Dad Says "Hello" and Mom Says "Hola:" How to Raise a Bilingual Child

I grew up speaking Spanish and English. As a kid, I wasn’t particularly grateful to have a Venezuelan mom who would routinely insist on my speaking her native language. I wanted to fit in with the kids I went to school with and it was easier to speak English once I was fully immersed in that language in class and on playdates. 

But now that I’m a mom myself, I’m raising my two year old daughter to be bilingual. As an adult, I know what a bonus bilingualism is -- it not only connects me to one side of my family; it’s also been helpful in job hunting, traveling, and even chatting up the local grocer.

Recent research as shown, too, that there’s a cognitive benefit to growing up learning two or more languages. In particular, bilingual young children are better able to focus on important information and disregard the irrelevant. 

Are you trying to raise your child to speak two or more languages? If so, try these tips from Janet van Hell, a Professor of Psychology and Linguistics at Penn State, who studies bilingualism and has raised two daughters who are fluent in English and Dutch.

Each parent should speak one language. “The standard rule is one parent, one language,” says Professor van Hell.  “So, for example, Mommy always uses Spanish, and Daddy speaks in English.” Don’t stress out if you don’t adhere to that religiously. Sometimes at the dinner table, for example, you can make English the common language. The important thing is to try to be consistent.

Expect to be answered in English. My youthful habit of shirking off speaking my mom’s native tongue was perfectly natural, says Professor van Hell. “I tell parents to try to not be upset about it. It’s part of their child’s development. It’s natural they'll want to practice the language their peers are using.” When your kid speaks to you in the so-called ‘majority’ language, try respond to them in your own language. 

Don’t sweat it if your kid is a little late to talk. The delay is almost never more than a few months, says Van Hell. “They catch up,” she says. It's worth it to loop in nursery or daycare teachers who might not be aware that your child is learning more than one language.

Have fun with it. Watch movies and read children’s books in Spanish. Travel to the country where the minority language is the lingua franca. “There's nothing like immersion,” says van Hell. Plus, it can be a big motivator for a resistant kid. It was when we made our yearly trips to Venezuela that my Spanish felt really fluent -- and I was most interested in practicing the language with my mom when we got back.

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