The best ways to raise bilingual children – Methods and tips

So you’re thinking of raising your children bilingually – there are many strategies for achieving this very worthwhile goal, so read ahead and I’ll go into details of each of the popular methods.

It’s generally understood that if children are exposed to a language for 30% of their time they will pick the language up, but it’s important to keep in mind that this isn’t just 30% of the time for a year or two, it’s constantly. The key to learning and maintaining language is to use it consistently over a long period of time.*

One Person, One Language (OPOL) Method. Sometimes written as the One Parent, One Language method.

You’re a native Japanese speaker living in Amsterdam and your partner is Dutch – you both decide to speak to your child in only your native tongues, this is the OPOL method in action.

This is very popular and as the name suggest, one person usually one of the parents speaks a language with their child while the other parent speaks another language to the child, thus raising the child bilingually. If it’s not the parents it might be a grandparent, an Au-pair, school teacher and so on. One of these languages might be the language of the country the family is living in, or it might be that you are speaking two minority languages at home and the children learn a third in school.

Sometimes children can be sneaky and realise that ‘hey, if I speak Dutch to mum she understands me and I can escape from learning Japanese and spend more time playing computer games. Win!’ Here is where it helps to be very consistent, you might simply say in Japanese that you don’t understand, or respond in Japanese. What is most important is instilling in your children the importance of the second language, especially if it’s tied to their cultural heritage – this way they are more likely to see the need and develop a desire to speak the language, rather than seeing it as a waste of time. Trips to countries in which the language is spoken can help here too (see Time and Place method), especially if they are able to interact with cousins and grandparents who only speak one language.

You can read my interview with Professor Christof Demont-Heinrich about how he is raising his children in German and English using the One Parent, One Language approach – the very interesting this here is that Christof isn’t a native speaker of German (although his father was) and yet he is successfully raising his children to be bilingual. This is one of the positive sides to this approach – you don’t necessarily need to be a native speaker of the language – although if this is the case it might help to supplement with a tutor or Au-pair who can help with grammar and pronunciation.

Minority Language at Home (mL@H) Method

Say you’re living in Germany for work but you are originally from the UK – you might choose to send your children to a local German school so they can pick up the language and culture while speaking only English as a family at home. This is the Minority Language at Home method, because your family language is not the dominant local language.

This is a very popular method, both by choice and by necessity for many families around the world. It’s an effective way for your children to become bilingual – just keep in mind that this might mean your children are fluent in relaxed conversation, but it could be a very different story if they had to write an essay in the language.

I was interviewing a Finnish woman a couple of weeks ago who grew up in a number of different countries and attended international schools in English – she had recently read back her first university essay in Finnish and was amused and a little horrified to find that it sounded like she was chatting to someone in a club. Having spent the majority of her formal education in a non-Finnish environment, it meant by the time she reached university her academic Finnish was not as good as her English, despite Finnish being her mother tongue and the language she used at home every day. I’ve heard this happen time and time again, so it’s really important to make sure your children practice academic writing and are exposed to literary, political, academic, etc works in both languages (written and spoken).

Time and Place Method

This method is best used in combination with those above.

You might live in the USA but have a deep passion for the Chinese language and culture, spending long summer breaks there each year with your children where they play with local children in Mandarin and maybe even attend an immersion language program there. You think wistfully of China back home in the USA, but you don’t necessarily speak the language with your children – you just make an effort to visit China as often as you can.

Obviously this method might not be as effective as the OPOL or mL@H method, simply due to lack of time spent immersed in the language. There are of course ways to supplement this with a more mixed method – say T&P + OPOL for example a Mandarin speaking Au-pair, children attending an English-Mandarin bilingual school or play group, and so on.

So what is the best method?

That is up to you, your family and your circumstances. Some people might not feel comfortable speaking to their child in any language but their mother tongue, meaning that if both parents are Australian and they live in Australia, obviously Minority Language at Home is ruled out. They might then choose to send their child to a French/English bilingual school making use of the OPOL method and supplement this with a trip to France every few years, or sending their child on exchange during high school for a year.

It’s about finding a method that feels right for you, researching it (books, blogs, forums), experimenting and being consistent.

* Read Raising a Bilingual Child by Barbara Zurer Pearson for more information on this topic – it’s an excellent book!

Are you raising your children bilingually? What methods do you use?