How to Raise a Bilingual Child
Experts Explain Best Practices For Teaching Kids Two Languages
One of the most important processes in a child’s development is language acquisition. Teaching your kid more than one language, however, can be challenging. To give us insight on the fundamentals of raising a bilingual child, I interviewed Danielle Jerdee, a bilingual educator with a master’s degree in comparative and international education from Loyola University and a bilingual teaching certificate from National Louis University.
I come from two different cultures, Korean and American, and it’s important to me to pass both languages onto my son. But it hasn’t been easy. As a Korean American heritage speaker married to a white American, it’s more comfortable for me to speak English at home and in other environments. But I have been determined to teach my son, so I try my best to speak Korean at home, even if I feel awkward communicating in my second language.
A heritage speaker is someone who learned a minority language by hearing and speaking it at home as a child. My dominant language, for example, is English while my minority language is Korean. Often, heritage speakers have not been formally educated in or immersed in the culture of that language. For heritage speakers, passing on the minority language is challenging both linguistically and emotionally. But Jerdee says we should push through.
“Be confident in your language skills, even if you don't consider yourself fluent,” says Jerdee.
She encourages heritage speakers to listen to songs and read books in the minority language. When your child becomes older, make sure to give them opportunities to learn the alphabet and write in the language as well. At home, my family reads books in Korean and we listen to Korean music almost every day. I plan to send my son to Korean school when he gets older.
I didn’t have much of a Korean community while I was growing up and we only visited Korea every couple of years, so I didn’t have a lot of exposure to the Korean language. While I am building a small Korean community in the Bay Area, my social circle still primarily speaks English. Jerdee says while being regularly exposed to native speakers in immersive environments is the best way to acquire a second language, she knows that isn’t always possible and offers alternatives.
“If you're not a native speaker, don't worry. You can still model vocabulary and sentence structure. Instruction on how two languages are similar and different foster regular engagement and success in cross-linguistic transfer,” she says.
So what does it mean to be bilingual? “To be truly bilingual you need to be fluent in all four language domains: speaking, listening, writing, and reading,” says Jerdee. She says it takes a different amount of time to acquire conversational fluency as opposed to academic fluency. A key component of being bilingual is being able to think in both languages rather than thinking in just the dominant language and then translating to the second.
I started thinking about giving my son a bilingual upbringing since before he was born. Language learning for kids is important to address while they are young. While people can learn a language at any age, there are certain factors that make it easier to acquire a second language when they are young.
“Kids' brains are open to learning more sounds than adult brains. It is important to expose children to the phonology of more than one language at a younger age before the opportunity closes,” says Jerdee. “Younger children can decipher between small changes in tone better than adults. This is why adults have an accent when they learn a language later in life.”
Age can also affect confidence and embarrassment in language learning. “A child might appear more fluent than an adult because the adult's lack of confidence can cause them to hesitate or overthink,” says Jerdee. While I feel awkward and uncomfortable speaking Korean, I am motivated to work past the discomfort and keep it up, both for my sake and my son’s development.
There are a few methods of bilingual education that Jerdee recommends. First, studies show that a two-way dual language education is the most effective method to become biliterate. This is also called the “one-person one-language method." For our family, that means I speak to my son in Korean and my husband speaks to him in English. She also recommends that heritage speakers use the minority language exclusively at home and use other tools like sensory, graphic, and interactive supports. Using these methods helps kids compartmentalize the languages.
Jerdee also says that a technique called “bridging” is helpful in supporting a bilingual upbringing. In bridging, you use content knowledge as a bridge between the two languages. For example, my son and I read Peppa Pig in English and then discuss the story in Korean.
“Heritage speaker parents can bridge English content from school, TV, books, songs, etc. by talking about the content learned in the heritage language,” says Jerdee. “The child doesn’t need to relearn the content in two languages, but can just bridge the information to the new language. Remember that the bridge is two-way,” she explains.
While teaching a second language to your child may be daunting, especially if you are a heritage speaker, putting in the effort will pay off. I didn’t speak to my son exclusively in Korean for two years, but after recently switching to the one-person one-language method, he is already understanding and saying Korean words. The lesson is this: It is never too late to teach a second language. You don’t have to be perfect when you are trying to raise a bilingual child. You just have to start and go step by step.