When you are raising your child to speak more than one language, it is important to know how to go about it – this is the raison d’être of my blog! It is however equally important to be aware of the things you should avoid when bringing up a bilingual child. Generally, I am a so-called “towards” person – I like to write about goals and positive things to aspire to, because I want you, my reader, to focus your mind on the good things you can do. That’s also why I always tell parents to find a better alternative to saying things like “Don’t fall!”. Why? Because you do not want your child’s mind to be focused on “not falling”! It is actually very difficult to focus on not doing something. Compare “Don’t eat a biscuit!” with “Eat an apple” – what is your mind focused on? If you have to say something, instead of “Don’t fall!” say “Watch where you put your foot!” or “Hold on tight” or “Use your arms to balance!” – much more helpful. So today’s post is a bit different with all the “DON’Ts” – what I DO want you to focus on are the suggestions at the end of each point.
1 – Never criticise
Never criticise your children’s language use. You might at times feel like passing a less positive comment on which word or language they use a particular situation, how they pronounce a word or any other aspect of their communication – the advice is the same, don’t criticise. If you feel a strong need to recommend a different way of saying something, repeat what they said in the way you think is correct/better/more appropriate. First, though, carefully consider whether your comment is necessary. If it is, you could start by saying something like: “Did you really mean to say…?” or “I didn’t quite catch that …” to allow them to come up with a better alternative by themselves.
2 – Never compare
Comparing your children’s progress in any aspect is not helpful at all. Children are different and develop and learn at a different pace. Don’t ever compare them to their siblings or any other children. Your task is to help them feel confident about their language use, not knock them down. It makes me really sad when I hear parents commenting on their children’s language skills along the ways of “She hasn’t learnt the language as well as her cousin” or “Neighbour’s kids can speak much more fluently than you do.” If you are truly worried about your kids’ communication skills (in any language) speak to a specialist, don’t pass your own verdict. If you consult a specialist, make sure to choose one that has experience in dealing with bilinguals.
3 – Never ask your child to “perform”
No matter how proud you are about what languages your children know – never ask them to say something in front of others just to prove they can. I would even recommend diffusing situations where another adult asks your little ones to say something to show off their language skills. If you are bilingual yourself, you know how annoying it can be when someone asks you to “say something”. Children learning languages can be very sensitive about their skills and afraid of making mistakes. If in addition they are also of a shy nature, asking them to utter something in a particular language just for the sake of it is not the right thing to do. Instead, engage them in a natural discussion.
4 – Never make fun of how they speak
Have fun when passing your language on to your kids, but never ever ridicule their language use. Children do sometimes come up with the most hilarious words and phrases when they learn a language, but do not make a big deal of it. Also, do not comment about it to others when your kids are not present – it could be very hurtful if they came to know about it later. What I would recommend that you do though, is to note these words and phrases in a journal that you can give to them later on. When they are older and know the language better, they will be able to appreciate the funny side of it.
5 – Don’t expect perfection
Of course we all dream that our children will grow up and acquire a perfect command of whatever language we pass on. This is however rarely the case in real life. The fluency will vary greatly – even between siblings. If at any point you worry about your children not speaking as fluently as you would like to, think about what is important. Can they communicate with their grandparents and relatives? Are they happy to use their language in their everyday lives? If they do, a few grammar errors here and there, some words pronounced slightly differently or an accent is not really anything to worry about!
6 – Don’t constantly correct
I am not saying that you should never help your children find the right phrase or form of a word. It is alright to offer the correct version by rephrasing what they just said. Avoid making this a habit so that you do it every time when they say something that is not quite correct. Being frequently put right might negatively affect both their confidence and motivation to learn more. Instead, be encouraging and say “Wow, I wasn’t aware you knew that word!” or “I am so proud of you when I listen to you speak to your grandmother!”
