8 Unexpected Challenges of Raising Bilingual Children
A slew of cognitive advantages exist for bilingual children.
For example, children (and adults) who speak two languages are better able to multitask, filter out distractions when they’re focused on a task, absorb new information, and think flexibly.
Plus, with an eye to their future, bilingual employees earn more. And even elderly bilingual adults demonstrate healthier aging in the brain, suggesting that bilingualism aids the aging brain.
But even though bilingual children enjoy cognitive and language-learning benefits, raising a bilingual child comes with its own set of obstacles and challenges.
I speak from experience as the mother of a 9-year-old bilingual daughter (and as a former bilingual elementary educator).
Keep reading to explore eight unexpected challenges of raising bilingual children.
Problems With Bilingualism
While it’s true that bilingualism brings lots of benefits with it, there are also a number of challenges of being bilingual.
The bilingual struggles we’ll cover today include four issues related to parenting and introducing the language in the home, as well as four issues related to bilingual education.
1. Choosing the Appropriate Method
Every family is unique. The language proficiency and preference of each family member, along with their community situation, will dictate how the family uses the two languages from day to day.
Parents must regularly appraise what languages their child is hearing at home, at school, and elsewhere and be open to adjusting language use as needed.
Although the belief that each parent should speak to their bilingual children in that parent’s own native language is widespread, this one-parent-one-language (OPOL) approach is neither necessary nor sufficient for successful bilingual acquisition.
Instead, families often find that the use of the two languages without fixed rules leads to balanced exposure. My family uses this technique.
My Colombian husband and I both converse with our daughter in both languages. She can now correct my husband’s English pronunciation, and I’m a bit jealous that her Spanish is more natural and fluid than mine. (After all, she is a native speaker!)
Hand-picked for you: Reasons why bilingualism in children matters.
2. Starting Too Late
Families may have planned to raise their children to become bilingual, but for whatever reason, they decided to postpone the introduction of the second family language.
However, making a change in the family language pattern is easier said than done. Habits are hard to break, and once we get accustomed to speaking in a certain language with our children and other relatives, making a switch takes serious effort.
While later acquisition of two languages is possible, the longer parents wait, the more language learning will depend on the child’s learning style, verbal strength, and motivation.
3. Rejection of the Second Language
Related to point #1, some parents have found that their children either resisted or refused to speak their second language at all. In other words, the kids rejected the language.
Children learn the language a parent consistently speaks with them. If a child refuses to speak the second family language, it’s highly likely that there was insufficient interaction with the child in that language.
Expressing a positive attitude of the language and the culture it represents is also key. Even in the case (as in my family), where one parent is a native Spanish speaker and the other is a native English speaker, passing on both languages must be a priority for the parents for it to happen.
4. Losing the Second Language When Schooling Begins
Many adult monolinguals were fluent in a family language when they were young, speaking it easily with family and friends—until they started going to daycare or preschool.
Why? Because they’re then immersed in the majority language for many hours and days each week. They make friends who only speak the majority language and naturally want to assimilate.
At this point, it’s essential for parents not to switch to the majority language when they speak with their child.
Issues in Bilingual Education
Are there disadvantages of being bilingual? While I would answer that question with a “no,” there certainly are pros and cons of bilingual education.
In generations past, many people viewed English as the only language their children should learn and speak.
This was the case for my maternal grandparents, whose native language was Spanish. Because they’d been punished in school for speaking Spanish, they chose not to teach it to their kids (my mom, aunt, and uncle). This was a widespread occurrence across the U.S. in the 1950s and 1960s.
Astonishingly, even today, there are communities that promote “English only” education and use in the United States.
Nonetheless, bilingual education has come a long way over the past several decades. Read this article by education expert Dr. José A. Cárdenas for a fascinating summary of bilingual education in the US public school system from the late 1960s to the early 1990s.
Keep reading to learn about four more unexpected challenges of raising bilingual children in the 21st century.
Circling back to the first item on this list, timing is key. (And, there’s no better time to start than now—even if your child is past the toddler stage.)
According to linguists, children who learn two languages between birth and three years of age are “crib bilinguals.” They’re much more likely to learn both languages to native levels than kids who learn one language and add a second later in childhood.
Recommended reading: Raising bilingual children: advantages, challenges and strategies (PDF).
Children benefit from sustained bilingual exposure to both languages. Intermittent concentrated exposure to or immersion in a second language is comparatively not as effective.
