Creating a bilingual environment

From greater cultural diversity, to improved attention span, and even to greater job prospects many years down the line, there really is no shortage of benefits to raising a bi- or multilingual child. However, embarking on the mission to do so may seem daunting to many – how does one even start to build a nurturing and encouraging bilingual environment?

While it will require dedication, effort, and consistency, raising bilingual children does not have to demand a herculean effort from parents.

This post outlines multiple ways you can create a multilingual environment for your children. You will discover how the whole process can be made more fun and engaging for children.

Choosing your household language

The most essential step to raising bilingual children is to first determine how you intend to teach them the languages.

A popular choice among bilingual parents is the One Person One Language (OPOL) method, in which each parent speaks to the child in a different language. For instance, if your household languages are English and Chinese, one parent can speak to the children exclusively in English and the other in Chinese. This distribution helps ensure an equal exposure to both languages, and will also prevent your child from being confused when the same parent speaks 2 languages.

Alternatively, you may also elect to speak only the ‘minority language’ at home. Indeed, the ‘majority language’ – generally the one most spoken in the community – will be picked up with the least amount of resistance from children, due to their continuous exposure to it at school, with friends, from books, music, and so on. Therefore, you may want to develop the habit of speaking the minority language at home early on, to try to balance out your children’s exposure to different languages.

These are but a few strategies you can use to teach children multiple languages. At the end of the day, there is no superior method – it simply comes down to assessing your situation and picking the one that will work best for your. And as with all things child-related: don’t be afraid to adapt.

Exposing your child to a second language

Having your children engage with the culture – books, music, food, and so on – is not only a great way to spark their interest in the languages you are teaching them, but also helps diversify their education.

Buying books in different languages and teaching children to read independently allows them to pick up new vocabulary or expressions that they might not learn from day-to-day conversations. As they become more and more immersed in the story-telling and develop a love for reading, you may find that your children reach out for new books of their own volition, making their education ever more independent. Beyond learning or improving their ability in the language, they may also become more sensitive to particular philosophies or mindsets of the culture, and develop a finer, important understanding about differences between societies.

Listening to and singing songs with your children could also help them improve their fluency in a similar way, with the added benefit of them practicing the language as they sing. You may also let your children watch shows or movies in different languages, so that they can be exposed to the different ways a language can be spoken – maybe using different idioms, expressions, or accents.

Food also plays an important role in every culture, from the preparation of various ingredients, to the different cooking techniques, to the specific meal etiquette. By giving your children the opportunity to regularly eat food from your target cultures, you will be helping them develop a closer relationship with said cultures. Teach them the names of different ingredients and dishes, involve them in the preparation of food, and talk to them about the traditions that may surround certain foods!

Expand from learning to applications

Wherever possible, try to show your children how the languages they are learning are important and useful beyond the household. This is particularly relevant in the case of minority languages, as children may resist learning a language they do not deem useful in the country they live in. Maybe try spending quality time with friends and family who only speak the minority language. This will also help children learn to express themselves more fluently using only one language, which can sometimes be challenging to bilingual children, who often develop the habit of casually switching between languages in conversation. While this is not necessarily a bad habit, it is also good for them to practice sticking to a single language.

Direct contact

Finally, cultural immersion through travelling is a fantastic method for creating a bilingual environment for your children. Of course, it is not always feasible, but allowing children to be in direct contact with the culture – to see the art, the architecture, taste the food, hear the language spoken on the streets – is a priceless experience for them and will truly be the cherry on the cake of their multicultural education.


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