Skip to content

How to bring up your children to be multilingual

Keep calm and be multilingual Do you know who I really envy? Truly multilingual people. Although I speak a number of other European languages, I will never truly speak 100% like a native, as I wasn’t introduced to these languages at birth.

I’ve studied linguistics and the theories of language acquisition both at school and at university, and I’ve worked as an English teacher in Spain, and as an English tutor in and au pair in Italy. There is no doubt whatsoever that those brought up with more than one language from birth have an infinite advantage in language learnin, as opposed to those like myself who pick up foreign languages at a later age. I began French at 7 and Spanish at 10, but even then it’s too late. It’s widely recognised that an adult who tries to learn a language will struggle to master it, while a young child will barely have to lift a finger. A child’s brain acts like a sponge and develops at an amazing pace, whereas an adult has to practise again and again to soak up new vocabulary.

Bearing all of this in mind, it’s easy to see why I wish I’d been brought up in a multilingual environment, and it’s easy to see why my children will most definitely be brought up multilingual.

Growing_up_bilingual_-_learning_a_second_language

Here’s how to go about it if you wish to give your children a gift that will stay with them for life:

  • Have children with a foreigner

Agree that each parent will solely speak their native tongue around the house and your children will automatically pick up both.

  • Employ an au pair who speaks another language

Add a third language into the mix by ensuring your children only speak to the au pair in his/her native tongue. It’ll be tough to begin with but will soon become natural. For continuity, hire all your au pairs over the years from the same country, so the accent and vocabulary is consistent.

  • Live abroad and send your children to a local school

As soon as your children realise that all the other children speak a different language, they’ll find ways to communicate and play with them. The local school will help to teach them the grammar essentials and perfect their vocab.

  • If you live in your home country, send them to an international school

Each country has an expat community, and each expat community has its own set of international schools that teach in a foreign language. Your children will also make friends from all over the world through this network and it’ll open up their horizons.

  • Travel often to let your children practise their languages in the real world

If your children are learning French, for example, in your home country, then travel to France at every opportunity, and when they become teenagers, set up exchanges to France over summer holidays. They need to develop their confidence to use their language skills outside of their family and their comfort zone.

teaser-bilingual

If none of the above seem practical options then simply remember that children should start learning as early as possible. One of the girls I tutored English to was only 3! Decide before they’re born which languages you want them to learn, and tailor their upbringing to give them as much exposure as possible.

If you’re planning on bringing up multilingual children, which languages will you choose? I am many, many years away from having children, but mine will speak English (obviously), another Romance language (allowing them to easily pick up the others if they wish) and a “hard” language (such as Russian, Arabic or Chinese) to give them an extra head start in employability terms when they grow up.

15 Comments »

  1. Good article!
    Having studied neurolinguistic last year I can “cheer you up” saying that there are 2 kinds of perfect bilinguals called “precoce” and “tardivo”. What’s the difference? The precoce (precocius) has the advantage of learning the perfect pronunciation with no effort: a child starts from 0 and his/her mind is still able to learn every sound. There’s something called “soglia critica” (threshold, maybe?) at the age of 8. After that age is simply more difficult to adquire a particular kind of pronunciation if we are not used to because we can’t notice the difference. (An example: the Chinese have 4 ways to pronounce the A that sound all the same to us). Then there’s the bilingue tardivo (tardive bilingual I guess) that learns a language after the age of 8 or even later. He/she might have an impefect pronunciation at the beginning, but the knowledge and the use of the language is totally like a native. So basically everyone can turn bi-multilingual but it’s just more difficult in terms of efforts and time. If a person starts to learn a language using the implicit memory (= not studying a language in books but “living” the language) has good probabilities to become like a native. The important is the frequent use of the language in every context (I can’t wait to go to England, for example. As long as I stay in Italy I have no chances to practice……).
    So if someone really wants to turn bilingual has to follow your advices and practise A LOT. At the end you’ll discover that you have fullfiled your goal. Being like a native is not impossibile, but we have to work harder than who had parents speaking different languages. 🙂 Have a nice day Vi!!!

    Like

  2. I started at 6. I don’t know if things have changed over the years. Maybe children start to learn some words in kindergarden as well. Here in Genova we have English and German private schools since kindergarden to high school, so in this case children grew up as bilingual. What about UK?

    Like

    • I think children in the UK begin at 7, but the standard of teaching isn’t fantastic and very few people actually continue to study languages once they’re 14/15… Some language departments in universities are even shutting down because there aren’t enough students wanting to study languages!

      Like

  3. Great post! We are an American family living in Costa Rica. My kids are attending a bilingual school here. I realize that they will not be truly fluent in Spanish for at least 1 maybe 2 years, but fortunately we love it here so much that we are hoping to stay at least that long.

    Like

  4. Wonderful article and wonderful comments! Especially for me – who grew up only learning English, now am struggling with Italian and there’s a strong possibility that my kids will know English, Italian, and Arabic! Such an interesting thing to study and learn!

    Like

  5. Hi Virginia, great blog, I´m a linguist too, passionate about language, especially home language maintenance. About that, in such a multilingual city as Melbourne, I am promoting the use of local native speakers to get your children practicing languages. A cheaper (and somewhat safer as you are committed to an au-pair you haven´t met) than hiring an international au-pair!

    Like

    • That is a really great idea and you’re also promoting the social integration of various communities and nationalities, well done! I’ve checked out your website too and it looks like you’ve set it all up very professionally, I hope it’s successful!

      Like

What do you think? Leave a comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: