Many parents hope that their children will become bilingual. Yet even if each of the parents has a different mother tongue, raising a child to be bilingual is not a certainty. Indeed, many children who grow up in such a family situation learn one language well and acquire only a vague familiarity with the other language.
A determined effort on the part of both parents is required if true bilingualism is to be achieved. When that effort is expended with consistency throughout the childhood and teenage years, the result is that the individual is completely fluent in both languages by the time he or she reaches adulthood. This level of bilingualism is highly prized and – depending on the languages – can be a huge advantage in finding educational opportunities and career options.
The following five suggestions are key to achieving such bilingualism. Keep in mind that each instruction must be followed consistently over all the years of the child’s development (from birth until age 18).
1. Each parent must speak to the child exclusively in that parent’s mother tongue. This is the key component in the effort to create a bilingual child, and it’s absolutely essential that both parents be totally committed to it. For example, if the father’s first language is Spanish and the mother’s is English, the father should always speak to the child in Spanish and the mother should always speak to the child in English. Studies have proven that this technique works best – perhaps because the child learns to associate each language with a different person.
2. Social and recreational opportunities must be pursued in the non-educational language. Obviously the school-age child will hear the language of his/her school – which would normally be the language of the dominant culture of the country – more frequently than the other language. Therefore it’s important that the child be exposed to social and/or recreational activities with children speaking the other language. This would normally happen in the evening or on weekends.
3. Training in reading and writing must be provided in the non-educational language. Since true fluency in a language involves more than oral proficiency, the child must be trained to read and write in the non-educational language. This can be done either by the parent whose mother tongue it is or by an agency that provides language services.
4. Provide opportunities to have fun in each language. If the child senses that one of the languages is all work (and no play), he/she will be less enthusiastic about learning that language. Books, games, DVDs, and CDs in both languages should be made available to the child, and he/she should have some choice about when to use these items.
5. Periodically, “immersion” opportunities in the non-educational language should be pursued. At least every two years, the child should be immersed in the non-educational language for an extended period of time – at least a month. One example of such an immersion period is a summer vacation in a country where the non-educational language is spoken. This sort of immersion is necessary to ensure that the child continues to develop his/her capacity in that language.
The parental effort described in these five tips is significant, requiring considerable self-discipline and certain sacrifices. The reward for all this effort – a fully bilingual young adult – is also significant, and is worth all the sacrifices.
By John Dunnery