Most Common Questions when Raising Bilingual Children

In her book, Raising bilingual Children Antonella Sorace  answers to a set of questions that most of the parents have when they are trying to raise a bilingual child.

Here are the most common questions on her book:

Don't children get confused when they hear two languages spoken around them?

The short answer is no. Children are incredibly sensitive to the different ways people speak.

Even when they only hear one language, they learn very quickly about differences between the way men and women talk, the difference between polite and impolite ways of talking, and so on. For children, the bilingual situation is just a matter of another difference between people!

So how do we start teaching our children two languages?

The main thing to keep in mind is that parents don’t really “teach” children to speak, any more than they teach them to walk or smile. The most important things in language development are exposure and need. If children are exposed to a language in a variety of circumstances with many different people from the time they are born, and if they feel they need the language to interact with the world around them, they will learn it. If they are exposed to two languages in varied circumstances with different people from the moment they are born, and if they need both languages to communicate with the people around them, they will learn both

Do you really mean that if our children are exposed to two languages from birth they will learn both, just like that?

No, but children can do this with no difficulty, and it doesn’t do them any harm. The hard part is making sure they have enough natural exposure to both languages. Most of the time, one of the two languages

you want them to learn will be “more important” somehow, and the trick is to provide enough opportunities for them to use the “less important” one in a way that isn’t forced or artificial. The best way, if you can manage it, is to put children in situations where only the “less important” language is used so that there is no temptation to mix languages or revert to the “more important” language.

Would it be better to start teaching the second language after children have a good start on the first?

No, definitely not, especially in the bilingual home situation where the second language is likely to seem “less important” to the children anyway. Introducing the second language later is just about guaranteed to make them think it’s less important and not worth the effort. On the other hand, in the bilingual setting situation (say, the Korean couple living in the United States), there isn’t any harm in letting children’s exposure to English begin naturally and gradually. As long as the family stays in the US and the children go to American schools, there is no risk that they will fail to learn English. Actually, the more common problem with the bilingual setting situation is that the children sometimes reject their home language in favor of the outside language.

My children used to speak our home language just fine, but now that they're going to school, they mix it up with English all the time. What can I do?

Relax. Language mixing is normal where everyone speaks both languages.  It doesn’t mean that the children will forget one language, and it doesn’t mean that they can’t tell the difference any more between two languages.  If you scold them for speaking English it may create a negative attitude about the home language and actually make things worse. Instead, create natural situations where the children really need the home language – like calling on those monolingual grandparents again! You can understand this kind of language mixing if you keep in mind that simple exposure is an important ingredient of children's language development. When your children were small, they were probably more exposed to your home language – say Korean – than they were to English.  Now that they are going to school, they are exposed only to English for hours a day, and they are learning all kinds of new words and new ways of using language – but only in English.  They probably don’t know the Korean word for “notebook” or “social studies” or “principal”.  When they use an English word in a Korean sentence, tell them what it’s called in Korean rather than worrying that they’re losing their home language.  Remember, even if they end up with English as their dominant language, they can still be perfectly competent Korean speakers as well.

If you want to read the complete guide Raising Bilingual Children  Written by Antonella Sorace and Bob Ladd   you can download the PDF file HERE