Raising Billingual Children: The Early Years

I’m starting a new series where I share about my journey raising bilingual children. I have to confess that my children would be monolingual if it wasn’t for the persistence and support of my husband. He does not speak German, so it was all on me to teach the kids. It felt so awkward speaking a different language in front of him and others; I felt like I was cutting them out. But by overcoming that awkwardness and being persistent it started feeling more natural.

In my opinion when you successfully raise bilingual children, 3 things need to happen.

  • You need to speak that language at home all the time. Not just at dinner time, or the weekend, or two hours on Friday. All the time is best. This is the hardest part, and for me it hasn’t gotten easier over the years. The more children I have the more they speak English among themselves and the more work it is to make them speak it back to me.
  • You need to read to them and eventually they should read on their own.
  • Ideally they need to learn to write it and relearn grammar formally and from the ground up. Don’t assume that by immersion they just pick up on grammar. I grew up speaking Croatian on the weekends; I was immersed in it. But I learned very little grammar; and the grammar I was taught assumed that I was a native speaker. Today my grasp of Croatian is very limited. I can have casual conversations, but that’s about it.

This is a tall order, and you might think “I’d be thrilled if they just understood it”. I encourage you to go further, the more you put in the bigger the rewards.

Here are some strategies that really helped in the early years:

  • Take them to the country of the language you are speaking as often as you can. They need to connect with your family, the culture, the food, and they learn much faster by being completely immersed in it.
  • Read to them as often as you can. Find out what the kids are reading these days  or read to them what you grew up with. I have almost as many German kid’s books as I have English.
  • Let them watch shows or movies in that language.
  • If they like video games, get them games in your language. Whatever they are into offer that in your language.
  • I used to think it would be best if I offered them movies and books they already liked in English, but the reality is most of their favorite shows/movies/books are the ones they are only familiar with in German.
  • Let them listen to audio books and radio in that language.
  • Have visitors as often as possible from your country, especially families with kids.
  • Seek out play groups, meet with other native speakers.
  • Share your faith, read the bible in that language.

Myth:

  • It is easy learning a language when you are little: Nope. It might be easier than when you are older, but it is still hard, hard work. Kids don’t want to work that hard. They will resist you. Try to stay positive, but keep going. I have met a lot of adults who told me: I wish my parents had taught me their language… I have never met an adult that told me they regret learning a second language.
  • I’ll just put them in French daycare for a couple of years, and they are good to go. That’s a great start and it will probably help their brains to have the capacity to learn another language, but if you stop when they are still young (12 and under) they will forget everything. You need to have a long term commitment. I have met a lot of adults who were raised in another country and came over maybe at age 8 and stopped speaking that language. They have forgotten everything as adults.

Disclaimer: I am not an expert. I’m just speaking from my own experience and my observations.

One of my favorite side effects in teaching my children German is the fact that I can correct them in public without embarrassing them or others. I can tell them not to pick their nose, or stare at strangers. 🙂

How about you, have you tried teaching your children another language? How did it go? What was easy what was hard?

I’d love to hear from you,

Sofija

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Raising Billingual Children: The Early Years

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