Bilingual education

Bilingual education for your child

The best way to raise a bilingual child is to expose them to both languages at the same time. That means,do not favor one language over the other. Simply speak naturally to your child in both languages. After the age of nine months you can actively teach your child the two languages by demonstrating what things are around the house. I found that before nine months, there is no great need to teach them, but rather speak to them naturally. That is bilingualism.

This post is a little long so I added some organization to it. Here are the major topics I will cover.

Why I know about raising a child with two languages

Here are my credentials for writing about bilingualism.

  • I have a daughter who is both American and Polish like me. We live in Krakow, Poland. We are raising her in two languages.
  • My mother was raised bilingual with English and Ukrainian.
  • My father was raised bilingual with English and Polish.
  • I was not raise with a multilingual education but had to learn languages as an adult. I now teach and learn languages in Europe.
  • I teach bilingual children as well as adults.

I do not profess to be the world expert on bilingualism or bilingual education, however, these are my personal experiences with bilingual children both as a father and a teacher.

I do not profess to be the world expert on bilingualism, however, these are my personal experiences with bilingual children both as a father and a teacher.

Real bilingual education mistakes stories

How not to teach children languages

I believe, and linguistic science confirms that people learn from mistakes. If you are an adult language learner, one of the best ways to learn is to make mistakes. It is our mistakes that teach us. Similarly, the Ancient Greeks favored tragedy over comedies. They preferred this because they believed we can learn not only from our mistakes but from other people’s mistakes.

Therefore, read and learn. I will give you five stories or examples of families that do not raise their children bilingual.

Bilingual education story one

I meet a British couple while on vacation in Greece. They were raising their children in Greece. They choose Greek to be their children’s first language. This decision was because the environment they was growing up in. They were given this language advice, that if a child learns two languages they can easily be confused. Therefore, it is better to learn one language at a time. This linguistic advice came from a local linguistic expert. Therefore, their intentions were to teach them English later, in school with the other children. This is wrong thinking. It is wrong because the children will learn their second languages, English, as a non-native speakers. In fact, they will never get those years back, and lose the window of opportunity to make them truly bilingual. For their whole life English will be stored in the second language area of their brain, rather than their primary language area of their brain. They will never master their second language and never truly be bilingual, even if they sound like they are fluent. Brain imagining confirms this and so does my personal experience.

Bilingual education story two

Another mistake in raising a child with two languages is being too passive. For example, I have meet a couple of American fathers in Poland who teach English to foreigners. Yet, amazingly these teachers are very passive about teaching their children English. Their children understand English, but speak Polish. That is the children do not want to use one of their two languages. Why? Children are children.

The children’s fathers are more poets or backpacker type teachers. They love their children very much, but when it comes to playing an active role in teaching them English, they are more passive. They enjoy talking philosophy or watching the football match on TV with their ex-pat friends in a pub than being active in their kids language learning. They wrongly assume, their children will meet English anyway. This is a wrong assumption. Why? Because kids gravitate toward the path of least resistance. Unless you actively guide children with love, patience and time, their learning during these critical years will be less than optimal. The result is they will not be perfectly bilingual.
Bilingual education story three

I also meet a British father who thought it was cool to speak Polish his son. In my opinion this is very selfish as this child will not learn English like his father learned English. I was doing this myself a little. I love speaking in different languages. So I was practicing my Polish sometimes with my daughter sometimes or mixing English with other languages. However, one of my students point this out to me. I was unaware I was doing this. I do not know why I was not aware, it was my fault.

I think most parents’ mistakes are things they are not aware of consciously. If you want your child to be bilingual you have to be proactive. If you and your spouse speak several languages, then each one of your needs to speak in the language(s) that you are the strongest in speaking. Otherwise, your child will speak with an accent. In fact, I met children growing up in multilingual homes with permanent accents because their parents did not teach them in the right way.