It’s therefore important to create situations where both languages are useful and relevant for the child. This can be achieved through family bonds with native-speaking relatives or language clubs, for example.
The bottom line is that your kids need to speak both languages on a regular basis.
7. Proactive Perseverance
Although kids typically demonstrate a preference for one language (usually that of their peer environment), it’s key for them to continue to speak in both languages.
“Active bilinguals” who speak both languages regularly more easily acquire fluency in both languages. In contrast, “receptive bilinguals” who understand both languages, but only speak in one, often face challenges when attempting to speak their second language.
8. Engagement With Both Languages
Children who learn one language exclusively from their family and peers and the other solely in a classroom won’t be equally engaged with each language.
Children must be able to appreciate the relevance of each language to their daily lives.
Bilingualism is truly a family commitment, and it takes a bilingual village to raise a bilingual child! Children who constantly hear both languages spoken by a variety of people fare better than children who only speak a mother tongue with one person.
Strong family and community engagement in both languages support bilingualism.
3 Recommended Books on Raising Bilingual Children
1. Bringing up a Bilingual Child
The user-friendly book, Bringing Up a Bilingual Child, teaches parents to navigate the seven Cs of multilingual parenting: communication, confidence, commitment, consistency, creativity, culture, and celebration.
2. The Bilingual Edge: Why, When, and How To Teach Your Child a Second Language
The Bilingual Edge is by two scholars in the field of bilingualism who are both mothers. They combine theory and practical experience to dispel myths and misconceptions about bilingualism and provide strategies for promoting multiple languages at home.
Encouraging, entertaining, and research-based, The Bilingual Edge takes into account the perspective of raising bilingual children in the U.S. specifically. The authors offer useful action points for bilingual and multilingual families, no matter which languages they speak at home.
3. Bilingual Children: A Guide for Parents
Using a Q-and-A format, this practical and reassuring book, Bilingual Children: A Guide for Parents, enables you to make informed decisions about how to raise your child with two or more languages.
It shows that a child can acquire two (or more) “first” languages simultaneously and how to accomplish that. Each chapter covers a frequently-asked question—such as “does being bilingual cause speech delays?”—followed by a concise answer, summaries of the evidence, and practical tips.
Empower Your Child To Become Bilingual
To promote successful bilingual development, parents who are raising bilingual children are wise to empower their children with plenty of opportunities to hear and speak (and read and write in) both of their languages. As children grow, interacting with monolingual speakers is an important way to motivate ongoing language use, especially if the minority language is not widely spoken in your community.
At Homeschool Spanish Academy, we provide 1-to-1 (or 2-to-1) sessions for bilingual kids who need regular exposure to native Spanish. Sign your child up for a free trial class today with our friendly, certified native-speaking teachers from Guatemala to support and enhance your child’s bilingual journey. Join more than 24,000 Spanish learners by taking the advantage of HSA’s proven curriculum, affordable pricing, flexible scheduling, and tailored programs.
Join one of the 40,000 classes that we teach each month and you can experience results like these
“I love that my children have the opportunity to speak with a live person. They get to practice Spanish in a 1-1 setting while improve their speaking, writing and reading skills during their lessons. HSA is a great way to learn Spanish for all ages! My children are 6, 9 and 11. My oldest two (9 and 11) have been taking classes with HSA for almost 2 years now. They love seeing their teacher each week. They understand the importance of learning several languages. I’ve seen them grow and learn with HSA. I’m excited to see how they will improve the more classes they take. I highly recommend them. You can’t bet learning and speaking with a live teacher. I’ve tried other programs. It’s just not as motivating.”
– Karie Ann, Parent of 3
“HSA offers very affordable, quality, one on one classes with a native speaker. My son has greatly benefited from taking classes. We have seen his confidence increase as well as his pronunciation improve, because he learns from a native Spanish speaker. HSA has quick, personal customer service. I have appreciated the one on one interaction and teaching that my son gets from his teachers. He has gotten to know his teachers, which has increased his confidence in speaking Spanish. Our family has been very pleased with our experience so far!”
– Maple, Parent of 3
“HSA offers very affordable, quality, one on one classes with a native speaker. My son has greatly benefited from taking classes. We have seen his confidence increase as well as his pronunciation improve, because he learns from a native Spanish speaker. HSA has quick, personal customer service. Our family has been very pleased with our experience so far!”
– Erica P. Parent of 1
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