Bilingual benefits: Raising a child with two languages

Raised with parents only speaking Arabic at home, one mother learns the benefits of raising her own bilingual daughter and shares tips for raising a child proficient in two languages.

Alan Rogers/Casper Star-Tribune/AP/FILE
At Park Elementary School in Casper, Wyo. all students in kindergarten through fifth grade currently receive 90 minutes of Spanish instruction per week, and the school has sought to implement a dual-language immersion Spanish program. Zoey Pickett, left, and Nevaeh Hodge work on creating Christmas cards during their fourth and fifth-grade Spanish lesson, Dec. 6, 2013.

We had a simple family rule when my siblings and I were growing up: speak Arabic at home. For the most part we did, especially when speaking with our parents, who were born in Egypt and Arabic was their native language. 

But often times, it would be easier to speak in English with my brothers and sister, so we would slip a couple of English sentences here and there. My parents reminded us to switch back to Arabic whenever they overheard our conversations. 

I never realized until I grew older how important that house rule was until now. The reason my siblings and I are bilingual is because of that “speak Arabic at home” rule. More and more families are realizing how important it is to preserve their native language. In the US, studies have shown that bilingualism has tremendous cognitive and social benefits compared to speaking only one language. 

Some benefits include: better concentration, cultural awareness, increase in creativity, problem solving, multitasking skills, and advantages in finding jobs later in life. 

Parents can begin exposing their children to more than one language at any age. However, it is highly recommended that parents begin introducing their children to the minority language as soon as they’re born. 

Research shows that when children learn a second language before the “critical period” of age of five, they are less likely to have an accent and to speak as fluently as native or near-native speakers of that language. 

There are different methods to teach one’s child to become bilingual depending on the family’s situation. A friend of mine is bilingual in Tagalog and English, while her husband speaks only English. They use the One Person, One Language  (OPOL) method for teaching their daughter two languages: she speaks to her daughter in Tagalog while her husband speaks to the daughter in English. Now at age 3, she is proficient in both languages.

Since my husband and I are both bilingual speakers of English and Arabic, we speak to our 1-year-old daughter in Arabic 95 percent of the time. This is often referred to as the Minority Language at Home (MLAH) approach. Since Arabic is a minority language and English is the primary language spoken in the US, we feel that exposing her to copious amounts of Arabic at a young age is crucial in order for her to be entirely bilingual. 

She is then exposed to English when we are out on play dates, shopping, or at the park. Further, she will be exposed to more English when she attends day care and school.

If you are wondering how you can raise a bilingual child, here are some practical tips for getting started, especially for parents or caregivers who speak more than one language. 

Make it fun and interesting. 

Singing, reading, playing, and talking in the minority language whenever possible with your baby is essential. Research shows that language skills improve when parents have one-on-one conversations with their babies.

Since Arabic language materials, such as books and toys, can be difficult to find in the US. I often translate English words to Arabic and point to the words in the book. I have Arabic letter blocks and printed Arabic alphabets in my daughter's room that I found online after some searching.

When kids are older, consider using technology such as smart phone and tablet apps, and online resources such as blogs. Limited intake of cartoons in the minority language can help to capture the attention of your child, but remember that only serving up cartoons without other language-oriented interactions will not teach a toddler a second language.

Make them value the language. 

One should not be ashamed of speaking to your child in a different language when out in public. Don’t whisper the minority language when you’re out with your child; rather speak in a regular tone so your child understands its value.

It’s all right if at some point your child asks you to stop speaking to them in the minority language in front of friends, especially once they reach the teenage years. At that point, adjust your guidelines for when and where you speak a second language together. Insisting on speaking in only the second language can result in your child devaluing and abandoning the language if pressed too hard.

Find speakers of the language around you.

Try to find people around in the community who speak the same language. One can find groups or organizations that gather to teach or practice the language. Find a babysitter or other parents with children who speak the same language. As your child gets older, immersion schools in your area can offer an additional challenge through a curriculum focused on day-to-day learning in a second language.

Travel to places where the minority language is spoken. 

One thing that my parents did that made us love and appreciate Arabic was taking us to Egypt over the summers to spend time with our extended family. This helped us practice our language and become exposed to the Arabic language and culture. Although it’s not practical for everyone to travel overseas often with kids, one can find a plethora of communities across the US where minority groups live and work. These places are great for children to visit because of the authentic food, language, and exposure to the culture tied to their second language. 

Make sure your child’s teachers are supportive.

I’ve heard unfortunate stories from friends in which their children's teachers have told their bilingual children to “speak English only.” Often times, teachers are not familiar with working with bilingual students. Explain up front to teachers how important the minority language is for your family, both inside and outside the home. I remember in second grade my teacher asked me to write down all of the students’ names in Arabic clearly on a sheet of paper. I had my mom help me translate their names and handed them to the teacher the next day. Each student then took their name in Arabic and wrote it on their own on construction paper, decorated it, and we made a quilt with all of the names on the wall. Such a simple classroom project is excellent to make bilingual students feel more comfortable with their minority language. 

Be patient and have fun. 

Teaching a child to be bilingual requires extra work, patience, and support, but it is worth it in the end. Here are some of my favorite blogs and books to help with teaching your bilingual children: Multilingual ParentingOn Raising Bilingual ChildrenRaising A Bilingual Child: A Step-By-Step Guide for ParentsMulticultural Kid BlogsMulticultural Kids.

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