Raising a Bilingual Child - or Trilingual
Can monolingual parents find it easy raising a bilingual child or a trilingual or even more multilingual speaking offspring? We say absolutely yes, anyone CAN raise a bilingual child and defining "easy" or "hard" primarily depends on attitude, commitment and depth of second language/literacy.
Recently my friend Winser from China Travel 2.0 asked me how and why we raised our child fluent in Spanish, Mandarin and English as he'd heard most people from western countries find it very difficult to learn Chinese.
We are firm believers in MIT Linguist Pinker’s quote ”One free lunch in the world is to learn another language in early childhood.”
I’ve written a lot about language learning and our process on our blog and a 3 part series about how to raise a multilingual child(even if the parents are monolingual).
"Learning a new language forces a person to realign his whole system of ideas, to reorganize his entire world view, and to operate a higher level of intellectual mastery. Therefore, foreign language training provides a special intellectual training that cannot be offered by any other discipline." Vygotsky
Learning more than one language is rare in the USA and interestingly
more so around the world than we expected. Many people take languages in
school, but can’t really use them, except in places where they view it
as extremely important like Scandinavia, Holland, Malaysia, India etc. I
am a perfect example as I was an A student in Spanish, French and Latin,
but can’t speak any of them. One learns languages best through immersion
and using them.
It’s easiest to get languages early when young and many studies show
that learning languages young has many life long benefits like it helps
with maths, task-switching capacities, creativity and even prevents
cognitive decline in old age. It broadens ones world in many, many
to different countries where no one speaks your language/s helps a
child to understand the importance of learning more than one language.
"Foreign language learning is rich in the various types of learning or kinds of cognitive functioning (analyzing, discriminating, identifying, categorizing, inferring, including, deconstructing)....Given this principle, it is possible to argue that language study provides abundant practice in mental skills." Herron
We started language education in the womb and luckily we had friends who were native speakers in Spanish and Mandarin. We’ve found dipping into foreign schools ( in
Spain, Penang and China) great for both immersion as well as friendships as we tend to return to these bases over years.
"In a world being reconstructed by information, the importance of communication is paramount to power in the new world view paradigm. As the world shifts from an agricultural/industrial- to an information/service-based economy, the focus is not on military supremacy, but for supremacy in the control and dissemination of information." - Alvin Toffler
We think it is important to learn the dominant languages of the
planet in childhood, just as we think learning at least one instrument
is important as a foundation. Not only is language really the only way
to know a culture, thus teaches us more about world peace and other
perspectives, but enhances one’s life in many ways. Both music and
languages teach about code breaking and really most everything in life
is about code breaking in one way or another ( reading, math etc) and
taking on these years-long disciplines in childhood teaches one a work
ethic, joy of learning, about process, problem solving and the value of
This reminds me of a favorite song by Bobby McFerrin that says: “No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace, for those who have been trained by it”. A bright child who tends to get things easily, especially needs to be challenged and both languages and two musical instruments have helped us in that way.
Mandarin is a difficult language ( especially reading and writing)
even for Chinese kids who are fluent and raised in it ( they spend more
years learning it than English speaking kids do in learning theirs).
Chinese culture is ancient, fascinating, wise and complex. China
is in a blossoming time and will continue to be due to demographics
during my child’s entire life, so it was a logical choice for us. When
we met friends who were fluent in Mandarin when she was a baby, it just
clicked and made sense to take advantage of that.
Even before having a child, it was always my goal to raise a multilingual child and one trained deeply in music. I think these disciplines add to life and can be passed down for generations if the value and importance of them are also passed on. Being monolingual parents and not musically trained, we were at a disadvantage, but she will change that now in our lineage as she sees first hand the advantages and disadvantages of having these skills or not. Being the best at these in the family has allowed her to lead from a very early age and translate amongst different people.
Our daughter Mozart was quite fluent in Mandarin at two, but we found
it very difficult to maintain all 3 languages, so we dropped Mandarin
for a while. Spanish is probably a more important language for an
American to learn and is much easier to do there ( and in Spain) so we
focused on those for a while.
Once she was fluent as a native in Spanish and we saw how enriching that experience was in Spain, we decided to put the focus on Mandarin and Asia. She would like to learn many languages and many instruments, but we’ve put a limit on them in childhood to get them deeply and not split her energy in too many ways.
No one can learn all the languages on this planet, so we’re focused
on the most popular and she is interested in learning French next (
which should be a lot easier than written Mandarin and very easy due to
her fluency in Spanish). That will allow her to speak to most people on
this planet and hopefully have more compassion for other people and ways
We see learning languages as a way to greater peace on our planet, for her and hopefully for the people she touches in her life. It was very obvious to us that knowing Spanish in Spain and Spanish-speaking countries and knowing Mandarin in China made her experience so much deeper. Part of our fun in China was the surprised and happy reaction from locals when they realized they could talk to her. Makes one wish we could all speak all the beautiful languages of our planet!