ingredients for a bilingual child

What are the ingredients for a child to become (and remain) multilingual?

In other words: how do you get your child to become bilingual? Here are the main ingredients, to be reflected on according to the reality of each family!

1. language exposure

This ingredient is the most important and it is divided into two parts:
First, there is the quality of exposure: children learn to speak a language when they interact with a human being. They need to be spoken to directly and to be active in the conversation (yes, with baby already). Then there is the amount of exposure, which is the amount of time the child spends in each language. Here the rule is simple, the more hours children spend in a language, the better they will learn it. With bilingual children, it is impossible for them to spend 100% of their time in each language; we must therefore divide their time in 2 and make sure that they spend as much time as possible in each of languages.

2. Location

Each country has one (or more) national language. For example, in France it is French. This language is "easy" to pass on to children because it is found everywhere: in the street, at school, with friends, at the doctor's, in sports and artistic activities, etc. All the other languages are called "minority" and are more difficult to pass on because they often rely on us exclusively.

3. The need to speak

Children are very pragmatic with languages. They often think like this: "if I need the language to make myself understood, I use it - if I don't need it, what's the point of using it?". That's why some children respond in French when you speak Spanish to them; because they know you understand both languages. So it's up to you to create the need: by leaving them alone with their monolingual grandparents for example.

4. Language valorization

Are languages, cultures and multilingualism valued around your child? Children will tend to attach themselves to what is positively represented. So the more proud they are of their languages (and cultures), the more likely they are to use them!

5. Child's age

Do you take advantage of childhood? This is the time when you have the most impact on your child's language! So when to start? From birth if possible. If not, don't panic. It is perfectly possible to introduce a 2nd/3rd language during childhood. But by the time they become teenagers, it will no longer be up to you but to your teen's motivation.

6. Child's preference

Children may prefer a language, often the one they are most comfortable in. But this preference may change as they grow up (e.g., become the school language). On the parents' side, it is sometimes necessary to resist this preference if you want your child to speak both languages.

And all of these ingredients lead to a family language strategy (who speaks what language in what context). What is the right strategy for your family? The one that will take all of these ingredients into account while still being natural to use! Let's meet in parental coaching to discuss all of this ☺

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Julia Boulanger

I studied childhood bilingualism at the Masters and Doctorate degree. Today, I help bilingual families and create unique tools for multilingual children. I am here to share science-backed and real-life information and tips.