Raising Multilingual Kids

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We live in a global world, where raising kids is hard. Raising kids to learn and understand multiple languages and cultures is a challenge, but is now more desirable than ever. About 13.5% of the population in 2016 was foreign-born, according to the U.S. Census. About 27% of children under the age of 6 are now learning a language other than English. The U.S. is also considered and often referred to as a “melting pot”, where many ethnicities, cultures, and languages come together. So, as you can imagine, speaking multiple language can be a desirable trait. But how do I raise multilingual kids and get them to accept and speak two or more languages?

My daughter Nora is now 18 months old. We are raising her bi-lingually with both Dutch and English, because I am from the Netherlands. I want her to know both languages and both cultures since this is very important to me as a parent. Besides, learning multiple languages is great for brain development. Right now, she says a few words. But I have a feeling she knows English better than Dutch. I am worried that she will not get to know both languages.

So, how do I make sure she gets to learn both languages? I spoke with moms who are raising their kids bi-lingually and this is what they told me:

Speak it

Nearly everyone I spoke to advised to speak the native language (Dutch in my case) all the time. It’s all about exposure. Most suggested speaking only that native language to them, even if you speak English with your spouse. That way they get used to hearing it all the time. Even if you think they are not getting anything, they catch way more than you’d think! Do not be afraid it will confuse or distract them. Most of all, be patient with your kids and their way of learning; consistency is key. Keep speaking it to them, even if your child only responds back in English.

Use resources

The right resources are very important. Be creative in the way they learn the language. Books, movies, short videos, CDs/songs, and FaceTime/video calls with people that speak the language are so important! The more exposure to the language, the more they will learn. Try to read, listen, and see as much as you can in your native language. These resources help them with their language development, as it connects pictures, melodies, and faces with words. Nora’s favorite resources are “Nijntje” (A sweet bunny; Miffy is the English version) and “Juf Roos” (a silly teacher that lives in a windmill and sings Dutch songs). There are also specific local resources, such as schools that have a second language, like Spanish, as a standard in their curriculum. I used to work at a school where Spanish was taught at least twice a week, even to three year olds. There are also local ‘immersion classes’ in certain states. Your local library may also have specific programs that are multilingual or multicultural.

Travel

Of course, the best way to learn a language is to travel to the place where the language is spoken. But if you don’t have that opportunity, it is just important your child gets as much exposure as possible. Speak it, watch it, listen to it. Let the country come to you. Because of the Corona virus, Nora has not had the opportunity to go back to the Netherlands yet. So instead, we FaceTime family a lot. She already knows some of the songs we do, each time we call. So she will participate with her gestures in the song.

Raising multilingual kids
Facetiming with my mom/ Nora’s grandma in the Netherlands

Teaching Culture

Culture is tricky to teach, because the mainstream culture we live in is the one our kids will automatically be exposed to. Find multicultural events, such as international festivals. This is a great way to expose your children to multiple cultures and languages in the world. Teach your children about special holidays and festivals that are specific to the culture in your own home. When Nora gets older, I am planning on teaching her about Sinterklaas (St. Nicholas, the equivalent of Santa Claus) on December 5th. He comes in on a boat from Spain with his helpers and brings presents for all the kids to open on December 5th. Kids can also put a shoe by the chimney and sing songs, and then Sinterklaas comes and brings a present through the chimney at night. It is a pretty interesting tradition that I want her to know about. All that to say, find ideas and ways to teach important cultural events to your children in a creative way. Learning multiple languages is so much more than just the language itself; it comes packed with culture and traditions!

Raising multilingual kids
A beautiful sight in the Netherlands

To raise multilingual kids is hard. Speaking the language all the time, using the appropriate resources, traveling to the country where the language is spoken, and teaching culture are all equally important in raising kids to know multiple languages. But don’t worry: even if you don’t speak multiple languages, it is still a good idea to learn one together with your children, as there are many benefits to learning another language. You have an important role, and an important choice to make.

1 COMMENT

  1. Very good advice! My friend from Germany took her kids there when they were young, for several months in the summer times. They were soon fluent because of it!

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