Challenges of Raising Bilingual Children
If you do your research, you will find pages of articles giving you the benefits of raising bilingual children. What many of them fail to mention are the challenges and difficulties that come along with it. I have worked with many children teaching them English as a second language, and I am now raising my own two children bilingually. Having seen and experienced many of the challenges that parents face, I can understand the reasons why some families choose to give up.
Here are some common challenges, and how you can overcome them.
1. Language Fluency Delay
Parents often confuse language delays with speech delays, and this is one of the most common challenges for parents. Research shows that bilingualism does not cause speech delays, however, some children may take longer to become fluent in both or all languages. While it may not be the case for all children, it is completely normal.
It can be quite frustrating when comparing your child with monolingual children. You may think you are doing something wrong and that your child is disadvantaged, but it is not the case.
Bilingual children are exposed to double the amount of vocabulary, so sometimes it just takes a little longer to soak in. I know of some bilingual children who at 3 years old were almost non-verbal, speaking neither language, but a year later they were able to speak both languages quite fluently.
In most cases, bilingual children with fluency delays catch up with their peers before they start school.
- Spend as much time as possible with your child individually playing and talking, even if they do not respond, continue talking about anything and everything.
- Ask questions, and if they don’t answer, give suggestions, hinting and encouraging them to respond.
- Sing songs and tell them nursery rhymes as often as possible. Repetition is important, leave a pause at the end of a sentence before saying the last word to encourage your child to finish it off.
- Have patience, and be careful not to push too hard.
- Recommended Reading: Bilingual Kids and Language Development
2. Mixing Languages
It is not uncommon for children to start of a sentence in one language and finish in another. Children tend to use whichever words they know to express themselves, therefore if they lack the vocabulary or grammar in one language, they may just fill in the gaps with another.
When my son was first learning to speak he mixed languages all the time and family would constantly be asking me what he was saying. They thought he was confused. Sometimes he would speak in English but use the Italian grammar, meaning the sentence structure was backwards. Eg “the cat black” instead of “the black cat”.
This usually happened when he was translating for someone, or telling me something that happened when playing in Italian. He would literally translate from Italian to English without really thinking about what he wanted to say.
- Correct your child, repeating the sentence in the right way and encourage them to repeat.
- Read to your child every day to increase their vocabulary
- Take notice of the types of mistakes they are making and work on them during play time repeating those sentences to help them learn.
- Recommended Reading:
Bilingual kids mix languages and it’s ok
Bilingual kids and language confusion
3. Preference of one language over the other
Bilingual Children sometimes prefer to speak one language over the other. Usually it is the dominant language because they are exposed to it the most.
Having a preference for one language can often cause a strain on the relationship with the parent with the minority language, especially when children refuse to speak the language altogether.
- Try to add more exposure to the non-preferred language
- Join play groups or mothers groups in your area
- Take a look at the immersion programs available near you.
- Make learning fun. Let your child choose some new books or games that can be used only in the target language
- Recommended Reading:
How to improve the minority language
How to create the need for the minority language
4. Reading and Writing
While learning to speak is a natural process, reading and writing require a lot more effort. Unless you home school, or send your child to a Bilingual School, they will only be educated in one language.
Some children who are raised bilingually will never become proficient in both languages to the same level. There is usually one language which is stronger. In most cases, it is the language they are exposed to at school. Reading and Writing in the minority language becomes the job of you as the parents, and for many families there just isn’t time.
- Have your child read to you every night in the minority language, even if it is just a short book.
- Spend some time each day doing activities such as writing letters and cards
- Hire a tutor to reinforce their grammar
- Check if there is a language school in your area where your child can go for lessons.
- Sign your child up for online language lessons. There is so much technology these days that many courses can be done via skype.
- Recommended Reading:
Biliteracy, When should kids learn to read and write in their second language
How to teach your child to read and write in the minority language
5. Being Passive Bilingual
When a person understands a second language completely but cannot speak it, they are referred to as being passive bilingual. There can be a number of reasons for a child not speaking back in one language including: lack of vocabulary, not enough exposure to the language, and the main reason, there not being a “need” to speak the language.
This can be common in families where a parent can understand the second language. It is not always easy to be consistent, it’s tiring, and difficult to keep on top of all of the time. Sometimes it is just easier to let them respond in the opposite language because that is how they express themselves better, or sometimes you don’t even notice.
My toddler who is starting to really talk now understands and speaks more Italian. Sometimes I don’t realise that we are having a conversation in two languages, where he speaks to me in Italian and I back speak to him in English without correcting him. I have to keep reminding myself when I speak to him to correct him, and encourage him to repeat what he is saying in English even though I can understand Italian.
- Make a “need” for your child to speak each language.
- Ask them to repeat what they have said in the target language and being consistent with it.
- When my children won’t speak my language, I say something like “In English, mummy speaks English, you have to tell me in English”
- “Throw them in the deep end”. Enrol them in a language immersion program or introduce someone else who does not speak the first language That way there is the “need” for them to speak to communicate to explain what they want.
- Recommended reading:
Why your child won’t speak your language and what to do
When deciding to raise your children to become bilingual, it is helpful to know in advance the challenges that you will face so that you can be prepared to overcome them. It is not an easy road, but it is one that your children will thank you for.