How to make a bilingual child?
January 5, 2009 3:27 PM   Subscribe

I'm trying to raise my son to be bilingual in English and Spanish.

I'm Chilean, but spent a good part of my childhood in the US and lived there for 2 years as an adult, so I'm close to 100% bilingual in Spanish and English and have a US accent. My wife lived in the US for 1 year, and speaks some English with a Spanish accent.

We currently live in Chile and speak to each other in Spanish. She speaks to our son in Spanish, I speak to him in English. I set the TV's audio channel to English for cartoons.

He's 1.25 years old and starting to speak, but only in Spanish, except for "Mommy". He seems to understand me, however.

I'm worried that as I'm the only English speaking person in his life, he won't really learn to speak the language.

Any tips, research or experience on how to make a bilingual kid is very appreciated.
posted by signal to Writing & Language (20 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
You still have lots of time. Try reading bedtime stories to him in English, the words, images and comprehension will help set a solid foundation beyond the familiarity he might get from English cartoons on TV, while the time spent together will help reinforce it.
posted by furtive at 3:38 PM on January 5, 2009

I'd recommend speaking to your wife in English (at least when in front of your son). I'd also see if you can get other people (the rest of your family who lived in the US, your wife) to speak to him in English. He'll be entirely capable of figuring out what is the Spanish accent and what is standard American English, so you don't need to worry about accents.
posted by jeather at 3:44 PM on January 5, 2009

I don't have any experience in this, but I think if one of his parents is speaking to him in English, he will learn English. Childrens' brains are pretty unbelievable learning machines. I wouldn't worry about it - it sounds like you're doing plenty. 1.25 is pretty young. You may find wikipedia's Second Language Acquisition article, or the "critical period hypothesis". I would recommend that when your child starts reading, that you offer him both English and Spanish language books.

But again, this is the mere uninformed opinion of a drone in the hive mind.
posted by Salvor Hardin at 3:45 PM on January 5, 2009 [1 favorite]

Don't worry, he'll learn. Maybe not as fast as Spanish, but he will. We raised our son in English (mom) and French (dad), doing exactly as you do (and the first three years we were in Germany, so there was also German in the picture). French took a bit longer to sink in, but it did. I would continue exactly as you are doing now. Spending some time regularly with a wider group of English speakers might help.
posted by bluefrog at 3:53 PM on January 5, 2009

The traditional recipe is that each parent sticks to one respective language when talking to the child. This might be the appropriate way in terms of pedagogy, but socially and psychologically it tends to make things difficult. Triangle conversations always remain somewhat artificial, for example.

It was enough for our two kids (who due to circumstances eventually became fluent in Dutch, Swedish, English and German) to have the situations roughly divided up (Swedish at school and with friends, Dutch at home, German during vacations, English behind the computer) and to stick to one language at a time, i.e. not to use too many funny mix-up sentences.
The most important rule I learned during these years is to relax about it, all the time. As soon as the kid perceives the choice of language as something that in some way seems important to the parents, it will be added to the repertoire of issues used for positioning (at least from age three to age five - if you are lucky).
He will learn both languages. Very little guidance required. Just don't let it slop, age 1 1/2 -3 is especially important.
posted by Namlit at 3:54 PM on January 5, 2009 [2 favorites]

Generally children can learn to speak a new language without an accent until around age 12. I second the opinion to continue what you're doing, and perhaps supplement his English education with a tutor when he is school-age if you feel necessary.

If you go the tutoring route, I would be happy to offer my services. :)
posted by easy_being_green at 4:07 PM on January 5, 2009

Tutoring or a bilingual school. That's how I was raised: classes in one language in the morning and in the other after lunch. It's a very effective way to learn.
posted by CunningLinguist at 4:31 PM on January 5, 2009

I come from a family of Welsh immigrants who spoke Welsh at home when I was little, but because I went to US schools and knew that everyone in my family also spoke English, I spoke exclusively in English until I was five or six. Until then, everyone thought I was just immune to the Welsh language. Then one day when I wanted to get the grown-ups' attention and no one would respond when I shouted in English, I said what I wanted in fluent Welsh and everyone turn around, utterly shocked.

Your son has an excellent footing to become bilingual, but he might not offer you signposts until he's much older. Keep at it, respond to him in English when he speaks Spanish, and he'll be fine.

My spelling in Welsh is a whole different story.
posted by zoomorphic at 4:38 PM on January 5, 2009 [1 favorite]

Yah, basically, if you speak exclusively English to the child as he's growing up, he'll acquire English as a native language. There will likely be a delay in his overall speech acquisition, but power through it. It will all fall into place.

I wouldn't put off speaking in English with him until later, either. While the critical age for second language acquisition is somewhere around puberty, there is a much-earlier critical age* at around age 3 for true native-language acquisition. So speak English to him all the time! Yay! I'm jealous for his opportunity and thankful on his behalf for your commitment.

*I'm digging into my own brain back to my grad school days for this, if any other linguists who actually continued to work in the field can chime in to support or refute, right on.
posted by Stewriffic at 4:44 PM on January 5, 2009 [1 favorite]

Move to the US? Friends of mine lived in USA for 2 years, japan for 2 years, and are back for 2 years... not everyone has that flexibility...
posted by thilmony at 5:40 PM on January 5, 2009

My niece is 2.5 and being raised with Chinese, French and English. Dad speaks to her in Chinese. Sitter speaks to her in Chinese. Mom speaks to her in English with some French. Mom and Dad speak French with some Chinese to each other.

She speaks (although she was delayed) Chinese mainly. She understand what people are talking about in English and French though.

