Behind The Scenes Of Raising Multilingual 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 but we didn’t listen. Thank goodness we didn’t. Even though our children are still very young, they’re pretty good at speaking English, Portuguese, and Spanish.

We never doubted raising our children to be multilingual. My husband and I were both raised bilingual and we love it. 

Behind The Scenes Of Raising Multilingual Children

Our Multilingual Backgrounds

My husband and I both migrated to the US from different South American countries as young children. We adapted quite well to growing up bilingual.

He speaks Spanish and I speak Portuguese. We are both quite comfortable speaking our native languages as well as the English language with little to no accents. I’ve even become quite comfortable speaking Spanish as well. 

With the grandparents living nearby and three languages in our daily lives, it was a no-brainer that we wanted to raise multilingual children.

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Teach Them Young

As an infant, I was exposed to two languages at a time. Even though one language was primarily dominant in our family and I blended a few words as a toddler, I adapted quite well as a young child.

As a young adult, I began to learn a third language and it wasn’t as easy. It didn’t come naturally. My third language was Spanish, a very close cousin to my native Portuguese. So some things made a lot of sense, while others took a lot of practice.

But attempting to learn a completely different language, and alphabet, as an adult is a whole other level of difficulty. Especially if it is a language you are not exposed to on a regular basis.

I know this from experience, I miserably failed at attempting to learn Mandarin while spending a year in Asia. 

This is why I feel so strongly about raising my children to be multilingual with our family’s everyday languages.

"Don't Do It" They Said

We want our kids to be part of our mixed cultural backgrounds. 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. 

Before my kids were born, people would ask me which language I would speak with them. They’d respond with such negativity as if I was expected to pick only one.

So many people warned me not to “confuse them” or “mix them up” with multiple languages. I also received a lot of “they’ll have speech delays!” And guess what- these are all myths.

We ignored these comments because I grew up bilingual and none of these issues actually affected us. I knew deep down that raising multilingual children was the right decision for us.

fighting the skepticism

Growing up multilingual, I blended a few words when I was learning to talk. But I quickly corrected them and gained a new skill of separating my languages. I also didn’t have any speech delays and I wasn’t truly confused. 

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Looking back, the English and Portuguese languages were always part of my skill set. Whereas, learning a new language, Spanish for me, took extra effort at first because I had to translate it in my head.

Children absorb information so much more easily than our already developed minds. And scientists have proven that “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.”

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Behind The Scenes Of Raising Multilingual Children

5 Myths Of Raising A Multilingual Child

We were warned against raising multilingual children from the very beginning but I knew their reasons were unrealistic and I was proof.

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.
 

We don’t plan on teaching our children any languages we cannot speak because that too would not be realistic. If you want to raise a bilingual child you need to be able to speak that language, regularly!

The Many Methods To Raising Multilingual Children

So how should one go about raising a bilingual or multilingual child?

To be completely honest, I hadn’t done much research on this topic until I began writing this article. Up until now, I simply followed my instincts when teaching my kids. But apparently, there are several structured 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

Our Experience With Raising Multilingual Children

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. 

Familial Exposure

We mostly follow the Mixed Language Policy (MLP) method. I tend to speak English more with my kids because it’s what I speak with my husband. But, because we have close relationships with our parents and see each other frequently, they help to influence the other two languages.

With the grandparents, 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.

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Locational Exposure

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.

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

How It's Going So Far

From time to time our kids get confused or mix up parts of each language because their English vocabulary is much stronger. But they understand just about 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. It’s a mess when we’re all together but somehow they understand it.

Appropriate Expectations

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, likely, at least one of the other languages too.

But for Portuguese and Spanish we 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.

Learn More

learning speeds - Every Child is Different

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

Friends have asked me what I’ve done to have such a verbal two-year-old. The truth is, it’s likely a mix of his own personality traits and how I communicate with him.

Baby Talk with toddlers has been extremely helpful for us. Another important tactic is correcting my child’s pronunciation by slowly breaking works down.

Lots of reading and even some educational screen time has been extremely helpful for building vocabulary.

Readers:

How do you teach your kids any language?

Multilingual Parenting - Benefits of Raising Bilingual Children

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Tash
April 19, 2019 3:38 am

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 »

Jessica
October 28, 2020 4:55 pm

Great post! Very informative and from such a personal experience!