How to raise bilingual children

Dear friend,

I was lucky because working in an international school gave me a great bank of practical knowledge and experience and I bugged colleagues for help and advice and read books they recommended like Colin Baker's: A Parents' and Teachers' guide to Bilingualism and Steiner: 7 steps to raising a Bilingual child.

Raising your children to be bilingual seems to be quite the 'in' thing to do at the moment. I have read many articles championing the benefits of being bilingual and there has been research in the news lately stating that being bilingual can help to ward off dementia but raising bilingual children wasn't a lifestyle choice for us it was a natural progression.

I am English, my husband is Dutch and we live in Holland. My son was born only one year after I moved to Holland and whilst I imagined I would be fluent in Dutch, ha, the reality was I could order a sandwich and say thank you and that was about it.

The choice was clear, I would speak English and my husband Dutch. But was it that simple? Yes & No!




Tips for raising bilingual children:


1. Have a plan
Have you heard people say; "Kids are like sponges and they soak up language." It is a Myth. Yes given the right tools and when exposed to language from an early age children will grow up and acquire family languages but this can not be taken for granted. Our plan was One Parent One language but hubby and I have always spoken English together.  We have chosen to continue speaking English at home as it is the minority language for our boys so by speaking it together it increases their daily exposure.

2. Do your research
Family members and friends may want to give you their advice or opinion. We have had people tell us we are confusing our kids, they will mix up their languages and that we are making it harder for them or they'll have a speech delay.  Do your research, know the answers. Nod and smile.  Most of the time these people mean well but don't actually know what they are talking about. 

3. Be consistent
Don't make it easy for your children to switch from the minority language to the majority language. Our oldest son is autistic and he keeps us right! He will ask why are you talking dutch to me? He needs the consistency and has told me I don't sound like mummy when I speak Dutch! But my son agreed that when friends come to play I speak Dutch so that they understand.

4. Take Time
To learn a language you need time and how much exposure time is up for debate with some researchers saying you need 30% exposure time to become bilingual. For me it depends on your definition of bilingual. Pre school the boys were exposed to more English as they spent most of their time with me. Since beginning school we have had to think about exposure more, English has definitely become the minority. The boys have switched to speaking more Dutch together.

5. Think about Resources
Have lots of resources in the minority language. Our home is full of English books (probably more than Dutch) we have UK television , music and video games. We regularly Skype with UK family and friends. When the boys were younger I took them to an international play group and we spend time with English speaking friends. We go back to the UK for holidays. Language camps can also be a great idea.

6. Be tenacious
You may be given bad advice from 'experts' stick to your guns.
When my son was diagnosed as autistic we were told to bring him up as a monolingual. We ignored the advice. Special needs children can be bilingual, the language problems they have in one language will appear in the other but that won't stop them! I believe being bilingual has improved my sons understanding of the world as he has two frames of reference.


7. There is no wrong language
Sometimes my boys speak to me in Dutch. I never make a big deal of this. There is no wrong language in our house. I am just consistent in my answer, I continue in english. Don't mix confusion with code switching, my boys sometimes pinch a word from one language to use when speaking another as it just fits better. The best example of this is the Dutch word "gezellig" a word that has no direct translation but encompasses Dutch culture, as the Dutch love all things gezellig. It's only equivalent I can think of is a warm fuzzy feeling.

8. Think Long Term
Despite working in an international (English speaking) school, we sent our children to a Dutch language school. We did this because we thought long term.  We plan on staying in the Netherlands for the rest of their school life so wanted their educational language to be Dutch.

9. Be proud!
Tell your children how proud you are of them. Be enthusiastic!
Hubby and I are really proud of our boy.s We love it when people comment or ask questions (polite ones of course). Dinner at our house is not dull as the conversation flits between our two languages, I know guests have found it interesting. But this is our norm... The big lad wants to learn Spanish next.


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