Raising a bilingual child is an incredibly rewarding experience. It gives parents the opportunity to share a part of themselves and their world, while also opening up so many new possibilities for their young and eager learners.
While studies have focused primarily on the career benefits of being multilingual, there are also great cognitive benefits too. Recent studies show that a bilingual experience has been linked to improved cognitive abilities, particularly in problem-solving.
Research has shown that the sooner a child is exposed to a second language, the better. According to the Institute for Learning & Brain Sciences at the University of Washington’s published research, babies raised to listen to languages early stay adaptive to the different sounds. Assistant Professor Dr. Naja Ferjan Ramirez shares “results underscore the notion that not only are very young children capable of learning multiple languages, but that early childhood is the optimum time for them to begin.”
So how do parents encourage bilingual learning? It all starts at home. Parents can start by making sure the home environment is integrating the language in everyday life. Here are five helpful tips to get started:
1. Talk, Play, Sing & More Talk
Babies respond best to personal interactions when learning a language. As a child, it’s nearly impossible to learn a language just from watching a TV show or playing with an app. Social interaction is necessary for language development and interacting with young babies through “baby talk” can really stimulate learning for the youngest of learners. Think about how a child mirrors your sounds and words, those are the basic building blocks—start talking early, and often!
2. Read Books to a Child Early & Often
Not only does reading to your child bring a lot of social and emotional benefits, but it also helps with language development. It’s another active way of engaging with children.
However, not all language books are created equal. Direct translations of English books can make it harder to learn about cultural expressions and figures of speech necessary for social interactions later on. Think about the books you share with your child and what you want them to learn. Having faced my own troubles finding quality books from authentic authors, I started Enlingos, which delivers Spanish and bilingual books for kids 0-6 to test out before buying.
3. Use TV Programming as Reinforcement, but Don’t Use It as a Crutch
Kids shows and language programming are great tools to keep children engaged with second language learning. Turn to shows on Netflix like Little Baby Bum, Word Party, or Pocoyo, and change the language output to Spanish (or whatever language you are teaching). You can also purchase a subscription to Little Pim—online programming geared towards multi-language learning. While I recommend using these options as additional resources, it’s important to note that only listening passively to language does not help in development. Nothing can truly substitute in-person active interactions in a child’s language development.
4. Online Classes Can Be a Helpful Tool for Meaningful Interactions
As we continue to live through the pandemic one way that we’ve benefited from these times is the larger selection of online learning classes now available to kids. Classes found on Outschool, Care.com, or through sing-alongs like 123 Andres are now geared towards younger learners. While younger kids don’t do as well sitting in front of a screen just attending these classes together is a great way to support interactive play and learning.
5. Travel Early & Often When Able, or Increase Your Virtual Interactions
Yes, I know that the pandemic has limited this severely if not halted it altogether. But travel used to be, and will one day continue to be, the best way to keep children engaged in language learning. Travel gives children the opportunity to use their language skills with others, expand their learning, and deepen their motivations to be bilingual. While we may not be able to travel right now, do your best to increase the virtual interactions with friends or relatives from other countries. To know that others, not just he or she, speak the language can be an incredible booster for children as young as two.
So there you have it. While kids (just as adults) may have different levels of comfort in being bilingual throughout their life, it’s important to start paving that path early for them. There are still so many undiscovered benefits to teaching a child to be bilingual, not just for the child but for the parents as well.