10 Tips for Raising your Bilingual Child—Better

10 Tips for Raising your Bilingual Child—Better

Language expert Alena Netolická offers advice on growing a little linguist

10 Tips for Raising your Bilingual Child—Better

10 Tips for Raising your Bilingual Child—Better

Language expert Alena Netolická offers advice on growing a little linguist

Published 08.10.2012
Last updated 20.03.2013

Forget about rolling over or holding a cup. One of the most important milestones during your child’s first year is acquiring language. If you’re the parent of a a bilingual, make that two languages—a scary prospect, but a necessity for most expat families residing in the Czech Republic.

The good news is that the future may be brighter for bilingual kids who, research tells us, consistently demonstrate better problem-solving skills than monolinguals. Bilingualism may serve children well into old age, too; studies have shown a slower cognitive decline among bilingual dementia patients as opposed to monolinguals with the same diagnosis.

Whatever reason you’ve chosen to raise your child bilingual, rest assured that it’s not as daunting a task as it may seem. We asked Alena Netolická, BSc. (Hons.), M.H.Sc., Speech-Language Pathologist for the Canadian Medical Center in Prague, for her language-learning advice. The biggest mistake parents make? “Not raising children bilingually when they are equipped to do so,” she says. “As philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein said, ‘The limit of my language, means the limit of my world.’” Here, her tips:

10. Start as early as birth.
Most experts agree that infants possess the ability to acquire more than one language. “Exposing children to languages from birth enables them to capitalize on their innate ability to absorb  linguistic subtleties,” says Netolická. What’s important to remember is that babies and toddlers thrive on active, not passive, learning. “Music or television are fine sources of language exposure for adult learners and older kids, but research has shown babies learn best from interaction,” she advises.

9. Choose a strategy and stick with it.
Language strategies are essential for helping children acquire languages as separate systems, Netolická says: “Multilingual families usually elect the one-parent, one-language system whereby each parent speaks his or her native language; some families opt to speak the minority language (e.g. English) at home and the majority language (e.g. Czech) outside of the home.” Yet another approach, common in international schools and multicultural households, is the alternating of language based on time or place. Consistency, she adds, is key no matter which strategy you chose.

8. Try to avoid mixing languages.
When parents mix languages in one sentence or switch languages abruptly in the middle of a topic it can be confusing to kids. “And if your child senses you speak both languages, she’ll likely respond in her dominant language,” adds Netolická. (Note that the dominant language usually emerges as the one most frequently used in the child’s environment—while this is often the primary caregiver’s language, it may well become, as the child gets older, the language she speaks every day at school.)

7. Don’t feel too guilty about slip-ups.
According to Netolická, strictly adhering to a particular strategy at all times can be an unrealistic goal. “Families who follow the one-parent, one-language system may find three-way conversations tricky, and that it leaves the parents with no common language.” Occasionally speaking your non-dominant language with a spouse or in-laws isn’t necessarily harmful to your child’s language development Netolická says.

6. Make speaking the non-dominant language fun.
Bilinguals can be hesitant to speak their non-dominant language. But when the interaction is made enjoyable, says Netolická, they usually warm to it: “Most parents make the second language attractive by associating it with something desirable.” For those expat parents trying to expose their smallest ones to Czech, for instance, she suggests the educational television show “Kouzelna Skolka,” geared toward 3- to 6-year-olds. Selecting a caregiver who speaks your child’s non-dominant language is another way to give bilinguals a boost.
5. Opt for a bilingual-friendly school.
Multilingual children face the greatest obstacles when they begin school, where performance expectations are designed for monolinguals. “Multilingual students may need extra time developing academic proficiency,” says Netolická, adding that while your child may be proficient in both of her languages, some language-based tasks will be a challenge due to language interference. Choosing the right school—whether you opt for Czech public school or international school—can be essential to a child’s language development.

For an expat mom’s personal experience choosing a school, see our article “Czech Public Schools” part 1 and part 2.

