Raising children bilingually

Little Tummy

Over the years, our in-house paediatrician Sophie has enjoyed looking after children raised bilingually and is also a mother herself. Read on for her observations about the unique benefits but also common misconceptions when it comes to a bilingual upbringing. 

As you might have guessed from my complicated surname, I am a German married to a Greek husband working in the UK. You might find this a funny mixture of hot and cold, we like to say that we found neutral ground when we moved to England.

We soon found that we are not the only couple with very different cultural and linguistic backgrounds. In fact, our Little Tummy team brings together people from all over the world.

There are three common misconceptions about bilingually raised children:

  1. A bilingual child will have developmental delays

    It is true that bilingually raised children will start producing speech somewhat later than their peers but this still happens within the normal developmental windows. The ability to understand words and simple requests is usually developed at the same pace.

  2. Bilingual children confuse languages

    This misconception derives from the fact that bilingual children will initially often use both languages in one sentence. This is not caused by confusion but by the ability of bilingual children to float between the languages. As they develop a concept of social interaction, they will separate the languages more clearly.

  3. Children can only be truly bilingual if they are raised so from the beginning

    Although the best window of opportunity are the early years, children's brains are adapting easily to new situations and they will pick up a new language rapidly, especially in a setting where they can learn from peers, such as in a nursery. 

Bilingual children benefit hugely in a lot of ways

Speaking a language opens up the opportunity to discover a culture in a deeper way. It thus enables children to understand their cultural heritage. In addition, it has been shown that bilingual children perform better at problem-solving tasks and are better at prioritising and making decisions.

In the long term, bilingual children will benefit from their problem-solving skills and the ability to understand others' beliefs. This helps them to react quickly in difficult situations and develop strong communication skills. Some researchers even suggest that bilingualism and the plasticity of the brain it comes along with can be a protective factor from Alzheimer's Disease. 

These are some things which we do in our family to support our daughter with learning two languages:

  • Being aware that her onset of speech might be later than other children, we learned some baby signs together which we are using now to communicate.

  • Each of us speaks in their native language. It is the most authentic way to communicate with our daughter, as she doesn’t only pick up grammar or vocabulary but more importantly the melody of each language.

  • We try to stick to one common language in certain situations - breakfast might be done in German, dinner in Greek.

  • Technology can be a great help, too. Bilingual children will often have a stronger and a weaker language, the stronger one often being the one of the main caretaker. We, therefore, let our daughter listen to Greek songs when her father is at work.

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