Most bilingual children acquire their languages "naturally" in the sense that they are brought up in a home and/or an environment which require the use of two or more languages. Usually no planning takes place but because a number of factors are favorable, these children end up becoming bilingual.
However, an increasing number of families plan the bilingualism of their children, and parents spend a lot of time and energy thinking about how best to go about it. Many read articles and books on the subject, join support groups, as well as visit the many websites dedicated to the topic.
Among the questions that parents may want to consider, here are five that are important:
1. When should the languages be acquired? Some people still believe that you cannot be a "real" bilingual if you have not acquired your two languages in infancy or as a young child. In fact, one can become bilingual at any time during one's life - as a child, as an adolescent or as an adult. As we saw in an earlier post (see here), the majority of child bilinguals start monolingually; they acquire a home language first and then, usually when they start going to school, they learn a second language (and then maybe other languages). Parents may want to keep this in mind when deciding which languages to introduce and when. They should also factor in the answers they give to the four remaining questions.
2. Which bilingual strategy should be used? Parents who plan to make their children bilingual early on usually adopt a strategy: for example, the "one person - one language" strategy (each parent speaks his or her language exclusively to the child), the "one language at home, the other language outside the home" strategy (usually a language is spoken in the home exclusively and the other language is used outside the home), the "one language first followed by a second language later" strategy (the acquisition of each language is staggered), and so on. All these strategies have advantages as well as some inconveniences (see here) which are well covered by books on bilingualism as well by many support group websites.
3. Will the child have a real need for each language? It has long been known that children acquire languages, but also forget them, in a very short time depending on the need they have for each language: the need to communicate with family members, caretakers or friends, to participate in the activities of a day care or a school, to interact with people in the community, etc. If children feel that they really need a particular language, and other psychosocial factors are favorable, then they will develop that language. If the need disappears or isn't really there (e.g. the parents also speak the other language but pretend they don't), then the language may no longer be used and, over time, it may be forgotten.
4. What will be the type and amount of input from each language? To develop a language, children require a certain amount of input, in a variety of situations, from people who matter to them–parents, caretakers, members of their extended family, friends, and so on. Research has shown that children need the presence of a live person interacting with them to acquire a language (e.g. its phonetic categories) and this cannot be done simply by watching television or listening to DVDs and audio input (see here). In addition, the input should not only be made up of speech spoken by bilinguals and hence contain code-switches and borrowings as invariably happens in a bilingual household (see here); it should also be composed of monolingual speech as spoken, for example, by family members who do not know the other language or by monolingual caretakers. Later on, written language input will be an excellent source of vocabulary and of cultural information.
5. What other support can parents count on? The presence of extended family members and friends who speak the children's languages, most notably the weaker (minority) language, is precious as it shows children that using those languages is quite natural. In addition, if the weaker language is reinforced in school, in the community or, at the very least, in support groups, then it will be acquired more easily. Children are extremely receptive to the linguistic attitudes of their parents, teachers and peers, and hence positive attitudes towards both languages, as well as towards bilingualism, will be a real advantage. Another source of support will be professionals such as linguists, educators, psychologists, speech therapists, and so on, who hopefully will be able to discuss bilingualism with parents and help them differentiate between its myths and its reality.
Making children bilingual, and sometimes even bicultural, is a way of giving them an additional asset in life. Some family planning can help prepare this journey into languages and cultures and, hopefully, make it a joyful one for both parents and children.
Photo courtesy of Vera Kratochvil, PublicDomainPictures.net.
Grosjean, François. In and out of bilingualism (Chapter 14) and Family strategies and support (Chapter 17) in Grosjean, François (2010). Bilingual: Life and Reality. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press.
"Life as a bilingual" posts by content area.
François Grosjean's website.