Can You Raise A Bilingual Baby? Four Important Things You Should Know
Have you ever looked at a baby and wondered what was going on inside of that beautiful little head? Well, as it turns out, there’s a lot going on! In fact, the brains of babies are downright amazing. Between birth and three years of age, a baby's brain synapses are firing, forming neuron connections, and growing at an incredible rate. As a result, the early years are a critical time for basic learning. Sights, smells, feelings, actions, and sounds — including language — help young minds process the surrounding world. Their synapses are strengthened by crucial experiences, and those that are not strengthened are lost. Essentially, if they don’t use it, they lose it! So if you’re a parent interested in raising a bilingual child, here are four important things you should know about language-learning and development.
1. Babies Can Learn Multiple Languages
Parents commonly think that children will be confused if they’re taught more than one language, while some believe it’s better to establish one language first before teaching another. However, babies are able to learn language — languages — as soon as they’re born. At birth, an infant already has the ability to distinguish between their mother's native tongue and other languages. Studies have even shown how the cries of infants differ depending on the language spoken by the mother.*
Infants go through a critical period in which they can recognize the sounds of any language, but soon lose the sounds that aren’t regularly used. According to linguist Patricia Kuhl, "Babies raised listening to two languages seem to stay 'open' to the sounds of novel languages longer than their monolingual peers, which is a good and highly adaptive thing for their brains to do.” It turns out that exposure to multiple languages at a young age can alter the brain of a child and make it easier to learn other languages, while development of executive functions also benefits.**
Do your best to expose your child to multiple languages as early as possible — even in the womb, if you can! If your home is multilingual, embrace that as early as possible. If you’re a monolingual family but you want your baby to speak another language, invite a friend or hire a caretaker who can speak the target tongue with your little one.
2. Learning Multiple Languages Does Not Cause Speech Delays
Parents are often concerned that their child may develop a speech delay due to learning multiple languages. While a percentage of all children will experience language delay, in multi-language households, these kinds of developmental delays are often blamed on bilingualism, and parents feel guilty for “confusing their child.” Know this: Learning multiple languages does not cause speech delays!
Bilingual children may sometimes start saying words later, but still fall within the normal age range for language development, which is eight to 15 months. A bilingual child’s vocabulary may be smaller than average in an individual language, but the total vocabulary that they know in every language will be the same size, if not larger, than that of their monolingual peers.
Bilingual kids also develop grammar in similar patterns to that of monolingual children, but they may sometimes "code mix." That is, they may use words from different languages in one sentence. This is no cause for alarm and it doesn’t mean that the child is confused; it means that their brain has found a word in a different language more rapidly than in the language being spoken. Many bilingual adults speak in “code mix” among themselves.
We know that bilingualism does not cause speech delays, so if delays are observed, it’s important to seek help from a professional because a speech delay can be corrected. Furthermore, a delay is not something to be embarrassed about; it’s an opportunity for your child to learn and to overcome a difficulty. The earlier that it’s addressed, the better the outcome.
3. Sitting a Baby In Front of a TV or App Will Not Make Your Baby Bilingual
It's no secret that infants are wired to learn languages. They learn by observing and emulating the world around them. Social interaction, not television, is the best way for a child to learn. You can use technology to help emphasize language-learning, but you have to be a part of the process by engaging in learning together.
If you want to raise your child bilingual, but you don’t know the target language well, take advantage of the time spent with your babies and learn alongside them! The MamaLingua English/Spanish app provides relevant vocabulary and phrases that parents use with children during daily routines like bathing, changing, sleeping, or feeding. It provides you with text, an easy-to-read phonetic system, and audio from native speakers to help with pronunciation. The curated list of relevant words and phrases are easy to substitute for the words you use with your children every day.
Emphasize your learning by immersing yourself in bilingual experiences! This can take place through music classes in a target language, reading books, watching television shows (together), visiting with bilingual friends and family, and using games and apps. Remember, multimedia can be a strong ally — when it’s developmentally appropriate.
An app such as Learn Safari’s Spanish Safari can be an excellent tool for children 3 and up, although children on the younger end of the spectrum may need some assistance from their parents. The app uses gamification techniques, an engaging narrative, and gradual immersion to teach children Spanish and help them practice their skills. If you want some tips for effective media use, check out more articles from the MamaLingua blog.
4. Infants Never Entirely Lose the Language They Learned at Birth
According to Canadian researchers, the sounds learned in early life will alter a person’s brain forever, whether the early language is spoken or is seemingly lost. Monolingual children who were exposed to a certain language in infancy but were reared in a wholly different tongue are able to process those supposedly lost sounds like a bilingual person! Even if a way of speaking has long been “forgotten,” it’s much easier to resurrect that language than it would be if there had been no prior exposure.
What does all of this mean for you? If you’re interested in teaching your child a second language, it means that you should expose your child to multiple languages as early as possible and that you shouldn’t worry about confusing them or delaying their speech. It also means that if you ever start to feel like your child is “losing” a language, it’s never too late to speak it with them again. In addition, if you’re an adult who was spoken to in another language as an infant, you should feel confident about re-learning it. A few courses might help you to unlock all of that hidden information. Sometimes all you need is a language “reboot,” so don't give up on your language goals!
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What do you think of the four ideas shared above? We would love to hear your opinion in the comments, and we love it when you share! We hope you’ve enjoyed our article, and feel free to connect with us directly.
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About the Authors:
These two entrepreneurs share a similar mission: They want to help parents raise bilingual children by creating tools to aid them in their language-learning journey.
Keli Garcia Allen is a certified Spanish teacher and works as a preschool teacher in a bilingual classroom. Keli is the head of content for Learn Safari and she’s currently working on Spanish Safari, a Spanish-learning game for children 5-9 years of age. You can follow Keli and the rest of the Learn Safari team on their website, Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter.
Aileen Passariello- McAleer is co-founder of MamaLingua, a company that is passionate about raising bilingual children and invested in creating tools to help parents in their language-learning journey. Earlier this year, MamaLingua launched their first app for parents to learn Spanish alongside their kids. MamaLingua English/Spanish teaches words and phrases parents use during everyday routines with their children. You can follow MamaLingua by joining our newsletter, or following us on Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter.
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