Every adult I know in this sort of situation comes out fine.
posted by k8t at 5:41 PM on January 5, 2009

Our 3-year old boy hears French from his mother -- almost exclusively aside from summer stays in France. His French skills are lagging but coming right along -- just this evening he was babbling in French in a manner I have previously only heard from him in English.

It will come. Rest easy. Just keep talking to him as much as you can in English and as noted already…read, read, read. (Also, many 1¼ year old boys are not saying much of anything in any language, never mind two languages.)
posted by Dick Paris at 6:26 PM on January 5, 2009

How about playgroups where the other kids are also from bilingual families? I feel like most expats with kids are also trying to raise bilingual kids, and that would allow good friends for your son and an English environment- also hearing you or your wife communicate in English with the others in that situation.
Bilingual or international school, tutor, English speaking babysitter or maid, English daycare or homework help center...

Trips to English speaking places/events/restaurants/movies so he gets a grasp on why hes learning English and what it serves for.
posted by nzydarkxj at 6:29 PM on January 5, 2009

My husband is Spanish and I'm an American. When our daughter was less than a year old we moved to Spain. I spoke to her only in English and he used only Spanish. She was late in speaking, which is normal in bilingual kids. But she would only speak Spanish although she clearly understood my English. We moved back to the US when she was 4. Within 2 weeks, she had flipped and would only speak English although she clearly still understood Spanish. We sent her to a partial immersion school - which, as described above, is taught 1/2 day in the native language and 1/2 day in the target language. Her math and science classes were always taught in Spanish from Kindergarten through 8th grade. Within a couple of weeks of starting bilingual classes, she once again switched and for the first time, would speak both languages, responding with the appropriate one. Our experience is that you need to supplement the parent's speaking of the 2 different languages with schooling.

Best of luck.
posted by daneflute at 6:35 PM on January 5, 2009

Kid's brains are wired for language acquisition, up to about age 10 I believe (actual age is somewhat debatable last I learned). There's a lot of stuff going on behind the scenes; stuff you don't realize they're processing because you're not hearing the surface representations. Trust me, even if your kid isn't speaking in one language or the other, he is categorizing, processing, learning, applying aspects such as sound inventories specific to each language, word lengths, intonation and prosody patterns, syntax, word boundaries, morphemes, negations, contractions, sound alternations, and whole messes of other levels of acquisition. You're just focusing on the speech production part. Keep doing what you're doing. He's a sponge. He'll even figure out the bits you don't know and smooth over the inconsistencies. If you keep exposing him to enough practical stimulus, he'll end up a native speaker of everything available to him.
posted by iamkimiam at 7:27 PM on January 5, 2009

Someone I was previously clsoe with was born in Australia, but her parents were from Chile and they spoke little to no English in their household - growing up they only heard her speak Spanish until the day she went to school, where they worried she would be behind due to her lack of English, as they'd never heard her say anything other that small words in English. When she got to the other kids, she started speaking in Spanish, heard their English and switched languages much to her mothers amazement.

Apparently she picked it up from TV. Sounds like you are doing a great job, I wish I had had the same opportunity as your children. :)
posted by Admira at 8:32 PM on January 5, 2009

Just adding that I think its a good idea to avoid exposing him to just ANY English, or just any Spanish for that matter. So, just because a friend can speak a little English (but does so poorly), this isn't good just because its exposure. If you can, have people around him (and interacting with him) be proficient in the language they are least those who do so on a regular basis.
posted by hazel at 10:39 PM on January 5, 2009

The most important rule I learned during these years is to relax about it, all the time.

This was the most important thing I gained from asking a similar question a while back.

I also found this advice from an english/indian/singaporean linguist to be very comforting and contrary to the conventional wisdom I had always heard before.

On preview, I'd politely disagree with hazel based on what I was told by tractorfeed a student of child language acquisition.

Children are easily able to learn a language "correctly" even with incorrect input.

The child can sort it out.
posted by BinGregory at 10:58 PM on January 5, 2009

Thanks everybody for all the great answers and encouragement.
posted by signal at 3:50 AM on January 6, 2009

Final update from the OP:
For anybody else who stumbles upon this who also wants to raise a bilingual child: 8 years later, my son is fully bilingual in Spanish & English. He goes to an English immersion school, where most of his classes, except Spanish, Gym and Music, are in English.

I've always spoken to him in English, since before he was born, and he's always understood me, as well as English language TV and movies, but didn't really start speaking English until he started going to school. I guess being in an environment where the teachers spoke to you and expected you to answer in English did the trick.

He has a great accent in English and a ton of vocabulary. He speaks highly idiomatically, and picks up a lot of slang and sayings from YouTube, which he watches mainly in English. His YT channel is also mostly in English.

His bilingualism has been a big asset in school, as most of his classes are in English he has an edge over his less language proficient classmates.

Being able to speak to him in English in a mostly monolingual country like Chile is fun, it's like we have secret code, and it's helped bring us super close together. Yesterday he told me I was the most "relatable" person he knew.

My brother, who didn't speak English to his 2 older children, noticed our succes and started speaking exclusively to his smallest girl in English, and she, even before starting immersion school, speaks with the cutest American accent you could wish for in a 6 year old Chilena.

I've been 100% consistent about it, I've never spoken to him in Spanish, even though I get stares sometimes. It helps that English is a prestige language in Chile. I still get 'why do you speak to him in English? Are you American/British?' from nosy people, but I never let it affect me.

So it works! Do it, if you speak another language, teach your child. Be consistent but don't stress yourself or your child about it. Don't demand anything from them, and don't allow it to be a party trick, or make them self-conscious about it. Even if you get funny looks or passive-aggressive questions, soldier through. It's fun and you'll be giving a great gift to your children.
posted by LobsterMitten (staff) at 9:48 AM on March 28, 2017 [2 favorites]

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