Ensuring your kids are bilingual

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Okay, so you want your kids to grow up bilingual.

How exactly are you going to achieve that?! Well, let’s see…

The term ‘bilingual’ implies speaking two languages fluently. To the same high standard. And by ‘high standard’ I mean native speaker level; with the ability to switch from language to the other, seamlessly; everything automatic; no thinking required.

A few language lessons won’t get any child to a bilingual level.

A bilingual school will be a great help but you can be sure that won’t be sufficient either.

It is the way in language learning that every little helps of course, but the main ingredients that go towards making a children bilingual are:

1) parents who speak consistently in the first language

2) living in a foreign country where the second language is spoken

This is all about exposure and, ideally, ensuring that the exposure to each language is as even as possible.

Now, let’s take my personal experience as an English speaking father living in Spain. When we came here 7 years ago my two children were 3 years old and 8 months old.

It has been said on this blog many times that the younger children are the more capable they are of soaking up a new language like the proverbial sponge. And so it has proved to be the case for my children.

I knew before arriving here that if their English speaking mother and I continued communicating with them in English – as is natural for us – they would learn that language without a problem. I also knew that learning Spanish would be striaghtforward for them because they would be exposed to that language at school and on the streets.

And the result? They are totally bilingual. You can’t tell if they are English or Spanish by birth.

Where this gets a little complicated is if the two parents do not naturally speak the same language with their children. For example, a Mexican mother and an American father. If the mother speaks in Spanish to her kids, and if the father speaks to them in English, they do not get confused but it is quite likely that their level of English will not reach the heights otherwise attained with total exposure via both parents.

In this case, it is of vital importance that both parents are aware of the probable outcome.

What to do then?

Again, I can cite an example from personal experience. My sister has lived in Spain for the last 20 years. Her husband is Spanish, and while his English is very good, it is not perfect. What comes natural to him is the Spanish language.

Their daughter, now 14, has only been to England on a handful of occasions and yet her level of English is sensational. As I see it, this is largely down to the guiding influence of her mother, an English teacher who has know all along what I speak of in the paragraphs above. Hence she has nurtured her daughter’s English skills from day one, ensuring that she gets as much exposure to that language as is possible here in Spain.

Oh, and check this out. 14 year old Susie is now fluent in French too. At her tender age, she now has three languages practically ‘in the bag’, and is now pursuing studies that are not even related to foreign languages. She simply doesn’t need to.

Now that’s what I call a language advantage!

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