4. Don’t introduce a third language just because.
Netolická encourages parents to consider carefully just how important a new language is to a child’s life before introducing it. Is it the language he or she will need to be parented? Stay in touch with cultural heritage? Is the language required for academic purposes? Is it the majority language of the child’s home country? An answer of “yes” to any of these questions indicates language relevance. But remember, too, says Netolická, “Human beings are still able to learn language, with near-native competence, even when they are older.”

3. When it comes to literacy, a child-led approach is best.
There’s no clear consensus about when to introduce read and writing in a second language. One theory says that learning to do so in two languages simultaneously can be confusing; another says that delaying literacy can unnecessarily slow educational progress. Netolická’s take? “Literacy training in the child’s weaker language will, of course, be more challenging. But how challenging depends on the child. Some children learn to read and write relatively easily and some struggle for many years.” Let your child take the reigns, but encourage literacy by writing him funny notes or asking him to read a grocery list that’s written in the language not taught at school.

2. Be gentle with corrections—don’t correct every mistake.
The joy that comes from communicating and from getting one’s message across should never be jeopardized, says Netolická who advises parents not to correct a child’s every grammar or vocabulary mistake: “Instead of saying, ‘We don’t say taked but took’, you might restate the sentence as if you are asking for clarification: ‘Do you mean that you took the last cookie?’” While your kids’ language missteps may be adorable, she advises parents not to laugh at them. “And make sure you reward your child’s effort to communicate in both or all their languages,” she adds.

1. Forget what you’ve heard about language delays.
Parents are often told that their bilingual babies will speak later than monolingual children. Not so, Netolická says: “Multilingual children are expected to reach their language milestones around the same time as monolingual children.” When to worry? “If your child does not say her first words around her first birthday or if she has a vocabulary of less than 50 words or has not started combining words before her second birthday, a referral to a speech language pathologist should be made.” 

For more information on speech disorders, see our articleSpeech Therapy and Bilingualism”.

What have been your experiences raising a bilingual child? Share your stories and tips below.