On the other hand, another point which might sound like it contradicts some of what I said above, if you live in a country, favor the other languages. Why? Because all the children’s friends, school and TV will give them immersion. To be bilingual children your children need your help with the non local language. If you are not worried about your child’s linguistic development, become worried. Quite your job. Stay at home with your child and work with them. Better than saving for an Ivy league school, is teach and love them when they are young. This goes for fathers and mothers. What would you, yourself rather be a polyglot with multiply passports and experience with many cultures or have a piece of paper that says you have a degree? If I had to choose I would choose the former. However, the irony is if your child is a polyglot then they will have a better chance in getting into a top school. So stay at home if you can and have your kids love languages.

Does this sound like radical advice? It is not. I do not have a cushy life. However, I hope to raise happy children. What is more important to you, your important career and money or your children?

Bilingual education story four

A couple of my neighbors are rich. One is a Lawyer and one is a Doctor. They have both asked me should I teach their children who are around two years old English. I said yes, right now, start today. Get a private tutor, it does not have to be me. Or put them in a class with native speakers. There are English schools for the young. There is an English church in town and an English story time at the American bookstore and many other opportunities for the kids to have immersion even without spending money. Get involved in your child’s language learning. They said, ah they will learn it in high school, and they took a vacation (the third that year) instead or investing in their child. Again, I think this is very selfish.

Bilingual education story five

I was teaching a bilingual native speaker in English and Polish. The girl was ten years old and lived in the USA until she was eight. However, since moving to Poland she was lagging behind in her English language development. This was because since she moved to Poland and attended school her parents and friends spoke only in the Polish language.

Her mother was determined that the way I teach her daughter was with grammar drills. This is because this is the way she learned English as a none native speaker. Her mother wanted this naturally bilingual fluent native speaking child to spend my lessons with her doing a lot of book work. Book work meant learning grammar forms and pen and paper, rather than conversation. For example, practicing the present perfect tense or the difference between passive verse active speech and English grammatical constructions.

The child so disliked languages learning she would not do her homework and complained all the time, and then said she did not like English. This is the wrong way to teach a native speaker bilingual child. A child like that needs to learn vocabulary naturally and just practice and enjoy the language. Read books at her level and have fun with the language. She should read books like Sweet valley high and Nancy Drew or movies like Princess Diaries or learn about animals and the world in English. She should not be punished with boring grammar and book work, while in the presence of a native speaker. These grammar books were made for non-native speakers to learn a language as an adult. A bilingual child’s brain functions totally different. Eventually I taught her my way. That is, lots of natural conversation and just get her using and enjoying being bilingual, watching films using the Internet in English and talking about it during the lessons as well as some vocabulary work. Her mother was from the old school and did not like it and wanted her to return to grammar books. I eventually gracefully gave up as I did not need the stress.

What can we learn from these bilingualism failures above

I think the lessons from the above stories are as follows:

  • Bilingual children should learn both languages simultaneously, with equal development with both languages. Do not worry about measuring their linguistic development with their peers because they are special bilingual children.
  • Do not assume a child will become perfectly bilingual naturally just because one or two parents speak a language. You need to be active and not passive in the teaching process.
  • Put your child’s development before you career and lifestyle and education in school. You, and not your school or any experts are responsible for your child’s development.
  • Do not teach bilingual children in methods made for non-native speakers. Make it fun not work.

Bilingual experts

In my opinion ‘experts’ are often full of ideas and ego. Therefore, they lose their objectively. In the past psychologist were recommending the approach mentioned above, that is teaching a child one language at a time. They were wrong for many reasons.
Children have a window to learn languages in a native way. Once this door is closed it is closed forever. Even if you are fluent in a second language as an adult you will store the information in a different area of the brain and it only mimics real fluency.
Children that learn two or more languages as a child’s brain develops a more flexible structure than non-bilingual children. In fact, these children have a greater protection against senility in older life and mental decline. They are also in general just smarter. How do I know this? Modern studies on the brain confirm this.
A child might initially develop linguistically slower learning multiply languages at once, but this challenges their brain and they develop compensatory strategies for learning a language. Therefore, by the age of ten they are equal or greater in both languages.

My parents did not make my trilingual for this reason. They were advises by experts to only teach English. The experts were wrong. While the experts are trying to give a definition to the word bilingual you and be focusing on teaching your child Spanish or another target language.

