Technological advancements are leaving no stone unturned when it comes to improving how we communicate with loved ones across the globe. As a result, the world is becoming increasingly multilingual. These trends also imply that many little ones are being raised as bilingual babies.
Bilingualism is sometimes a necessity, as the toddler’s parents may not be fluent in the majority language spoken in their community. So, it wouldn’t be extraordinary if the child learns one language at home, and another at school.
Bilingualism can also be a choice, as parents may wish to encourage their little ones to learn another language. There are many stigmas and questions that revolve around bilingual babies, such as when do bilingual babies start talking or whether they will have a speech delay. Here’s everything you need to know about raising a bilingual baby, and some debunked myths.
Benefits of Bilingualism
When bilingual babies try to say something, both the languages they know become activated in their brains and therefore, compete to assert dominance. To communicate, your little one will have to subconsciously select a language while suppressing the other one.
This process enhances selective attention and cognitive flexibility. Cognitive advantages associated with bilingualism, such as attention-span, problem-solving, etc, directly correlate to a person’s proficiency in their languages. This is why parents are increasingly trying to raise bilingual babies. There are several benefits of bilingualism which have been listed below:
- Bilingual babies will be better able to focus their attention on relevant information while ignoring distractions when they grow up.
- They tend to be more creative and are likely to be more efficient at solving complex problems.
- As adults, bilingualism can contribute to reduced effects of ageing on the brain, and minimize the risks associated with dementia.
- Employment rates and incomes are higher for bilinguals in certain countries like Canada.
- Bilingual adults will likely have better access to resources, and people in general.
Debunking Myths About Raising Bilingual Babies
Parenting a baby can be super exhausting and tedious. With myths about raising bilingual babies abound, parents may sometimes get discouraged from doing so. You might be barely managing your baby in one language, so is teaching them two a good idea?
You may have been told that bilingualism can lead to speech delays, confusion, or that you’ve already missed the window of opportunity. But worry not! Here are some of the most common myths about raising bilingual babies, and the real answers to them
1. Growing Up With Two Languages or More Confuses Children
This is a pretty common misconception about raising bilingual babies. Parents may tend to think that if their child is exposed to two distinct languages at the same time, they might become confused, and not be able to differentiate between the two.
However, experts have stressed that nearly all babies can tell the difference between several languages, just a few days after birth! This point especially holds true, if you consider two languages that are polar opposites, say, Arabic and English.
Bilingual babies may have some trouble distinguishing between similar-sounding languages like English and French. But they eventually master this too, by the time they are 6 months old.
It is likely that this myth about confusion arises from older research that came to this conclusion from poorly designed studies or sample groups. Bilingual babies reach language milestones when you provide a supportive environment
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2. Bilingualism Leads to Speech Delays in Babies
In some instances, children raised in bilingual households may take a little longer to start talking. However, this is not a permanent delay and according to experts, not something that will happen to every bilingual baby.
Sadly, parents who raise concerns about their bilingual babies’ speech delay are sometimes told to stick to one language, and not try to introduce another. A reason for this may be that in the past, bilingualism was associated with problems in language development due to a lack of research.
Experts in linguistics have a different story to tell today. They assert that neither speech nor language acquisition is delayed due to bilingualism. This holds true even if your child has been diagnosed with Autism, Down Syndrome, or any other diagnosis.
Multiple studies have concluded that toddlers with language delays in bilingual environments learn a language at the same pace as those in monolingual contexts. So for parents concerned about their bilingual babies’ speech delay consult a speech pathologist who is experienced with bilingual children.
3. It’s Too Late For Raising Bilingual Babies
If you’ve been told that you’ve missed the mark of raising bilingual babies, then remember it is never too late or too early, to introduce your little ones to a new language. Of course, children under the age of 5 find it much easier to learn a second language as compared to teenagers or adults, but it’s not an impossible task.
Experts believe that the ideal time for introducing a second language is between the age of zero to three. At this time, children are still learning their first language, and so their mind is open and flexible. This is why bilingual babies reach language milestones faster as compared to bilingual teenagers.
The next best time for introducing a second language is between the ages of four and seven. These are the formative years where children can process multiple languages on parallel paths, and speak both languages like a native.
It’s not too late after 7 either! The third best time exists, and it is between the age of eight till puberty. After puberty, languages are stored in a different part of the brain, so children will have to translate from, or go through their native tongue to learn a second language
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4. Children Can Become Bilingual On Their Own, Without Your Help
While it’s easier to raise bilingual babies when they’re exposed to both languages from an early age, it doesn’t mean that osmosis will do the job for you! It’s unrealistic to expect your baby to pick up a new language by watching countless hours of television.