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Comment from: Indigo Published: 11:42:56 13.09.2013
Sigma...... I am sure your son will adapt and learn very quickly. It will all fall into place. Read a story last year where a newspaper reporter sent his English speaking kids to a Russian school in Moscow.....lessons only in Russian. I think kids were 5, 7, and 12. When he was posted back to the states they left the Russian school fluent in Russian. Kids are so adaptable in respect of languages.
Comment from: TimOwen Published: 11:18:21 13.09.2013
Both my parents are English. When my brother was 3 we lived in Cyprus. He could speak fluent Greek and my mum used to take him shopping so that he could translate. When I was 6 months old we moved to Germany and I grew up speaking fluent German (forgotten most of it now) because the kids I played with were all German. Now I am living here I can get by pretty well on my own in Czech. The human brain is pretty good at adapting. Kids even more so. What really harms kids is when they lose the innocence and start to think that the more titles you have to put before or after your name means the more important you are. Never confuse education and titles with common sense and intelligence
Comment from: Sigma Published: 09:19:23 13.09.2013
I am a Canadian, my wife is Macedonian and we live in a small city in the Czech Republic. Our son is 2.5 years old, and has been exposed to three languages. When we are at home my wife and I speak in English together. When we speak to our son, it is only in our native languages. He just started going to Jesle, so he is now learning Czech. At the moment English is his dominant language. However, he can say short sentences in both English and Macedonian. I have no idea what is going to happen when he really starts to learn Czech. He knows five or so words, but he is going to be exposed to Czech for 7 hours a day now. For now, he seems to be handling everything okay. I am sure it is difficult for the teachers are Jesle because he is probably trying to speak English and Macedonian to them ;-)
Comment from: skotik Published: 04:52:27 12.09.2013
what have you said that isn't covered in the article?
Comment from: Published: 02:26:57 12.09.2013
But they probably have all the letters in front of their name, whereas we are but Lowly Parents :)
Comment from: Jen Published: 01:31:42 12.09.2013
It would be nice if the speech pathologist interviewed for this article would comment on our comments :)
Comment from: Published: 06:56:02 12.09.2013
Well all these past comments have blown this article out of the Water :) :)
Comment from: amahlert Published: 06:26:15 12.09.2013
Haha, my son didn't speak until he was 3, but when he started, it was a waterfall! He speaks English, German, and Germlish fluently. Some kids are earlier, some later. Mine waited until he mastered it before he shared his languages with us. So taking your kid to a therapist at age 1 is BS. Also, holding back a 3rd language? Kinda hard if you live in a 3rd country. Again, this is up to the kid, every kid is different. My daughter soaked up the Czech like a sponge, my son absolutely refused to even learn the simplest words or songs in Czech.
Comment from: Published: 06:51:56 11.09.2013
Echoing what Jen and Gazza have said. My daughter is 21 and studying medicine in Brno. My son will graduate gymnazium this year. Both are fluent in English and Czech. The only system we used was that my wife and I agreed from our daughter's birth that we would both only speak our native languages to the kids, no matter if we were here in Cz or in the States. It worked. Conversations at dinnertime were interesting for guests with two languages going at once, but as Jen said, children's brains are incredibly effective at recognizing and processing the different languages. It certainly helped my Czech as well. I'll never forget once in the States when we were doing some shopping and my wife and daughter left me and my son to go pick up something from another section of the store. We headed over towards the aisle with the beer. My son, maybe 3 at the time, asked,"Daddy, where are we going?" I answered," We're going to get some pivo." My son looked up at me with a look of scorn and said, "Daddy, you don't speak Czech!"
Comment from: Published: 09:29:34 11.09.2013
Well said Jen :) Sometimes its just best to leave kids in their environment to learn at their own speed. You will be amazed at how smart they are. Good parents will always be able to spot where they are struggling and act accordingly ;)
Comment from: Jen Published: 05:55:33 10.09.2013
What Gazza said. We never really followed any particular system - perhaps a rough but not perfect one parent/one language, but when both parents are fluent in both languages, it gets a little messy. My kids are 16 and 12 and both speak Czech and English fluently. And read. And write. Unless you're trying to teach a third language, there's really no need at all to get hung up on it - kids' brains are very, very flexible and smart and they really do figure it all out themselves.
Comment from: Indigo Published: 05:30:55 10.09.2013
Multilingual expected to reach milestones?????....what a load of rubbish. First birthday vocabulary of less than 50 words then referral to speech language pathologist should be made????....More rubbish. Every child is different.
Comment from: Published: 01:26:18 10.09.2013
Not sure about all this. Our kids 7 and 4 both speak Czech and English flawless almost. They are in a Czech school and nursery respectively 8. Try to avoid mixing languages WHAT A LOAD OF CROCK Our kids can switch from one to the other in a blink of an eyelid. The biggest help for them? "English Language Television" (especially if you can gain access to educational channels like Cbeebies) as their everyday Language is Czech. A lot of people over analyze. Its horses for courses, as what works well for some might not work at all for others. You can learn a great deal from your kids and you have to adapt to meet the challenges that present themselves through growing up.
Jana(Guest) Published: 12:51:29 10.09.2013
Hi, if you want to know more about the bilingual upbringing of children who are growing up with Czech and another foreign language, visit my new Czech website www.bilingvni-vychova.com
Comment from: Published: 01:13:17 03.11.2012
Very good idea to sumarize it this way. I went through some kind a similar process about 20 years ago back in Canada and it was worth it, -rather less then a mix up. At that time I was quite proud of myself, as most people did not care much about such issue, at that time, mind you. good luck everybody and be consistent. m.
Comment from: io_sweetie Published: 12:06:11 19.10.2012
Never heard of a bilingual or trilingual child making proper sentences before 3 or 3 and a half. Plus, nobosy apart from this doc recommends taking your child to a speech pathologist before 3. and don't correct every mistake? wow. no comment
Bruno(Guest) Published: 04:51:07 15.10.2012
Just wanted to say our 2-year-old daughter is already quite advanced as a bilingual Czech-French speaker. The balance seems perfect and she speaks equally well any language, easily switching into Czech for her mum and into French for her dad (me). She even started to translate or compare languages or say who speaks what... As stated above, both of us speak to her systematically in our mother language, and we have chosen French as the family language, as my girlfriend's French is light-years better than my Czech. Of course, outside the family, it's mostly Czech (but if an English speaker comes, we encourage the person to speak in English...). I warmly recommend to do so!