Two languages at home

We often hear that children are like “sponges”, and that they can learn any language easily while they are young. This is true, but only when they have lots of exposure to the language. Children can only absorb as much as they are given. This means that for your child to develop his or her ability to use both languages equally well, your child must hear and eventually speak both languages often.

In some communities, this can happen naturally if both languages have equal status and the child is exposed to various people, in the family and beyond, who speak one language or the other (or both). In other cases, raising a bilingual child requires conscious planning and effort. Both parents will need to agree on their strategies for making this happen.

If one of you speaks English and the other parent speaks a minority language, like French in many parts of Canada, or any other language that is not widely used in your community, it is important to create opportunities for the child to be exposed to that language. Children understand from a young age that one of their languages is not used very much outside their home, and because they naturally have more opportunities to hear and speak English, their ability to use the other language may lag. This can lead to a situation where the child understands the other language, but does not speak it.

Here are some tips to help your child be bilingual:

Speak your own native language to your child. You are a better model for your child when you use the language you know best.

Develop a social network that includes both languages. Attending friendly gatherings, community events and doing other activities with people who speak each language provide opportunities to practice, and reinforce the message that both languages are useful and valued.

Ensure that your child develops a strong foundation in the minority language from a young age by enrolling him or her, if possible, in a child care or preschool where the minority language is the primary or only language spoken.

Research and create a list of services available in the minority language, and give them a preference (e.g. health professionals like doctors and dentists, as well as libraries, movie theatres, community centres, etc). This may involve planning ahead, or driving a little further, but your efforts will greatly benefit your child.

Make sure you have books, videos/DVDs and music in both languages in your home, and that your child is exposed to them. This reinforces your child’s language skills and strengthens your child’s appreciation of each of your cultures.

Arrange visits to and from family members who speak the minority language. Stays abroad or visits from extended family can give a boost to the language that tends to be neglected.

Depending on the languages you speak and the community where you live, some of these options may not be available. The important thing is to create as much balance as possible between the two languages, and to start doing this as early as possible in your child’s life.