In a world that is increasingly globally connected, being bilingual offers a distinct advantage. Parents who speak more than one language fluently are absolutely right when they decide they are going to pass that knowledge onto their children. But how do you go about raising fluently bilingual children? What are the challenges you can expect?

Credit: Wexner Center via Flickr Creative Commons.

I am both a mother raising my children trilingually, and a person who grew up bilingually. The biggest advantage that a bilingual upbringing offered me is being able to learn new languages very quickly. On the other hand, I also have to admit that my multicultural background and abundance of international travel left me with some handicaps — I am a foreigner everywhere I go, and I am an “accent chameleon”. That means I automatically assimilate the accent of the person I’m talking to, even when I try really hard not to. I’ll have a Cockney accent when talking to someone from London, and an Indian accent when talking to someone from India for instance. To an extent, I sacrificed being completely fluent in any one language for the ability to speak five “proficiently”.

The obvious benefits of raising children with several languages are, for many parents:

  • Passing on part of their heritage through their language, and offering a tangible connection to a specific country or people.
  • Children being able to communicate with friends and relatives.
  • Increasing employment opportunities for their children later in life.
  • Children acquire the ability to “pick up” other languages easily.
  • Raising global citizens.

Most bilingual parents use the OPOL (One parent, one language) method to ensure fluency in their children. This is not always possible or practical for whatever reason, and it’s certainly possible to adopt other systems too. Some possibilities are speaking one language outside of the home, and one at home, or even speaking one language part of the day, and then switching. Whatever you choose, consistency is essential. The more exposure a child has to a language, the more proficient she will be. It’s important to encourage speech, and not just a passive understanding of a language. Children who refuse to speak a language they do understand can be helped to overcome this hurdle through either traveling to the country where the language is spoken, or by conversing with people who don’t speak the child’s preferred language.

For us, speaking three languages hasn’t been as straight forward as I initially thought, but I am certain we made the right choice. My children are fluent (for their age levels, they couldn’t write scientific papers :) ) in three languages. They are comfortable conversing with anyone in any of those languages, but they do have slightly “funny” accents in all of them. That probably comes from me. Now that my oldest child is reading, I have to say that I noticed learning to read and write in several languages is a big obstacle. I am sure that she will get it eventually, but it’s not always easy. When I see how happy friends and relatives are to receive messages from my daughter in a language they can understand, however, I know all the effort is definitely worth it.