In our last post about the benefits of raising bilingual children, I mentioned that I would write about exactly how to raise bilingual children. Let’s take a look at what’s involved.
Do I have to be bilingual to raise bilingual children?
The short answer here is no, you don’t. The evidence is all around you, even here in Knoxville, Tennessee. Walk into almost any ethnic community space in the U.S. – a Chinese grocery store, a Cuban restaurant, a Kurdish shop – and you will notice something they all have in common. The children and teenagers present are translating for the older generations. The children are bilingual in English and their heritage language, their parents are not. These parents have raised bilingual children without being bilingual themselves.
We can also see that the opposite is true. Many of those bilingual children will grow up and have children of their own, who only speak English. You will find this story in more established, older ethnic communities throughout the US as well. Visit a school with a high Hispanic population, and the teachers will probably lament that they have several students who speak only English, despite their grandparents speaking only Spanish. Being bilingual yourself does not guarantee that your children will be bilingual.
So, how do you raise your children to be bilingual, whether or not you yourself are bilingual?
Mostly, it comes down to one rule:
If you want your children to be bilingual, whatever they do in their first language, they must also do in their second language.
That’s it. Pretty simple, right? Let’s look at specifics.
For the sake of this example, I’ll assume you are an English speaker living in the US, raising your children to be English/Spanish bilingual. However, the same principles hold true for any two languages.
1. Raising Bilingual Children – Community Exposure
Think about all the things that you and your children do within your community. Here in Knoxville, I go to the grocery store, go to the doctor’s office, go to worship services, beauty salons, look for a new house, dine out, and a hundred other things. Each one of these can be done in English and Spanish.
If you speak Spanish, you can visit an English speaking doctor and walk your children through the appointment in Spanish. If you don’t speak Spanish, consider finding a bilingual doctor who will speak to your children in Spanish. At the very least, visit a health fair targeting a Spanish-language audience.
If you dine out at English dominant restaurants, try visiting a location where Spanish will be the dominant language. Options abound even in Knoxville. Depending on your location, this may be Cuban food, Mexican food, South American food, or if you’re in the Southwestern US, McDonald’s.
If you attend worship services regularly in English, find a Spanish language service to visit or attend regularly.
While these activities might be a little uncomfortable for you if you are monolingual, keep in mind that you are engaging in something that will be a lifelong benefit to your children. And you might just improve your second language along the way.
2. Raising Bilingual Children – Media Exposure
Do your children enjoy listening to music in the car? Start listening to music in Spanish. Don’t worry if you’re afraid you might not like Spanish music.There’s a lot more to it than Mariachi, Ranchera and Reggeaton. Start by checking out some Putumayo CD’s from your local library, and then go from there. Create some new Pandora stations and have fun.
Children’s TV is available in Spanish as well. If you don’t have Spanish channels, talk to your provider about adding them, or opt to watch Spanish Language Children’s TV shows on Hulu.com which has a great Latino section.
Thanks to modern technology, many children’s DVDs come with a Spanish dub option. Disney movies usually have a very high quality recording. If you start when your children are very young they’re likely to enjoy “Una Aventura Congelada” just as much as they enjoy “Frozen”, and you might enjoy mixing up “Let It Go” with “Libre Soy” every once in awhile.
3. Raising Bilingual Children – Educational Materials
If you have the luxury of enrolling your child in a bilingual school, they should learn about the same topics (alphabets, reading, writing, math, science, history) in both languages.
If you do not have a bilingual school in your community, you can still be successful in this area, but it takes a little more effort from you. Watch episodes of “Plaza Sesamo” (Sesame Street) together, go to your local library to check out books with accompanying CDs. Visit websites that teach your kids the basics of the alphabet, numbers, colors, etc., like the BBC’s Spanish Site. Sign your kids up for Spanish class, or hire a bilingual tutor. If you live in a larger city, you may be able to find a bilingual storytimes, or other Spanish language educational activities.