Some immigrant or intermarried parents desire to pass on their native language to their children. For these parents, the native language represents an integral part of their culture; as such, fostering bilingualism in their children is important. Parents who wish to develop bilingual competence in their children must recognize that this journey must be prioritized and consciously nurtured from the start.
As a Jamaican immigrant parent in Japan, my goal is to raise an active Japanese-English bilingual child. It is important because I want to communicate freely with my son, expose him to the other side of his culture, and allow him to develop a relationship with his extended family living in Jamaica. I knew to live in a monolingual society such as Japan; I had to be proactive and intentional in my efforts from the start to develop his bilingualism and not leave it up to chance. Now at five years old, my son can switch seamlessly between English and Japanese, and more importantly, he responds to me exclusively in his minority language.
While there are no golden rules for raising children as bilinguals, parents play an essential role in determining the languages a child speaks (De Houwer, 2007). I will share three tips that will help foster active bilingualism your child.
1. Do Your Research
One of the first things I did in my bilingual parenting journey was research on bilingual parenting. This step is important because many of us, including me, were not raised as bilinguals, so we do not have that experience to fall back on.
Additionally, many myths and misconceptions surround bilingual and multicultural childrearing. People who mean us well will volunteer erroneous advice and information. When I had my child, I was told he would experience language delay from being exposed to two different languages. This statement was shocking and disappointing to hear. It showed that despite numerous research that has demystified such a claim, some people still believe it.
If I had not done my research, I would have been discouraged, and this type of misinformation may discourage some immigrant or interracial families from pursuing bilingual or multilingual childrearing.
Therefore, it is crucial to conduct your own research on bilingual childrearing. Plenty of excellent blogs, books, and online resources share lived experiences and ideas about this journey. Know the outcome you desire for your children, do your research, and take steps to get there.
2. Start Early
Be proactive from the start. From the time my son was in my belly, the minority language was always used, and upon birth, I continued speaking the minority language. I knew I had to hit the ground running from birth to cultivate a good level of understanding of the minority language and create an organic need for my child to use the language with me.
I also knew that I had to start from early to give him a foundation in English before entering a formal elementary school where the community language would become more important, making it difficult to catch up on English.
While it is never too late to introduce a second language, exposing your child to the minority language as early as possible makes it easier for the child to attain the language; young children’s brains can process multiple languages. Starting early will also set the foundation and send the message to your child that the minority language is needed to communicate with you. “Children will develop a language if they feel they need it and human interactants create that need” (Grosjean, 2009).
3. Be Consistent
Choose a language strategy and stick to it. As mentioned above, I used English with my child from birth, and that is the language I used in ALL situations. It does not matter where we are or whom we are with – our language of communication is English.
I have observed German and Italian immigrants interacting with their children in the community language—these are the same parents who complain that their children respond in the community language and get frustrated.
I always refrain from interacting with my son in Japanese. When we as parents interact with our children in the community language, we are diminishing the need for our children to use the minority language. Moreover, it is a missed opportunity to provide exposure to our children in the minority language. Whatever approach is chosen by your family, consistency is the key.
De Houwer, A. (2007). Parental language input patterns and children’s bilingual use. Applied Psycholinguistics, 28(3), 411–424.
Grosjean, F. (2009) What parents want to know about bilingualism. The Bilingual Family Newsletter, 26(4), 1–6. Retrieved from http://www.multilingualmatters.com/pdf/bilingual_family/BFN%2026-4.pdf