Food for Thought: Should we raise our kids to be bilingual?

Should kids be bilingual?

Bilingualism and language learning are hot topics in my household. That’s no surprise since all four of us are bilingual, and my husband and I are both language teachers. In fact, we’re all steeped pretty deeply in language learning.

I’ve been studying the processes of how humans acquire language since beginning my master’s degree in linguistics in 1998. I’ve also been personally involved in language learning after studying French, Czech, Spanish, and Portuguese for at least two years each, plus the equivalent of two semesters of German and ASL (American Sign Language). Since then, I’ve dropped all of those except Portuguese, which has become my second language.

My husband has been immersed in the process of language learning since coming to the U.S. to learn English almost two decades ago. Since then, he’s learned the language so deeply that he not only thinks in English and has near-native control in writing and speaking, but he also is an English instructor at a community college.

So, because language learning is an important part of both our home life and work life, I have quite a bit to say on this topic, especially after seeing so much talk about the benefits of raising bilingual children.

How does a bilingual house work?

Every bilingual household is unique, but this is how ours works. Both of my kids, ages 8 and 5, are bilingual. We have a two-language household–English and Portuguese. My husband speaks only his first language with our kids, I speak only English with our kids, and my husband and I speak mostly English together.

Should you raise your kids bilingual?

When the four of us are together, it’s a seamless mix of the two languages, with my kids switching back and forth between the two languages depending on who they’re talking to, and my husband using English with me and Portuguese with the kids. Fortunately, because I understand Portuguese well, this works just fine for us.

We don’t “teach” our kids languages. We let them learn language naturally, just as children have always done and should still do. Kids learn language from their parents and the world around them. Since birth, we have spoken to our kids in our native languages (me in English, my husband in Portuguese), and our kids have naturally, easily learned the two languages from the beginning.

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But just because this works for us doesn’t mean that it should work for everyone. I think that bilingualism is a wonderful gift that we can give our kids, but I don’t think it’s the right choice for every family.

Should we raise our kids to be bilingual?

In my opinion, the answer is, um, maybe. It depends on factors that differ from one family to the next.

Here are some reasons to raise kids to be bilingual:

Because being bilingual is a wonderful skill that helps build bridges between cultures. In today’s globalized world, that’s a huge plus.

Because children learn language so easily. (Although that’s actually is an oversimplification–children learn the phonological characteristics–i.e. the pronunciation–of languages in a way that adults do not. Because children have an amazing capacity to learn language without an accent, we often view that as an ability to learn language easily, but language learning is actually much more complex than that.)

Because if your children are in a situation where they will be exposed to more than one language, it just makes sense. The situation could be like ours, in which each parent speaks a different first language, or a situation in which the kids are growing up in a country where they speak a different language at home (such as an American family living in Mexico).

Because being bilingual delays the onset of dementia. While dementia is probably not your first concern with your small children, one benefit that seems to really be true is that bilingualism helps fight off dementia as we age.

Because bilingual schools are becoming more popular. You don’t need to start when your child is tiny. An immersion school will make your child bilingual; if you’re interested, check out options in your area.

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Here are some reasons that raising bilingual kids might not be for you:

Because it might not fit the situation in your household. If you or your partner don’t speak another language, it won’t be easy for you to introduce another language in your home. Some people have done it, and that’s great, but for most of us, parenting is already challenging enough without the added pressure of finding ways to introduce your child to another language at home.

Because there are other ways to give your children a well-rounded upbringing. Yes, bilingualism is a wonderful gift to give your child, but there are many others. If it doesn’t seem like the right fit for you, do what feels right and instead devote your energy to those ways in which you can truly be there for your children.

Because many of the purported benefits of bilingualism may not really be true. This is controversial, but recent comparisons of studies of bilingual children have shown conflicting evidence. Don’t get me wrong–it’s definitely a good thing, but it may not be as advantageous as we’ve thought in recent years.

Because raising children to be bilingual might be harder than it first appears. Children are bilingual when they can function in both languages. This doesn’t happen unless the child gets consistent, quality input for an extended period of time, and it won’t stick if the child doesn’t have a good reason to keep it up.

In the end, I think that, like most aspects of parenting, there’s no right or wrong way. We should do what feels right for our families and ourselves.

I’d love to hear your thoughts. Have you tried to raise your children to be bilingual?

P.S. On being a bicultural family

6 Comments

  • I was enrolled in French Immersion here in Canada in grade 1. My parents do not speak French at all but thought it would be a good skill to have for my sister and I.

    I am so grateful for the opportunity to have learned French so in depth – from social studies to math and art. Every class was in French save for English of course.
    For me as an adult I have found it to be the base root of my travel bug. It gave me a pivot base to pick up and understand other languages as I travel. It was so handy in Italy and not to mention France!

    I also read that bilingual kids have higher IQs because they have better problem solving skills. I will definitely enrol my own kids (one day) in French immersion. It is a special gift that gets harder to attain as you age mainly with less time and hands on opportunities.

    My only note is that I did enter in grade 1 as opposed to kindergarten which did impede my learning at first. I needed a tutor in both French with essentials I missed in that 1st year and math wasn’t a strong suit of mine so I needed to learn it in English at home and in French for school which was a challenge.

    But overall I love knowing a second language. I am on/off learning Italian when I can – usually just before I go on a trip to Italy lol.

    • Jenna says:

      Thanks for sharing your experience! That’s so cool that that type of school has been in Canada for a while. We have more immersion schools here now, and most of them work similarly, with kids learning most of the content in the second language, especially in the lower grades. I’m sure the French helps with your Italian learning, toO!

  • Hudson will be doing Spanish immersion starting next year. We only speak a little, and envy having two native languages at home, but I’m excited to learn with him. Thank you for this!

    • Jenna says:

      I’ve heard about the language immersion school(s?) in Davis and am excited to hear that Hudson will be attending one. My husband did some research about language immersion schools when he was in grad school, and from what we’ve read, they are very effective. If we didn’t have the two languages at home, we’d definitely be interested in our kids attending one, too.

  • Elsa says:

    Hi there! I just discovered your blog through Hither and Thither and I am really impressed by what I see. This topic is so interesting. My husband is German and I am originally from Spain. We live in Bonn and we are raising our 20-month-old Lucía bilingual. Since we are living in Germany, I guess that German will be her strongest language. But I only speak Spanish with her. I find it also important for her identity to know that she is really half German, half Spanish (even though her looks are totally German …lol) Best
    Elsa recently posted..Our Vacation In AsturiasMy Profile

    • Jenna says:

      So glad you stopped by! I agree that the culture is also very important–my kids definitely feel half Brazilian even though they live in the U.S. We encourage them to be proud of that and to identify with the culture as much as possible.

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