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Raising a Bilingual Child: 8 Tips

      It's absolutely true. No matter what age your child is, or whether you speak one language or several, you can raise your child bilingual. While you can probably already envision some of the advantages your child will enjoy once she can speak two languages, it might be motivating to know that learning two languages, in and of itself, will be hugely beneficial to her. Research shows that children who are being raised bilingual enjoy language, academic, and cognitive advantages, from increased abstract thinking and problem-solving abilities to improved school performance, even in math. Children who learn a second language are also more culturally aware. And while you may have more immediate concerns at the moment than your child's future job prospects, it's worth noting that the ability to understand different cultures and interact comfortably with people of different origins is a skill highly sought after by corporations, and it's only likely to become more so in the coming years. About now, you may be saying to yourself, "That all sounds great, but how do I it?" Here are eight tips to get you going.

Start as early as possible.

   While adults can and do learn languages, the brain is more receptive to language learning during childhood. You may not realize it, but at birth, your child's brain is pre-wired to learn all of the languages of the world, regardless of what language or languages you speak. That's right. Your child could learn Swedish or Zulu or Hindi, all without an accent — if she were to hear them early on and often enough. Teaching your child a second language starting at birth is ideal, not just for your child but also for you, because it gets you in the habit from the very beginning. Postponing bilingualism can mean never starting bilingualism.

Know that whether you are bilingual or monolingual, you can raise your child bilingual.

   Nearly every child can learn a second language. Indeed, throughout the world, bilingualism is the rule and not the exception. Even here in the United States, 20 percent of families speak a language other than English at home. But whether parents are bilingual or monolingual themselves, they're recognizing, in ever increasing numbers, how important it is for their 21st-century children to learn more than one language. And there's no evidence whatsoever that a child with English-speaking monolingual parents can't learn a foreign language.

Define the level of proficiency you'd like your child to achieve.

   Before beginning, it is helpful to understand what it means to be bilingual. This can be explained based on levels of bilingual proficiency. The first level is the ability to understand a second language. (This is sometimes referred to as passive bilingualism because it doesn't involve actively speaking it.) The second level is being able to carry on conversation, more or less fluently, in the second language. The third, and final, level is the ability to read and write as well as speak that language. Identify and prioritize your bilingual goals for your child — and for your child to aim for greater proficiency — as each level is a solid stepping-stone to the next. For example, if your child can already understand and speak a language, it is going to be easier for him to pick up a book in that language and learn to read it.

Look for outside support to keep you going.

   As with any important and long-term parenting goal, support is necessary and crucial when teaching your child a second language. Weekend language schools, tutoring, and play groups can help you connect with other families who are raising their children to speak your language and help up the "language input." If you are less than fluent in the second language, it is also important to recognize that you'll need more outside support to boost your child's second-language learning. The good news is it's easy to find that support in the area. Just think of all the different cultures and languages that are right outside your door.

Write down a "weekly bilingual plan."

   When setting your bilingual goals for your child, the most important thing to keep in mind is that the more intensive and extensive the language "input," the faster your child is going to learn the language and the higher the proficiency level he will reach. Having a "weekly bilingual plan" that lists different types of activities you'll do in your language, such as reading to your child, watching a movie, or playing a computer game, and when you'll do them, helps you ensure that your child gets the right amount of language input to match your bilingual goals. 

Take advantage of the Internet.

   One can literally get lost in the array of bilingual resources available on the Internet, from buying books to playing online games. Of course, it's recommended that parents limit their children's screen time, and that they carefully monitor what their children are doing while on the web. Try visiting the webpage of the public television station in the country where your second language is spoken. Like our PBS, it probably offers free, age-appropriate, educational yet fun activities for kids.

Plan ahead.

   Parents often want to know what they should do when their bilingual child hits school, particularly middle or high school, which is where the more rigorous foreign language instruction is typically offered. At this point a child who has already been speaking a second language for several years will probably be too advanced to benefit from the basic instruction offered in that language at school, so she should probably choose a different language. Not to worry — not only will your child be able to manage a third language, but studies show that bilingual children learn a third language even more easily than monolingual children learn a second one. 

Have fun!

   Parents who take the plunge and raise their child bilingual find it is so much more than teaching their child to speak, read, and write in two languages. It's a family adventure, a gift that you are passing on to your child, and an opportunity for her to learn about another culture and be proud of her identity. It's a fabulous and enriching journey. Enjoy it!

NAOMI STEINER, M.D., who is multilingual herself and raising her two children multilingual, is a developmental-behavioral pediatrician at the Floating Hospital for Children at Tufts Medical Center in Boston. SUSAN L. HAYES is a fulltime writer and editor in Brooklyn. They are the authors of 7 Steps to Raising a Bilingual Child (Amacom, 2009).

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