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Raising a bilingual child presents a few challenges and many rewards for both parents and children. Writer Darren Skelton shares his experience and offers a few tips.
Text: Darren Skelton
Countries: China and Britain

s I sat on my sofa watching a live football game, my 5-year-old daughter bounded up to me and asked if it was OK to ask grandma to give her an ice cream. I replied that it was fine, and she should go tell her grandma to get her an ice cream out of the freezer. This is a fairly standard scenario, except that my daughter was speaking English to me and Mandarin Chinese to her grandmother.

When my wife and I decided to have a child, we discussed various parenting issues that we expected to arise, including how to approach raising a bilingual child. We read a bit, asked around for those in similar situations and talked about our approach to raising our own polyglot tot.

Following our research and discussions, we learned that it is possible to introduce up to four languages at the same time. In addition, a child must be exposed to a language for approximately 30% of their time awake for successful acquisition to occur. We decided that two languages were sufficient for now.

We also learned that the ultimate language teachers for our kids would be other kids – when they got together for play dates and other activities. This would be suitably assisted by English books, movies, cartoons, storytelling, toys, formal classes and music – all connected by the English language.

The most important things that we decided was that whenever it was the three of us (myself, my daughter and my wife), we would always communicate in English, and at other times my daughter could communicate in either Chinese or English as she wished. Hence, we provided the input, exposure and opportunity for her acquisition of both English and Chinese. We had to be strong-willed on this point because it can be difficult – but we were certain that by doing so we were creating the conditions for natural language acquisition to occur.

In addition, because we live in Harbin, China, we did recognise, accept and understand that her language ability in Chinese would always naturally be ahead of her English ability. As such, we promised ourselves we would be patient. There is a good reason that young children around 2 years old have 50% more synapses than adults do, and we should not undervalue the importance of the passive language stage (understanding the language, but not yet producing any language). Our patience and understanding were key.

My wife and I got together with some good friends and acquaintances, who speak both Chinese and English and were raising their own bilingual children, and we created a social group with a commitment to meeting regularly with our children so they could play and do activities together in English. Additionally, we parents could get together to talk about all the issues involved in living abroad and raising bilingual children. Home potlucks are common — the kids will chat, eat and play all day. We also have picnics out at the park when the weather is good.

We chose a kindergarten that provides daily English classes as part of the curriculum for further exposure to English, and we take additional classes at a private school once a week. We also download cartoons and movies, and we constantly read children’s stories in English to our daughter (note – the Mr. Men series is still fantastic as a series of short stories for children).

For millions of families around the world, bilingualism and multilingualism is common; consider Switzerland, Finland, Belgium and Canada, for example. Research shows that there are significant cognitive advantages to being bilingual or multilingual. It has also been noted that bilingual and multilingual children have a much higher understanding of linguistics.

Raising a bilingual child can have a few obstacles, though. We came across a delay in producing speech, because our daughter is learning twice as many words and structures. Bilingual children start speaking three or four months later than monolingual children, and it is nothing to be concerned about. We also came across reading and writing issues in the early stages, but this is natural because reading and writing are simply a coding and decoding process and is not linked to the number of languages a child is learning.

We also noticed that our daughter sometimes mixed up the languages – slipping back and forth between the two. This can be alarming, but the habit does pass once the child has a large enough vocabulary to express themselves – usually around 4 or 5 years of age. Also, monolingual children face the same issues of not having the correct word to say what they want. Effort and commitment were the other two issues noticed. Both the child and the parents really have to work at it.

Finally, language boosts are often required and are extremely useful, so we fly home to England for 6-week blocks once every year to 15 months, and every time we do so, the boost in language production is remarkable.

After talking with the friends in our social group and sharing our experiences, I’d like to leave a couple of tips on the issue of raising bilingual children:

1 If your child is struggling to produce a certain word they know in English, you can jog their memory by providing the first syllable or the starting sound of that word.

2 Do not dampen their enthusiasm – kids will often get too excited about something (for example – a kindergarten trip to the zoo that day) and will simply blurt it out in the second language. So, just listen, do not make a big deal out of it and simply repeat the narrative back in English.

3 Praise and more praise. You can correct those linguistic errors simply and effortlessly through modelling and remodelling the language – as monolingual parents do when raising monolingual children.





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Bilingual Children

Raising a bilingual child is not easy, but it is good for the child. There can be many challenges, but also many rewards for both parents and children. A child must be exposed to a language for approximately 30% of their awake time for them to really learn the language. They will mostly learn from other children. For this reason it is important to allow for moments where bilingual children can play together. You should also provide your child with English books, movies, cartoons, storytelling, formal classes, and music. These will all help to improve your child’s English.
Because a bilingual child is learning two languages at the same time, it is important to be aware that they may start speaking later than other children and may sometimes confuse the two languages. This is normal and you have to be patient and provide many opportunities for your child to practice both languages. You also must not get upset when your child mixes the languages as with time this habit will pass. If your child is having a hard time remembering a word, help them out. Do not get upset when they use the wrong language, simply repeat what they have said in the correct language. And finally, always praise your child. This will encourage them to speak up more.



 

Comprehension

Below you will find text comprehension questions. Read and listen to the text and answer the questions (we recommend you read first and then listen).

Raising Bilingual Children

Quiz

 

Grammar in Use

Below you will find PDF documents with the Grammar in Use.

Intermediate: Phrasal Verb: Bring up

Advanced: Idiom: Keep an eye on the ball

Vocabulary

Bilingua Children

Summary Vocabulary

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