What to focus on when raising a bilingual or multilingual child? Should we speak only one language? What should our family language strategy be? Which languages should we speak with our multilingual child? In this blog post, I am answering your questions (plus giving you the FREE GUIDE to set your ultimate family language strategy and plan in 5 easy steps).
Answering to the questions about what to focus on when raising a multilingual child, and what language(s) to speak with your bilingual or multilingual baby in a one-size-fits-all manner is not the best way. Each family experiences different conditions and thus, what they have to focus on when they raise their bilingual baby and which language(s) to speak with their child will be very different.
But before diving into the answers to your questions, I want to repeat a few things bilingual language development. I am doing this because they are very relevant to the questions coming from you 🙂
First, I want to assure you that children can learn more than one language, especially when they hear and use the language consistently from an early age.
Most often, for them to learn the minority language, they should be exposed to the language. But being passively exposed to a language is not enough. They should also interact with people in that language.
So, to raise a multilingual child, you should focus on how much exposure and also ‘interaction opportunities’ the child gets. Otherwise, watching cartoons would be enough to learn a language, which would be very fun 🙂
Secondly, multilingual children do not confuse their languages. Even babies start distinguishing one language from another right after they are born. This process starts even before they are born.
Using words from different languages does not mean mixing those languages. We call it code-mixing (or code-switching) and it actually adheres to the rules of the languages. So, code-switching is a functional way of talking for many bilinguals. Adults do that a lot too.
And lastly, I have to say a few words about bilingualism and late talking, again because it is a very common myth. Are children talking late due to bilingualism? The short answer is: No! Some children speak later than their peers and some may still have a developmental language disorder. Does it happen because the child speaks more than one language? Nope!
Alright then, without further ado, let’s get right into your questions now.
Just a little REMINDER for the parents who are raising a multilingual child with intention:
I know that you will do your best, but it is also important to remember that focusing on these recommendations should be for you, your child, and your family.
What works for your family may not work for others. And what works for others may not work for you. Raising a multilingual child is a unique journey.
These recommendations are here to make your work easy, to take some weight off of your shoulders. So, you can create some routines to help you not worry about your bilingual child’s language development.
What to do when there are three languages?
My child is 9 months old. We live in South Cyprus. I speak Turkish and my husband speaks Greek with him. My husband and I speak English with each other. I am worried that he will be confused in an environment where three languages are spoken. I am also worried that he will speak very late. What should we do?
First of all, the best think you can do is to speak the language that you are most comfortable with. Since you speak English with your spouse, I assume that you two don’t speak each others’ languages very well and prefer to speak English with each other.
At the moment, you speak Turkish and your husband speaks Greek with your child. This is called the OPOL strategy (one parent one language).
Many parents who are raising a multilingual child ask ‘’which language to speak when the whole family is together?’’. Learning Greek for you and Turkish for your husband is a nice option, but it may be a difficult option at the moment.
You and your husband speak English with each other, which can make English the common language of the family. In this case, your child may start to understand English. But it is hard to expect your child to acquire English by overhearing you and your husband.
In this case, you can adopt a Time & Place language policy and use all the fun methods to improve your child’s language skills during your interactions from early on. You can start integrating English in your book-reading and play sessions slowly. Being intentional and having a plan about the input and language opportunities you will provide in English during the day will make your work much easier. For this, you can answer the following questions:
How much English will you speak with your child?
Are you going to do this when both parents are together?
Are there other people and resources that your child can hear English from and practice with?
Coming back to Greek and Turkish languages, your child will need a lot of language opportunities in those too. Depending on which one is used less around the child, you can focus on that language more during the day.
For instance, if Greek is spoken all around you, it is safe to assume that your child’s Greek language skills will be very well in the future. In this case, you can focus more on supporting Turkish daily.
If you are also working on your child’s English skills, it is important that the time you spend on English skills does not take away from the time you spend on Turkish skills.
With language goals in mind and a plan about how to work towards them, you can work more on providing the necessary input and interaction opportunities in all the languages daily.
I know, sounds like a lot of work, but it is so worthy! And once you set the goals and make your plan about how your child can reach them, you will be able to integrate these languages into your child’s everyday life.
Read more to learn more -> How to be consistent in speaking your language with your child.
With this free guide, you can have an introduction on how to support your child’s language skills with natural methods.
Should we focus on only one language?
We live in Austria. I speak Turkish and Arabic at home with my husband and I want my child to learn German in kindergarten. My husband reads stories in German and I sometimes tell stories in Arabic. Right now we are worried that he will be mixing the languages and will speak late. Should we focus on only one language?
Thank you for your question. First of all, as I stressed earlier, late talking and mixing languages are not problems that stem from being multilingual.
Since you live in Austria, your child will not have a problem with learning German. Thus, if your aim is to raise a truly multilingual child, you should keep focusing on Arabic and Turkish at home.
You speak both Turkish and Arabic with your child. How proficient are you in Arabic? How proficient is your husband in Turkish? It is important to think about how confident you both are in the languages that you speak with your child.
If both of you continue speaking these two minority languages at home, I recommend that you think about how much input your child receives during the day in these languages. Does your child hear these languages only from you? Or do other people around your child speak these languages?
The second thing you should ponder on when raising a multilingual child is that how well you want your child to learn Turkish and Arabic.
Answering these questions will give you an idea of what you should focus on.
If you want your child to acquire Arabic and Turkish very well, it can better to focus on creating more interaction opportunities in the language that your child hears and uses the least during the day.
