they’re a little older, they may pepper their speech. For example, they could be telling you a story in Korean, but use the English word for ‘playground’. This could simply be because they don’t know or have forgotten the correct word in Korean. At a convenient moment, simply tell them the translation.

  • Go to classes
    Lastly, as your child gets older, you may want to add a little formal learning for their second language - after all, they’ll be learning the first at school! Evening and weekend classes can be the perfect answer to this need, and can help to ensure your child continues to develop their language skills.

So, I hope the information here has given you some ideas to start your little one on their linguistic journey! If you have any questions, want to share your own tips for raising a bilingual baby, or have a topic you want to hear more about, drop us a message via Instagram.

Mar sin leat!

Content Creator at MEplace

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