Multilingual Parenting – Benefits of Raising Bilingual Children


My husband and I come from mixed backgrounds and both migrated to the United States. as young children. Our children were born here but we’re raising them to be multilingual with the combined three languages we speak on a regular basis. 

People have warned us against teaching our children more than one language at first but we didn’t listen, and thank goodness for that. Even though they’re still very young, they’re pretty good at speaking English, Portuguese and Spanish.

We never doubted wanting to raise our children to learn our languages. My husband and I were both raised bilingual and we love it. 

Our cultural Backgrounds

My husband’s family migrated from Chile when he was young so he learned English at school and only spoke Spanish with family.

My family is a blend of Brazilian and Colombian cultures, so Spanish and Portuguese. My parents raised us with English and Portuguese, omitting Spanish, because we lived in Brazil.

We moved to the U.S. when I was a young child. I learned a little Spanish in high school and later I became pretty fluent with my Chilean in-laws so now I fully consider myself trilingual.

Multilingual Parenting - Benefits of Raising Bilingual Children

fighting the skepticism

As you can see we have a pretty mixed background of South American culture and don’t want our kids to miss out on that. I’ve had a lot of benefits from speaking two, and now three, languages and I think it’s extremely important for people to speak more than one if possible. 

I know from experience that learning a new language after a certain age is very difficult. As a teenager I miserably failed at Mandarin while spending a year in Asia and although Spanish wasn’t easy for me it was easier because its similar to Portuguese and I practice it daily. 

Before my kids were born, I would have people ask me which language I would speak with them and I would say that I would teach them the three that I know but that likely I’d speak more English at home because its what I speak with my husband. 

Some people were surprised but a lot of people warned me not to because “it would confuse them” or “they’ll have speech delays” or “they’ll get them mixed up” (all myths). I just let it go in the moment because I grew up bilingual and none of these issues actually affected me. 

Sure, I mixed up a few words here and there but I didn’t have any speech delays and I wasn’t truly confused. I was introduced to both English and Portuguese almost equally from birth. 

I learned Spanish later and had a hard time with certain aspects because I had to translate it in my head, whereas with English and Portuguese it was just there in my head. 

I hadn’t really given it any thought as to why it felt so different learning a new language later but I knew it was because of my age and brain development. 

Now my logic is justified, “after puberty, studies show, new languages are stored in a separate area of the brain, so children have to translate or go through their native language as a path to the new language.”

5 myths of raising a bilingual child

We were warned against teaching our babies multiple languages but I knew their reasons were unrealistic and I was proof. 

Studies are recently proving those reasons to be myths, in fact, Baby Center points out the top 5 myths of raising a bilingual child. 

  1. Growing up with more than one language confuses children.
  2. Raising a child to be bilingual leads to speech delays.
  3. Bilingual children end up mixing the two languages.
  4. It’s too late to raise your child bilingual.
  5. Children are like sponges, and they’ll become bilingual without effort and in no time. 
 

Now, I don’t plan on teaching my children any languages I cannot speak because that too would be unrealistic. If you want to raise a bilingual child you need to be able to speak it, regularly!

The Many Methods

So how should one go about raising a child to be bilingual, or in my case trilingual?

To be completely honest, it wasn’t until writing this that I actually did any research on the subject. I simply followed my instincts when teaching my kids. But apparently there are several methods, which can also be combined.

  • One Person One Language (OPOL)
    Where one parent consistently speaks a different language to the child
  • Minority Language at Home (ML@H)
    Where the parents speak a different language at home and the child will pick up on the local language at school
  • Time and Place (T&P)
    This is where you have set days or seasons for speaking each language
  • Mixed Language Policy (MLP)
    Parents will speak the language appropriate for the situation
  • Two Parents, Two Languages (2P2L)
    Where each parent already knows 2 different languages and speaks to their child in both so that the child learns 4
Multilingual Parenting

how we've been raising our kids to be multilingual

Now that I’ve come to understand these teaching methods, I realize that even though I followed my instincts, I actually combined a few of these, which is yet another method. 

There is no right or wrong method though, I have friends who follow different methods and have found equal success. 

I mostly follow the Mixed Language Policy (MLP) method. I tend to speak English more with my kids because its what I speak with my husband but, because we have close relationships with our parents and see each other at least weekly, they help to influence the other two languages. 

With the granparents, we’ve asked them from the very beginning to only speak their native tongue with our children and we adapt to that too. So when I’m with my parents we speak Portuguese and when we’re with my husband’s family we speak Spanish. 

Also, we live in an area where there’s a large population of both Spanish speaking and Portuguese speaking people so they are surrounded and exposed to all three languages on a regular basis. And it helps that I have a lot of friends with children who speak either one so my kids get that exposure from them and from hearing me switch back and forth. 

Sometimes they get confused or mix up parts of each language because their English vocabulary is much stronger. But they understand EVERYTHING in all three languages and manage to communicate pretty well in each one as well, despite only being one and two years old. 

They even know which language to speak to which person which shows me that we’re doing something right. 

For example, when all four grandparents are around and even my grandmother, they know to speak to my in-laws and their great-grandmother in Spanish, my parents in Portuguese, and English with me and my husband. Its a mess when we’re all together but somehow they understand it.

We’re mainly focused on verbally teaching them our minority languages, Spanish and Portuguese, since I myself have not mastered writing in either language. 

They will learn more in depth about the English language in school and if I’m lucky at least one of the other languages too. 

But for Portuguese and Spanish I think it’s important for them to at least build a good vocabulary and be able to communicate. 

I’m trying to expose them as much as possible without putting too much effort or forcing them, I am lucky to have my family and friends to help influence and expose them to it all without the need for much added effort. 

Occasionally I like to add some extra exposure to the languages with videos and television, some books, and music. Sometimes seeing or hearing something from an outside source opens our minds a bit.

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learning speeds - Every Child is Different

A lot of my friends have asked me what I do to get my two year old to be so verbal, in general.

Every child is different when it comes to this. Most are more verbal at home than in public, and there’s nothing wrong with that.

My son, at this age, is a little more verbal at a playground than some of his friends are, but I think that’s mostly a personality thing because there are other things he doesn’t want to learn that children his age already mastered.

I think he’s gained more confidence in being verbal because I’ve corrected him in pronouncing things and I try to encourage him to speak up. My son can be very shy with strangers but once he warms up to someone its hard to shut him up.

He’s less stubborn about learning new vocabulary as opposed to other learning activities. And he actually really seems to like it so I correct him when he says something a little mumbled. I repeat the words broken down to see if he can get it right or make improvements. He finds great pride in himself whether he gets it perfect or thinks he does.

But again, currently, he mostly likes to learn languages. When I try colors, shapes or anything else, things go way differently. I’m not worried though, if he’s able to focus on learning something really well I know he will eventually want to learn other things too.

So if your child likes to identify colors or shapes, for example, but not other things don’t worry, they’ll get there!

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My little guy having "cafezinho" at Vovó's house
Little Passports

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How do you teach your kids any language?


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Tash

This is so awesome! I love how you stuck with your gut and now the results are speaking for themselves 😁 I am raising my girl to speak English predominantly and Afrikaans as her second language, the only problem we are having is that daddy doesn’t speak Afrikaans very well… Read more »

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