7 – Don’t be rigid
There are certain rules you can follow to make sure your children acquire your language while growing up, but do not let these principles become so rigid that it takes the fun out of learning and speaking. The call for consistency in certain scenarios may feel contradictory to this, but it really is not. Occasionally switching a language is fine, more so the more fluent your children are. You want your language to be something your kids enjoy. It should not become a chore or something they avoid because of the negative associations with it. For example, if your children do not want to speak your language when their friends are around, because they do not want anyone to feel left out – do as they ask. As always with children, you need to be flexible and go with the flow when the situation calls for it.
8 – Don’t ever stop communicating
Many parents have (mostly successfully) used the approach of only answering their children if they speak to them in the “right” language. I am however not a huge fan of this approach, because it defeats the purpose of language: communication. Instead I would recommend that you should still stay consistent and not switch. You may end up leading a conversation where you and your child are speaking different languages, but this is fine. Try to figure out the underlying reason to your children’s choice of language, and find ways of addressing them.
9 – Don’t demand
This is very closely related to the two previous ones. For me this is a given, but needs to be noted. Yes, you want your children to speak your language, but trying to force them to do it is not the way to achieve your goal. Make learning your language compelling for them by creating an environment which is motivating and supporting for their linguistic development, but don’t try to make them do it. You will all enjoy the journey so much more.
10 – Don’t give up
As with everything in life, raising a bilingual child has its ups and downs. There are days when we feel nothing is going as we would like and wonder where to get the energy to continue. If you ever feel like this, think about the reasons you decided to embark on this journey in the first place. Consider all the advantages that bilingualism brings with it. Speak to other parents and ask for their support – they will be more than happy to cheer you up and help you continue. And you will be so happy you did!
This looks like a great set of tips, and it’s really useful as I feel like I’m still finding my way with being a bilingual parent even though my son is now two. He’s made a massive leap forward with his English recently, but isn’t coming out with much Welsh at the moment.
Thank you, Jonathan! I really admire your determination to bring your son up to speak Welsh!
All those points you made have happened to me and I agree. I can speak my parents’ tongue, but not fluently. I have been ridiculed, lashed out and compared to other people for not being perfect in speaking reading and writing, that I started hating to speak it and the culture (honestly my extended relatives are not the best people to be around as their believe in backstabbing and acting superior, so they will find ways to pull you down and spew horrible things at you). I get so uncomfortable now when thinking about it and have distaste for it now. However I did notice that even though my languages skills were not all A+, I had a close bond with my grandmother (grandfather doesn’t speak to anyone and tends to shy away) and realize that even with “language barrier” you can still enjoy visiting your grandparents and stuff. Seen it with many.
You made a good point that you must foster things lovingly and not force or criticize anything. Only thing it will have an impact is a recipe for disaster. I’ve seen people force their kids to speak ‘mother tongue’ and the kids ended up hating and neglecting it. I’ve seen a few who just went with the flow where they let their kids enjoy the dominant culture while still keeping the minority culture at home, and when older the kids got an interest and start to actively involve themselves in it. Some can now read speak and write exceptionally in their parents’ native language now. That’s why I’m against forcing things and more of live and let live today’s children need to find their own identity.
Thank you for telling us your story – I am sorry that your experience growing up with two languages was not the best. I very much appreciate that you share how you felt about the situation, as it confirms my belief that a positive, fun and supporting environment is what is needed for a child to want to learn a language. Thank you again!
I agree, we should expose and give children the opportunity to explore it, not stuff it down their throats as I see with many parents as their kids want to be like them. Language barrier may be there sometimes, but if an environment where closeness is formed you’ll be amazed at the outcome.When you make it as a new experience, rather telling the “you are this and not that..( I always get the you are Indian, not American all the time), they get curious further and will engage more actively in it, not just the language, but culture as well
Great ideas! It reminds me of my childhood… we did the mL@h I had times I answered my mother in the majority language, but was never reprimanded. Today I am raising my child as bilingual and hopefully will be able to just go with the flow as well. Thank you for the helpful tips and for bringing up those memories