So, for instance, if your child hears Turkish from different people but Arabic from only the father, then it is good to think about how to diversify the input in Arabic. So that your child can have enough language input and interaction opportunities to learn and maintain the language.
It is also important that your child feels a ‘need’ to interact in that language. It is partly your creativity to make your child need to use that language. Are there other people around, are there grandparents, are there other friends who only speak that language? Otherwise, some children do not use the language that they ‘don’t need’. They may understand it, but answer in the language that they feel the most comfortable with.
If both you and your husband have a very good level of both languages (Arabic and Turkish), you can use the ‘2 parents, 2 languages strategy’ (2P2L). This means that you both speak both languages with your child. This is what you are already doing. But to be more clear and consistent, I recommend you to work on a Time and Place language strategy. In this way, your child can be exposed to the languages as much as needed.
With this free guide, you can start setting your child’s language goals and making a language plan for your child.
Will my bilingual child get confused?
We live in Canada and we are expecting a baby in September. My husband is a Turkish-Canadian. He speaks Turkish with me and his mother but prefers to speak English in his daily life. We speak Turkish and English at home. In this case, should we speak only Turkish? Would he be confused if we continue speaking English with my husband?
Hi! I am happy to receive your question before your child is born. These early steps you can take already will be very useful for your child’s language development.
You live in Canada and English is spoken in the home from time to time. This means that your child’s English skills will be good under normal circumstances. Turkish language skills of your child, on the other hand, might be compromised since you (and sometimes your husband) are the only source of Turkish.
In this case, it is important to think about how to support your child’s Turkish most of the time. Also, since you can also speak English your child’s Turkish skills can be in more danger. For this reason, it is important that you start speaking Turkish right after birth. If you continue to do this consistently, you can build a very good Turkish language foundation.
To do this, I recommend that you create a motivation to speak Turkish and a lot of language opportunities in Turkish for your child. Who are the other people who can speak Turkish with your child? Are there grandparents, relatives, and friends that your child can communicate often? Interacting with loved ones create opportunities to learn and maintain a minority language.
Growing up with four languages
We live in Belgium. My daughter is six months old and she grows up with four languages. I think that her speech will be delayed. My husband and I try to use our mother tongues with her and we speak in English when we are together. Next to these three languages that we speak in the home, my husband has a second native language that is spoken in the city we live in. What should we do?
Hello! First of all, it is very important that you ask these questions already when your daughter is very young. Being multilingual is not a cause of language delay, but it does not vaccinate your child against it either. So it is important to be able to support your child as well as possible already from the beginning.
You and your husband are doing the right thing by speaking your native languages at home. And since you live in Belgium, it is unlikely that your child will have a hard time acquiring the languages of the country.
When raising a multilingual child, several home languages can be involved in the picture. It is then important to think about which of these languages tend to be the least used in the child’s environment. Let’s say, if you are the only person who speaks your Turkish with the child, it is important to find other ways of supporting your language.
Providing a solid language foundation from early on will make it much easier for your child to acquire and maintain the minority language. Having lots of interaction opportunities in that language will create the need for using that language.
Considering all these, I recommend that you do the following:
- What are the language goals of your child? Think about how well s/he should learn the particular languages (especially the minority languages that are not spoken in society).
- Think about how often and where your child hears these languages.
- Find out all the opportunities that your child has to use these languages.
- Set your family language strategy: What should you speak at home and outside of the home?
- Establish a family language plan to provide enough language input and opportunities for your child.
How to do all these? You can start by downloading this free guide about family language strategy and plan. It is a good start!
The Minority Language Is Falling Behind
My husband is from Portugal and we live in Turkey. We speak Turkish, English, and Portuguese in the home. I see that the father’s language is falling behind. I am trying to focus on the three languages when I am working on the words. What advice would you give us?
Hi there! First of all, you live in Turkey and you speak Turkish. If your child’s language development is on track, it is unlikely that your child will have any problem acquiring the language.
If the father is the only person who speaks Portuguese with the child around and if the child does now have as much language exposure to Portuguese as in Turkish, it is expected for your child to fall behind in Portuguese.
A time and place strategy can be used for your child to hear and use both Portuguese and English. Another method is to watch the same movie or read the same book in different languages. You can even talk about a Turkish book in Portuguese. This would help the stronger language (Turkish) support the weaker language (Portuguese).
Don’t worry about being repetitive. Children learn best by repetition which is even more important for multilingual children.
When you want to decide how often, when, and where you have to give your child language input in a certain language, think about the following:
- How well should your child learn the languages?
- How often does your child hear and use these languages during a day?
- Which one of the languages seems to be the least used in your child’s environment?
- How can you support this language in the best way?
Answering these questions can easily put your child’s language situation into perspective and help you find out how you can support these languages better.
I hope this Q&A session helped you to get clearer about what to focus on and which language(s) to speak when raising a bilingual or multilingual child.
As said before:
What works for your family may not work for others. And what works for others may not work for you. Don’t go so hard on yourself if any of these ideas are not working for you. Also, it is normal if you are not able to be super consistent and slip out of your plan, or not able to find all those ways to provide your child language input all the time.
WHAT ELSE CAN YOU DO TO LEARN MORE:
Don’t forget to share this with your loved ones and also let me know about your comments and questions in the comments section.
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Buket Oztekin has an M.A. in speech and language therapy and a Ph.D. in linguistics. She works with bilingual children and investigates their language development. She coaches parents of bilingual children and connects them with other parents to spread knowledge and experience. Her goal with creating LingoBalance is to turn what the research says into bitesize information and activities for parents to use with their kiddos anytime, anywhere.