Bringing up a bilingual baby

Can your cooing baby become a bilingual master? Nowbaby looks at how you can bring up a bilingual baby.

From the very beginning…

Your baby has been exposed to language even before you ever thought about helping her language skills after birth. In the womb, your baby has listened to your voice and learnt to recognise it. After birth, the process becomes even more developed, as he learns how to distinguish different sounds and patterns of speech. Children are eager and more than able to process language. Just think – from crying to constructing grammatical sentences in the space of five years … even before they can tie their shoelaces!

Coo blimey!

You may feel a bit of an idiot as you babble in a high-pitched voice to your baby but it is through your words and language that your baby acquires her own. Obviously at first it’s pretty basic – but even crying is a way of communicating and, in time, you will be able to distinguish how different cries mean different things. You are both already well on the way to effective communication.

The next stage is the welcome cooing phase, when softer and quite pleasant sounds occur, such as ‘aaaaaah’ and ‘oooooh’. Cooing itself, however, doesn’t reproduce language-specific sounds.

Babbling is the third phase, when your baby is focusing on the sounds she hears around her and which, consequently, sounds increasingly like the language you use. Babbling is characterised by syllabic sounds, e.g. the much-anticipated ‘mamama’. This leads later to bizarre mixtures of syllables such as ‘giliguk’! You may have noticed too that language milestones tend to occur around times of physical development.

Talking toddlers

At one year of age is typically when first words might be heard, although this varies a great deal. Some children don’t start saying definite words until after their second birthday. However, if you are at all worried about your child’s development, speak to a health professional. When first words come, they won’t sound the same as when you say them! As Lorraine Rice, from Bilingual Babies, explains: ‘Some phonemes are universally tricky (r, l, s, sh, zh, th) … [and toddlers] also have difficulty with consonant clusters.’ This is why you might hear your clever boy saying ‘poon’ instead of ‘spoon’. Where there’s a will …

The first expressions your child makes will be ‘holophrastic’ – i.e. they’ll be one-word phrases. It’s quite amazing how a toddler can put one sentence-worth of meaning into one word, with hand gestures, facial expressions and tone adding meaning and emphasis! As your child acquires more vocabulary, she will start saying combinations of words. Typically this will be in the form of an adjective and noun, e.g. ‘big cat!’ or a noun and a verb ‘boy jump!’.

Good Golly, Miss Poly(glot)

If your child is doing so well with one language why would you want to introduce a second to confuse him? Without a doubt, today’s world is becoming increasingly global and, while English is the universal language, the ability to speak other languages is not only desirable but also helpful.

You might have other reasons why you want your child to be multilingual. Perhaps the language you speak at home is different to the one spoken in the community. This will provide natural settings to introduce more than one language to your child.

How easy is it for a child to be multilingual?

According to Deborah Ruuskanen, professor of English Linguistics at the University of Vaasa, Finland, and mother to three bilingual children: ‘It is entirely possible to teach an infant two, or even three, languages, and four is not unheard of. In Europe, a great many toddlers learn four languages with little or no difficulty.’

Obviously, the earlier your baby hears the different languages you want him to be exposed to, the better and easier it will be for him. For example if a child is exposed to a new language before six years of age, they will acquire it as a native speaker very quickly. For this to happen, they will have to be in an environment where they are exposed to it constantly, e.g. in a school or nursery. As children get older, the likelihood of them attaining a native-speaker command of a language decreases. In adulthood the chances are very slim indeed, as any of you who have tried learning a language later in life will know!

Are there any special requirements?

There must be a motivation for your child to learn the language, either through constant reinforcement at home or in the community. One or both of the parents must also have a good command of a second language. This doesn’t mean you have to be a native speaker of another language though. Some parents have acquired a good deal of fluency in another language through living abroad or studying and want to pass that language on to their child. However, some worry that their imperfect accent and grammar will be more detrimental than beneficial to their child. What you decide to do ultimately depends on your preference, but surely it’s better for your child to grow up speaking a second language reasonably fluently, with some flaws, than just one language?

Raising a bilingual baby

Parents who want to raise a bilingual baby must face several more decisions than parents of monolingual babies encounter. They include:

– How you’ll get all of those languages into your child!

– Who, out of you and your partner, should speak which languages?

– Can any of the languages wait until your child is at school?

– How will your child communicate with other members of their family?

You will also need a ‘language plan’. Contrary to popular belief, children don’t just pick up a language incidentally. You’ll need to agree on a method that suits your family situation and stick to it. A couple of ways introduce two languages more quickly than others. These are:

One parent – one language

This approach probably brings about the quickest results and increases the chances of your child being able to distinguish the two different languages. If each parent sticks to their ‘allotted’ language, your child has an immediate way of recognising who speaks which language.

Family language vs community language

With this method, you use one language in the home while letting your child acquire the community language outside. This works well because your child gets maximum exposure to the ‘minority’ (i.e. family) language at home, particularly in her early years, which will provide an excellent foundation for language acquisition. As your child gets older she will gradually be given more exposure to the majority (i.e. community) language, through nursery groups, friends, school, etc.

Whatever approach you choose to adopt, the key is to be consistent.

The pros and cons of bilingualism …

A 1997 study carried out at York University discovered that bilingual children understand written language faster than their monolingual counterparts. It also goes without saying that a language is a skill, and the more you have at your command can only be of benefit in the future.

And the cons? Even though bilingual children understand written language at an earlier age that monolingual children, it should be pointed out that, if you introduce two languages to your child as a baby, their speech may be delayed. This is completely normal – after all, they are trying to recognise and produce the sounds and words of two languages! However, he will soon catch up with his monolingual peers – but will be talking in two instead of one language. How cool is that?!

Your baby might, at some stage, show signs of confusion with the two languages, as they realise they are dealing with two language systems. Sometimes this can take a few months to overcome. At first your baby hears all the sounds around her and assimilates them into one loose language. She may know one word for an object and refuse to accept that another word can also be used! However, when she sees other people using different words for the same thing, she will realise that it’s OK to do this and she will become happier with this very quickly.

Even the cons with bilingualism turn out to be beneficial! If you go through any difficult stage remember to remain patient and that this phase will pass, normally quite quickly. Bringing up a bilingual child can be exciting and beneficial – to both the child and the parents – and can give them a great advantage in life, at present and in the future.

We would like to thank Bilingual Babies for their help with this article, find out more at


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