Guide to Raising Bilingual Children: Definition, Benefits and Tips
As parents, we’re always looking for ways to broaden our children’s horizons. From after-school sports to piano lessons and more, there are so many ways to enrich your child’s education and help them find new passions.
Aside from music and sports, being able to speak a second language is one of the most useful and practical skills for any child to learn. Research shows that bilingualism has plenty of benefits for children, such as improved multitasking and memory, stronger academic performance and deeper cultural connections.
In the longer term, bilingual students also have access to more career and learning opportunities. This is especially true in a global job market, where bilingualism is one of the most desired traits in jobseekers.
Knowing these benefits, your next question must be: ‘How do I help my child learn a second language?’
In this article, we’ll answer some common questions about raising bilingual children, including:
Bilingualism is the ability to communicate in two languages. It’s closely related to multilingualism, which is the ability to use three languages or more.
Often, bilingual people are exposed to two languages from childhood, which allows them to ‘pick up’ both languages easier. If you or your spouse are bilingual, there’s a high chance that your children will become bilingual as well — as long as you give them enough exposure to both languages. This is easier in a diverse country like Singapore, where almost everyone can speak two or more languages.
What are the benefits of bilingualism for children?
Cognitive skills are boosted.
Speaking two languages from a young age has plenty of benefits for brain development. Bilingualism is linked to cognitive advantages, such as the ability to switch between tasks, inhibit previously learned responses and recall past events. Researchers believe that these benefits arise because bilinguals are constantly ‘training their brain’ when switching between languages.
Academic performance is enhanced.
While there’s no direct correlation between bilingualism and school performance, the cognitive benefits listed above can have a positive impact on a child’s education. Additionally, bilingual children can access more learning materials, and they’re able to use what they know in one language to better understand new concepts and subject matter in another language.
In an international school setting, bilingualism empowers children to speak up, participate in lessons and express themselves in the language they’re most comfortable in. This can lead to better retention and a more positive attitude towards learning.
New languages are easier to learn.
Research shows that bilinguals find it easier to learn new languages later in life compared to monolinguals. Students can draw on their knowledge and skills from their first and second languages to develop fluency and literacy in a new one. By supporting your child’s language learning now, you can build a strong linguistic foundation that will help them in the future.
Children become skilled communicators.
Being bilingual allows children to communicate creatively by bridging what they know in each language. Young children with limited vocabularies have also been shown to communicate resourcefully by using words from both languages to express what they need.
If your child frequently switches between their first and second language in one conversation (which linguists call code-switching), you don’t have to worry. This is a sign that your child is using their language skills resourcefully.
Cultural connections are strengthened.
Many bilingual children have a home or native language, which is often the primary language of their community. Home languages are closely tied to culture and history, which means they’re integral to maintaining a strong connection with your heritage and identity.
This is especially important for international students, who may spend most of their childhood away from their home country. Speaking with your child in your native language will help them build self-esteem and stay connected to family abroad.
Conversely, knowing a second language also allows children to connect with people from other cultures and countries. It’s also linked to stronger social-emotional skills, including the ability to understand other people’s perspectives.
How early should I start teaching my child a second language?
When it comes to teaching your child a second language, most researchers agree that earlier is better. And the more you expose your child to a certain language, the more likely it is that they’ll learn and use that language.
Young children have the impressive ability to learn simply by observing others — and this behaviour also applies when learning new languages. Children naturally pick up the words they hear in everyday conversations, which helps them build a wide vocabulary even without formal classes.
Older children and adults may find language learning more difficult, considering the amount of time they have to spend learning words, studying grammar or practising pronunciation. While it’s never too late to start learning a language, it will help greatly if your child is exposed to a language earlier.
What can I do to support my child’s language learning?
While raising bilingual children has its own unique challenges, it’s not as challenging as you think it may be. Here’s what you can do to help your child become proficient and confident as they learn a second language:
Use online resources.
Going online is one of the easiest ways to support your child’s language learning. For example, the Lee Kuan Yew Fund for Bilingualism has a list of relevant print resources for children learning Chinese, Malay or Tamil in addition to English. If your child speaks a different combination of languages, you can often find age-appropriate books and materials by simply searching online. Best of all, many of these resources are affordable or even free.
Try the ‘One Person, One Language’ approach.
The One Person, One Language (OPOL) approach is one of the most popular ways to nurture bilingualism in children. In this approach, each parent or guardian should strive to speak with the child in only one language. For example, you may want to speak in Mandarin while your partner speaks in English. This will help your child learn words and syllables quickly while helping them differentiate between the two languages. However, as your child grows older and develops a preference for one language, you may need to tweak the OPOL approach to provide additional support in the language they’re less proficient in. Don’t hesitate to experiment and do what’s best for your family.
Allow your child to watch movies and TV shows in both languages.
Many bilinguals point to movies and TV shows as some of the most effective tools for learning a language. Plenty of children’s movies are translated into various languages, so why not let your child watch two different versions? Subtitled films are a good option as well. These will help expand your child’s vocabulary while highlighting the similarities or differences of their learned languages.
Find bilingual books to read or give to your child.
Pronunciation is one of the biggest challenges that learners face when learning a new language. For young children, hearing the words and syllables spoken out helps them make the right sounds on their own. Bilingual storybooks, which are written in two languages, also help reinforce learning while your child builds speaking confidence.
As your child grows older, it’s also important to provide them with books and other media in both of their languages.
Enrol your child in language classes.
Speaking a language at home develops key conversational skills that your child will need as they grow older. However, it’s important for them to keep expanding what they know in both their first and second languages. Formal lessons cover topics such as grammar, writing and literature, which will take your child from conversational to proficient level. If your child uses one language more than the other, you may want to consider classes in the language they use less.
How does XWA support bilingualism?
Here at XCL World Academy (XWA), we strive to create an inclusive and welcoming environment where students are empowered to use and learn different languages.
While we use English as our main language of instruction, we are proud to support our students as they continue to learn their home or second language. We’re happy to say that there are over 50 languages spoken in our diverse community!
Our Nursery and Early Years students have daily Mandarin lessons. Young learners are introduced to basic Chinese character strokes and learn the language in a fun and engaging learning environment. From Grade 1 onwards, students will have the option to continue taking Mandarin or switch to either French or Spanish classes. These classes are a part of our regular curriculum, which means your child will build a strong foundation in their language of choice. In addition to the above languages, our IB Diploma Programme students have the opportunity to study Japanese Language & Literature in Grades 11 – 12.
We also offer a Bilingual Chinese (Mandarin) – English Programme for students in Pre-K, KG1, KG2 and Grade 1. This foundational programme is designed for non-Mandarin native speakers, providing them with the opportunity to learn in both languages during school time.
Students with limited exposure to English receive individualised support under our English as an Additional Language (EAL) programme. Our EAL programme aims to help students develop a strong foundation in academic English grammar and vocabulary, as well as improve their listening, speaking and writing skills. This will enable them to make the most of their learning opportunities and fully integrate with the school and their peers. We offer EAL pull-out and push-in classes depending on your child’s English proficiency level.
Furthermore, we offer the Home Languages Programme to support our students in grades KG2 to Grade 5 in maintaining and further developing their linguistic skills in Chinese, Spanish, French or Japanese, as well as providing them with an opportunity to stay connected with their culture or heritage.
Contact us today to learn more about how we nurture bilingualism at XWA, and how our personalised approach can help prepare your child for the challenges and jobs of tomorrow.