Raising Bilingual Children

When my daughter was born, I had no doubts she was going to be bilingual. Born to a native Portuguese speaker and a native English speaker and living in an English-speaking country, there was absolutely no reason why she shouldn’t become fully fluent in both languages. However, I was aware it was going to be up to me to make sure this happened.

It is estimated that over 40% of the population is bilingual and in a global world, despite the predominance of English, it’s an asset to know more than one language. This was something I could gift my daughter for free. People pay good money to learn a second language, they spend time and resources learning it and my daughter had the chance of absorbing it with no effort. It was a no-brainer.

Bilingualism is defined by the ability to speak two languages fluently, with native proficiency. This is usually only possible if the language skills are acquired in childhood, although it is possible to become bilingual later in life through constant deep language immersion. The bilingual brain has been the source of many studies and it is widely accepted that a bilingual person can handle multiple tasks better, has better concentration skills and better working spatial memory.

Children begin the process of acquiring language still in the womb. The sounds they are exposed to start forming their set of familiar phonemes which they will progressively learn to put together. There are around 800 different phonemes in the world to make up all the different languages, but each language only uses around 40 phonemes. This means we, as humans, need to be born with brains equipped to learn any language, or rather, 800 different types of phonemes. This is exactly what happens at birth. We are born with this superpower to distinguish between 800 different sounds. A superpower that we will gradually lose as we grow. Children who are exposed from the womb to different languages will start forming phoneme groups for each language and will be able to retain them. This is why if you ask a child to repeat a word in a foreign language, they will repeat it much more accurately than an adult. As children are able to make this distinction, taking in language as a whole rather than in parts as adults do, it is much easier for their brains to understand and distinguish languages.

Bilingual children don’t get “confused” between the two languages. However, unlike monolingual children, they have to work with a wider variety of phonemes which tends to slightly delay the process of speaking, though they soon catch up with their monolingual peers. At the same time, bilingual children work with double the vocabulary, which means they tend to have smaller semantic fields but this is easily counteracted by the broad cultural and linguistic spectrum they are exposed to.

Still, despite all the research available widely favouring bilingualism and early simultaneous multiple language acquisition, I found resistance in society. Both sets of grandparents (English and Portuguese monolinguals) for example, showed their concern that their granddaughter wouldn’t be able to communicate with them. The English grandparents were concerned that the primary caregiver (the mother) was only speaking in Portuguese. The Portuguese grandparents were concerned that as soon as the child was exposed to English outside the home, she would make it her preferred language. Other people made comments addressing bilingual speech implying that the child would forever be speaking sentences made up of English verbs and Portuguese nouns. All of these comments were unfounded. My daughter acquired both languages effectively with a slight English dominance. Her vocabulary varied according to the source language. She would learn food names in Portuguese first because of me but she would learn outdoors elements’ names in English first (car, tree, road, cloud, sun). The method I chose was simple: when she was with me only, I spoke to her in Portuguese. At no point was I worried that my daughter wouldn’t be able to speak English as she had plenty of exposure to English from her interactions with her father and the outside world, not to mention toys/TV/games/books.

My daughter was a little behind with her speaking at first but soon enough she caught up with her peers twofold. A combination of her bilingualism and her exposure to language and books via my own influence has turned her into a very articulate and expressive child with an extraordinary vocabulary. I know there are parents who make the choice of not teaching their language to their children. They are afraid the children will pick up a weird accent in their country’s language or see no purpose in it since they have no intentions of going back to their home country. In my case, I wanted my daughter to be able to have a conversation with her Portuguese side of the family, have an extra language, understand the common framework of Latin languages as a bonus. She is now learning French and seems to have a natural knack for understanding and identifying languages, which is, undoubtedly, a by-product of her bilingual brain.