Colorado Springs and Denver were ranked by U.S. News & World Report in 2018 as the #2 and #3 best places in the country to live, respectively. In fact, people from all over the world live in Colorado, so of course it’s no surprise that 20% of the state’s residents ages 5 to 17 speak another language.
As the population in Colorado and around the U.S. grows and becomes more culturally diverse, parents and caregivers of all backgrounds want to understand how they can help their children thrive, especially as it relates to learning two or more languages. We put together a list of the questions we hear most often about raising bilingual children, and we asked a bilingual speech-language pathologist here at Children’s Colorado for the answers.
Is learning two languages at once bad or will it confuse my child?
Kids are actually born with the ability to learn more than one language and they do not become confused by learning more than one language at the same time. They may switch between languages if they are learning more than one, but it’s not a sign of confusion.
Does bilingualism cause delays in language and communication development?
Childhood bilingualism, or learning two languages at once as a child, does not harm communication development in any way. Language processing in bilingual children is the same as those who only speak one language. Bilingual children should also know the same amount of words and begin to combine words into phrases at the same time as those who only speak one language.
Are there benefits to being bilingual?
There are many benefits to speaking more than one language. Studies show that teaching a child a second language and switching between the two languages improves brain function in many areas, including mental flexibility. A result of bilingual parenting is that children are often better at planning, solving problems and staying focused than those who only speak one language.
My child has a communication delay. Does this mean I should only teach them one language?
Not at all. If given enough opportunity, kids can learn multiple languages just as well as they can learn one language. This is true even with communication delays. It’s also important to know that even if you decide to stop teaching your child your home language, their communication delay will still be present.
My child is mixing languages. What should I do?
Switching between languages is common for bilingual speakers. Sometimes, kids might use more than one language because it helps them better express their thought. Or they may simply be more experienced at communicating about a given topic in the other language. It’s important to remember that mixing languages does not typically occur because of laziness or confusion.
But if you feel that your child is switching languages because they do not know how to express themselves well enough in one language, you can repeat back what they said entirely in one language before you respond. For example, if your child says, "Quiero una orange," (I want an orange) you can repeat back, "¿Quieres una naranja? No hay naranjas. ¿Quieres uvas?" (You want an orange? We don't have oranges. Do you want grapes?)
Can my child become bilingual just by listening to other people speak a language?
To be fully bilingual, your child will need to practice speaking the language. If your child only listens or overhears the language, they will not have the opportunity to fully develop that language. It’s important to give your child practice understanding and using both languages.
Our family only speaks my home language in our home. Should I try to only speak English to get my child ready for school?
It isn’t necessary to teach your child English to prepare them for school. But it is helpful to make sure your child has a strong knowledge of your home language because it’ll help them learn English and ensure they are better prepared to succeed at school. It’s best to speak to your child in the language that you are most comfortable speaking to make sure they are hearing high-quality language with more complex vocabulary and grammar.
We live in the United States now. How important is it for my child to speak my home language?
It’s completely up to you. Raising a bilingual child won’t harm their development, and there are other things you might want to consider, as well. For example, are there important family members who do not speak English, such as parents, uncles, aunts or grandparents? Will your child miss out on parts of their culture without a strong knowledge of your home language? Answering these questions can help you make a decision.