Teaching children to be bilingual (or multilingual)

 Most educated Indians at some point or the other tend to learn English, regardless of what language they speak at home. Thus, many become inherently bilingual, though not necessarily from childhood. Beginning at an early age though But, what if you had two languages spoken at home?For instance, my sister speaks Kannada while her husband speaks Hindi. They stay in a predominantly South Indian locality in Bangalore and study at a English medium school. Yet their children are comfortable speaking both Kannada and Hindi at home and English in school. How was this achieved? The parents had a simple tactic - speak to the children in the respective native tongue. So, my sister encouraged conversations in Kannada while her husband did the same in Hindi. They maintained consistency in their approach and today the children feel at ease in both the languages. 


Without even being aware that this was a recommended approach (called as one person-one language model) by many linguists across the world, my sister and her husband had followed this because it came naturally to them. That being said my sister’s approach may not work with everyone or in all situations. What if your children had to learn more than two languages (besides English) to get by? Say, both you and your spouse speak Telugu and you migrate from Andhra Pradesh to Kolkata. Your children would speak Telugu at home and with family. They would speak English with their friends and teachers in school. But, the predominant language in Kolkata being Bengali, the children may need to learn a smattering of that as well. Thus, here arises a case of multilingualism. Or you may relocate abroad to a country such as Norway or Germany. In all such cases, your native language becomes a minority language. The approach used to deal with such cases is also called minority language model because the native language may only be spoken with family and immediate family members or family friends who speak that language. In this model, you may need to walk the extra mile and take additional efforts in teaching your children to be bilingual (or multilingual). If you’re a new parent facing or soon to be facing a likelihood of raising bilingual or multilingual children, here are a few tips that can help:


  • Plan ahead.Talk with your spouse and plan out who speaks what and when. Because if you want your children to be fluent and not just acquainted with the language, it will need some effort.
  • Organize group activities. Organize playtime or activities with other children who speak the same language.Organize visits to or from speakers of the minority language such as family friends. It’s one of the reasons why you see Indian communities who stay in a foreign country often sticking together.
  • Exploit pop culture. Borrow/buy children’s books in your native language. Read and share stories in your native language. Expose your children to music and cinema in the native language.
  • Stay consistent.Stick with language choice and give your child plenty of opportunities to listen to and speak this language.
  • Ignoring the bad advice
 Many may try to discourage you in this journey. Forgive them and continue doing what you set out to. Some may even turn up with professional advice telling you to stop speaking a certain language to your children. Look for technical reasons in their advice. Is your child’s growth being hampered because of the bilingualism? Is the child facing any stress because of the learning? If yes, then seek a specialist who is experienced in dealing with bilingual children.
  • It’s not going to be easy
As the child grows older, consciousness and self-awareness as well as awareness of their external environment increases. During such phases, the child may rebel against learning a native language. The child may even take to answering and speaking to you in English rather than the native language. This may bring disappointment and dishearten you but it is crucial that you don’t give up at this point, and that you continue to stay consistent.With time, the child will come around. When life events get in the way, family circumstances change,or careers change, will you and your family still be able to stick with the original plan? When it feels difficult, don’t hesitate to seek advice and help. It will NOT mean failure or weakness. The PlusesIf you find the whole aspect daunting, remember that bilingualism and raising bilingual children has many benefits. Children who can speak more than one native language are sharper and more astute. There is also a sense of belonging and pride. 1437305463809


Imagine the pride that you’ll feel when your children speak for the first time to their grandparents or other relatives in the native language, especially if the children have been raised in another state or country. A cousin staying in Chicago frequently shares in a family Whatsapp group audio and video clips of her little daughter (born in the US) speaking in our native language. My cousin’s pride in these accomplishments is unmistakable. As also are the thrilled expressions of the relatives in response to these clips.