Remember, learning a new language is not a chore, it is something fun! But, it does require some structure and consistency from your side, either through conversation or formal education.
Bilingual babies reach language milestones faster if you make language learning a meaningful and interesting experience through real-life examples. This can be by talking to them continuously in a language they’re learning, reading books, or building on their words or phrases.
When Do Bilingual Babies Start Talking?
Every bilingual baby is unique, and their pace of learning two languages depends on the amount and type of practice that they get. So, while there is no particular answer to the question “when do bilingual babies start talking?”, there are some averages.
Most bilingual babies will speak their first words before they are a year old. Bilingual babies reach language milestones like using two-word phrases, by the time they are two, either in one or both languages.
It’s normal for your child to mix grammar rules at times like mixing words from both languages in the same sentence. When bilingual babies watch their caregiver switch between two languages they try to mimic them and end up mixing languages. In fact, researchers consider mixing languages as a sign of bilingual proficiency.
Another thing to look out for is that some bilingual babies may not talk a lot when a second language is introduced to them. This is called the “silent period” and is a part of the road to becoming bilingually proficient. While it can last for several months, it’s nothing to worry about, and your toddler will be babbling away in two tongues, in no time!
How Can Parents Help Their Bilingual Babies?
There is no quick fix to helping your baby become bilingual. As stated earlier, it requires a certain structure, and this doesn’t mean that bilingual parents should only talk to their babies in one language.
Similarly, the “one parent, one language” approach, where each parent only speaks one language, is also not the best way to go about it. Listed below are some fun, hands-on ways to support your bilingual babie
1. Babies Learn From Hearing Language
Everyday routines are a great opportunity for you to talk to your child and teach them great vocabulary. Mealtimes, playtime, bath-time, and getting dressed are a window of learning, where you can describe what you’re doing in detail, and encourage your bilingual babies to participate in a language of their choice!
2. Language Enforcer vs Language Model
We all learn from mistakes and constructive criticism. The same applies to raising bilingual babies! If your little one uses gestures, sounds, makes a grammatical error, or uses a word wrong, don’t become a Grammar Nazi!
Instead, gently guide them, by modelling the correct word, or sentence, instead of enforcing a correction. Don’t order your child to say something, instead, show them where they’re going wrong through modelling
3. Build on the Language They Use
Encouraging early language development in kids requires you to be proactive. You can build on the language that your baby uses, by adding a word or two to the sentence. This helps bilingual babies build their vocabulary, and they learn how to speak full sentences in both languages.
For example, if your baby points at cereal and asks for “more”, you can respond to it by saying “More cereal!”.
4. Repeat, Repeat, and Repeat!
Certain words and syllables can be tough for bilingual babies to get a grasp of. So, when you’re teaching your child a new word or syntax, keep repeating it over and over again, every chance you get.
Your child might need to hear the new words or structure several times before they begin to use it in the right way. So, be patient and repeat words and phrases to help your little one learn them
5. Use Books, Music, and Videos
When you’re reading your baby a bedtime story, alternate between two languages to support their learning curve. You could also use mediums like music, or you could sing to your bilingual babies in two languages.
Children’s programs on television are also a great way to learn. There are plenty of videos out there for bilingual babies that teach the little ones about colors, numbers, simple words, and alphabets. Of course, this shouldn’t be the only way for them to learn, you need to play an active part too, for the learning to really stick
6. Have a Lot of Patience!
All babies are unique and take their time to learn a language. Early on in their learning, most bilingual babies will fluctuate in which language they use, mix them up, and not be very proficient at it.
This is a normal part of the learning experience. Encourage your little ones to continue communicating with you in a way that they prefer, and in the language that they’re most comfortable using.
Your child may have a silent period for a few weeks or months, but they’ll soon be back to normal in no time! If you have reason to be concerned, you can always consult a speech pathologist or paediatrician and they’ll guide you towards the best approach.
A lot of parents around the world are raising bilingual babies and for good reason. Bilingualism has several benefits attached to it, and to reap the most out of it, it’s a great idea to start at an impressionable age.
While some people may be led to believe that raising a baby in a bilingual environment can hamper their speech development and language milestones, these are just myths. There are several things you can do to support your bilingual babies and help them become more proficient in their languages.
Of course, do what feels comfortable for you, and your family. You don’t have to speak to your baby in a language that you’re not well-versed in. Be patient, and you’ll have a baby who adorably coos away in two languages!