Why raising little ones to be bilingual is a good idea

Why raising little ones to be bilingual is a good idea

— By Lívia Paula, Marketing + Branding, Little + Free

We all hear about the professional, cultural, and personal benefits of speaking multiple languages. In a multicultural place like the U.S., most of us interact with people from around the world daily. I am a great example of that: I'm a Brazilian immigrant living in New York City who will marry an American guy from North Carolina whose mom is half-Cuban and half-Italian (whew, what a mouthful). So, I always think about our future children and how they'll be exposed to multiple amazing cultural backgrounds and three languages. 

Growing up in Brazil, my mom always brought up the importance of learning another language, and I started studying English and Spanish at an early age. She said that because she struggled to learn another language upon moving to the U.S. at 32, she wanted things to run smoothly for us. 

In thinking of my personal story, and close family friends who grew up and/or are raising little ones in multilingual households, I started researching and reflecting on the topic. There are many benefits of teaching little ones how to speak another language early on—even in a home where both parents are monolingual. So, I'm here to share some tips from an expert and debunk a few myths about the topic.

Some terminology: 

According to Bilingual Speech and Language Pathologist Christina-May, there are two types of bilingualism.  

Simultaneous bilingualism refers to the acquisition of both languages from birth. And sequential bilingualism refers to the development of a second language before the age of 3.

Benefits of speaking more than one language

According to the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (ASHA), being bilingual is linked to being better at: 

  • Learning new words 
  • Learning reading skills
  • Being able to use information in new ways
  • Putting words into categories, such as "foods" or "toys."
  • Listening and connecting with others. 

Michigan State University (MSU) states that "infant's brains are flexible, and the skills develop beyond learning a second language is immeasurable. (...) Studies have also repeatedly shown that foreign language learning increases critical thinking skills, creativity, and flexibility of mind."

Some common myths and misconceptions: 

Some parents are worried that learning multiple languages will confuse or distract their children from speaking one language well. There's also a fear that it causes a speech delay. 

The ASHA also has good points that could calm worried parents. "Some children have speech or language problems. If a bilingual child does, the problems will appear in both languages," they wrote. "However, learning another language does not cause speech or language problems or make them worse," they added. 

According to Christina-May, potential causes of speech delay in children are usually present at birth. Some could be acquired due to illness, injury, or environmental factors such as maturation delay or psychosocial deprivation. "Autism spectrum disorder is also directly related to speech and communication delay," she wrote. She also emphasizes that "there is currently no empirical evidence to link bilingualism to language delay."

If a parent is worried about their kids' speech development—multilingual or not—the best advice is to consult a speech-language pathologist.

Some helpful tips and insights

We chatted with Portuguese teacher Vivian Valim about the topic. She has taught Portuguese to bilingual children here in the U.S. since 2017 but has been a Portuguese teacher since 1998. Valim has two daughters of her own who are bilingual, so she experienced this first-hand. 

Some of her suggestions to those trying to raise a bilingual child in a household where one or both parents are from another country (first or second generation): 

  • Tell stories and sing songs in your native language. "This is the real magic, trust me!" She said. 
  • Talk to your children about culture and family traditions. 
  • Cook recipes from your family's home country.
  • Watch movies in your language.
  • If possible, connect with family friends from another country in their native language via video call or letter. 
  • If available, attend cultural events related to the language you're trying to teach.
  • Talk to your children in your motherland language as often as you can. It can be tricky sometimes, but it's the most helpful, according to Valim. 

When asked about her personal experience with teaching another language to her bilingual children, she said: 

"I raised my daughters Ana Laura, 14, and Maria Luiza, 13. Both were born in the USA. I raised them in a bilingual environment with Portuguese and English. Before they were born, I had already decided to only speak Portuguese to them, so it came naturally. It was not an easy process, but with lots of love and patience, I could pass on my motherland language, and today they are fluent. They can also read and write. My heart is warm when I see them having entire conversations with my family. I want to encourage every parent or grandparent to teach their homeland language; this is the best legacy that can be passed on."

Some helpful tips to get through the challenges of teaching bilingual kids

The main one, according to Valim: is to be patient and communicate clearly with the children about your intentions and benefits when teaching another language. 

"The children chose the local language, and I was often frustrated and about to give up. But then I thought about my family who lives in Brazil," Valim said. She also kept thinking about the benefits for her daughters in the long run. 

"Talk to the child about the importance of language. Tell them how special it is to communicate in languages ​​other than the local language. Use all the tips I gave you earlier and be persistent and disciplined. It won't be easy, but it will be gratifying!" She concluded.

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