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How to raise bilingual children

Ever since I started learning English as a second language, I wanted to raise bilingual children. When I was in college I met a four year old girl. She was fluent in three languages. Her fluency amazed me. She spoke each language like it was her native.

Since then I wanted my kids to speak at least two languages. I had the dream of raising bilingual children before my kids were born. I loved languages myself. My grandmother taught me German when I was four. It did not make me fluent but certainly helped to learn languages later in life.

Now my three year old is fluent in two languages (English and Russian) and is learning two (Chinese and Spanish) in the daycare center. She does not speak Chinese and Spanish but it is good for her to be exposed to other languages.

My one year old also understands both English and Russian. She does not speak well yet. It is usually a mixture of two languages for now.

I made quite a few mistakes in the process:

  • I spoke only English to my first baby because it was easier. I thought she does not understand much yet. I thought it did not matter, what language she is listening to. I thought that as long as I talk to her, she will develop her language skills. I was wrong. She understood everything. She was two years old and she spoke primarily English and only a little Russian.
  • When she was two years old, I sometimes had trouble communicating a point across or getting the answer. So I spoke in English, hoping that it would be easier for us to communicate in the language she speaks best. That approach did not improve her bilingualism either.

Since then I learned:

  • To repeat each sentence in both languages if I thought they would not understand it in one language
  • To expose them as much as I can to the other language. This includes television, books, Russian classes.
  • To practice language when playing. We often play language games: I say a sentence in one language, and my three year old translates it into another language. We also like sticker books in French, German, and Spanish (which you can win here) to practice another language:
  • To read books but not necessarily read every written word. This works before kids can read themselves. I read only what they understand. Otherwise they get bored. I add a couple of new words each time and repeat them with the translation. Or I just talk about the characters on the pictures and again use only a few new words each time. We can read First Thousand Words in Russian for hours although the book does not have any actual text in it, only words.
  • To encourage my kids to speak Russian with each other.
  • To always correct mistakes. A couple of years ago I thought occasional mispronunciation was funny and emphasis on the wrong syllable was cute. Well, it is not. She is three now and we have been struggling with some mistakes for a year just because I ignored them in the beginning.

There are certainly benefits to speaking more than one language:

In Learning and Development:

  • They will have much easier time learning another language
  • They develop critical thinking: they would ask me, what is “moon” in Russian?
  • It will be easier to learn about other countries and cultures knowing their language
  • They can watch cartoons and play computer games in Russian

On a Personal level

  • My kids will have a special connection: they can speak  a language to each other which most of the people around them do not understand
  • Everyone in my family in Russia will be able to talk to them,
  • Masha can play and communicate with kids who only speak Russian. When I tell her that a little girl is coming to play with her tonight, she asks me: “Does she speak Russian or English”?
  • I can talk to my kids about anything (potty, behavior, nursing) in public places and no one (almost no one) would understand

Career-wise :

  • They will have another language to put on her resume
  • They will be able go to school in other countries. For a semester, or a year, or a month.
  • They will be able to easily find work in other countries
  • They will be able to communicate with coworkers from branches in different  countries in their own language
  • They will be able to get a summer job as an interpreter. When I was in college, I worked as interpreter between classes and in the summer. I wore business suits and high heels. I interacted with executives and government officials. I learned about business, politics, and economics. They might or might not want to do something similar

I am still to face the challenges:

  • How do I teach them speaking at the level beyond every day conversation?
  • Will they be able to freely talk about politics, business, and science in another language?
  • Will they be still interested in speaking Russian when everyone in school speaks English?

I don’t know how I will deal with these challenges. I will write an update in ten years.

In conclusion, here is a funny compilation of Masha’s videos where she speaks three languages. She was 2.5 years on the videos.

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