This is a topic that's a real and personal concern to me because I'm raising two little ones in Japan and as hard as I try, I still feel like they're not learning English. That is, except when they really want something from grandma and grandpa. It's amazing the words and phrases that come out of nowhere when they want something.
So, I'd like to share a few things from my own personal experience as well as some research I've done for myself about raising a bilingual child.
A few myths…
First of all, there are a few bilingualism myths that many people believe. One is that two or more languages will get mixed up in a kid's brain. Kid brains aren't like adult brains. They can learn multiple languages perfectly with little effort, and they do it in most parts of the world.
We also confuse kid minds with adult minds when we assume kids need to be exceptionally smart to learn multiple languages. Kids' brains are like sponges and just like they soak up everything else they're exposed to, they soak up language. No high IQ is needed.
Finally, there's the idea that your kid will pick it up later. It probably depends on where you live in the world, but in my experience, they don't just pick it up. This is especially true someplace like Japan where foreign languages are practically shunned. You need a plan for teaching English and you have to start early. Don't get lazy and figure that it'll be in their head somewhere and if they ever want to, they can learn to use it.
The language learning window
A great deal of research has shown that age 0 to about 6 or 7 is the window for effortless language learning. I've seen it with kids I've known. They simply absorb what they hear and figure it out. Older kids can learn a second language, but it takes much more effort. As you know if you've tried to learn a language post-childhood, it takes even more effort as you get older. If you want your kids to be bilingual, start teaching them early.
It's all about mom
Especially in their early years, it's all about mom. The language mom speaks is more likely to take hold than daddy's. This is probably because of the amount of time spent with mom and maybe there are other reasons as well. If mom uses both languages with a small child, they're much likelier to pick up both.
I saw this time and time again when I taught English in Japan. I noticed that a half an hour a week with me wasn't enough for the English to stick, so I began teaching the mothers words and phrases to use and the kids picked it up much more easily.
At-home language and outside language
If you're raising kids in a mostly monolingual culture, you can try speaking only the foreign language at home. I know some Japanese people who grew up with this kind of rule in their family. They spoke English only at home because they got virtually none outside the home. They grew up to be bilingual adults.
It sounds like a fluffy non-tip tip, but be patient. My son was much slower to pick up any English at all and it exasperated and frustrated me. Then, he suddenly started using English. With small kids especially, they may know more than they show.
Make it fun
Play games, watch shows, sing songs and do other fun stuff in the language you want to teach kids. Get them together with other kids who speak the language for play dates.
Fun is the candy coating that makes the pill of learning a language go down for kids. Actually, it's not so different for adults as well. I guess in that way our brains are not so different after all.
Cover image by Praphol Chattharakul.