Raising child with a bilingual education

How to give your child a bilingual education even if you are not multilingual.
With all children with love and patience. They are only children.I do not believe in the hard way, at least not for the first twenty-five years. From zero to eight is when IQ is determined in a child as the child’s brain prunes unstimulated connections. From eight to eighteen a child’s emotional stability is determined. If you mess it up during these two phases they will spend the next twenty years of their life trying to recover. Therefore, with love and patience try to be good to them.

The first thing to remember is, they are only children. So try not to be goal oriented when working with them. Simply be there and spend time with them and have fun with them.

Concrete ways to raise a bilingual child
That being said here are some concrete ways to raise a child to be bilingual is you do not speak a two languages yourself.

Bilingualism-a bilingual education for children is fun
  • YouTube is in my opinion the best resource. It has short clips with native speakers which are made for kids.I use YouTube as a create source of multilingual sounds for them to digest. Kids get addicted to this early and can watch three or more hours a day starting at about age one. Next move to kids movies in your target language. Children love to watch the same thing over and over again.
  • I also love books. Reading every night from age 3 months or earlier, in different languages. Even if you are not a native in the language, reading to them with an accent is better than nothing, just my opinion. I think some linguists will cringe at this.
  • Enroll them in a bilingual day care. Or if your target language is Spanish for example, a Spanish day care even if you live in the USA. If they have friends that speak the target language bilingualism will be more natural.
  • Perhaps this is my best advice. Hire a native speaking tutor. Sell your car if you can not afford it. There is nothing more important then loving your child. Use local classified ads that exist in every city. There are always students from other countries that will tutor your child at ten dollars or less. If you spent thirty dollars a week on your child your child would be bilingual for life. If you live in the USA are you telling me you can not afford thirty dollars a week? I live in Poland and I live on only a few hundred dollars a month. Stop making excuses and start investing in your child while they are young, rather than saving for that big high in the sky Ivy league education that in my opinion is not worthy as much as enriched cognitive function of your child’s brain while it is still flexible.

Use your imagination. If you are proactive. Be positive and relaxed about it. Although I make a strong argument that you should make introduce bilingualism to your child, there are no shoulds in life. But why not introduce bilingualism into your child’s life and enrich it.

Here is a series of posts I wrote on languages and bilingualism .  Here another site worthy of consideration on bilingual education.

You are smarter than you think. Look in your town and with multimedia resources to teach your child more than one language. If you have a desire, you can have a bilingual child and it will enrich their lives.

Author: Mark Biernat

I live in with family between two worlds, US and Europe where I create tools for language learning. If you found my site you probability share my passion to be a life long learner. Please explore my site and comment.

23 thoughts on “Bilingual education”

  1. So am I messed because I wasn’t immersed into English until I turned 3?

    I always considered English as my weaker language, though I speak the language fluently. I’m not as articulate nor am I easy with its usage, though. Despite this setback, however, I have managed to do well for myself in terms of communicating with my peers and writing professionally.

    Most of the time, I feel that I am not as focused (comfortable) on the usage of this vernacular as I am with my native language.

    I feel sorta jack of all trades, but master of none.

    So what do you suggest for that dilemma?

    1. If you did not get immersed until 3 you may have started off with not the greatest advantage but 3 is not too late. If you read in English this is the best way. Reading is one thing that will build fluency as it is an active not passive activity. I do not mean read the Internet or work stuff, I mean things that you love, 500 page novels a few a week. If you are still weak in English there could be other things going on. However, I have known people who started English at 3 and 5 and have problems and others do not.

    2. Age 3 is not too late, read a lot, it is one of the best ways to improve your fluency as you will be exposed to proper grammar and lots of rich vocabulary.

  2. I think there is no “too late”. My friend is Croatian, and she was six when she was put in a Hungarian kindergarten (and since then total immersion). I don’t know how much you know about the Hungarian language, but it’s enough to know that it works completely differently from every other language. But she did it, she speaks as everybody else. All I’m saying is that there is no “too late”, though I admit the sooner the better.

    1. Agreed. Never too late. I think the main thing with early bilingual education and latter is the degree of accent they have.

  3. From my eldest daughter who is 12, she was raised with 2 languages at the same time, her father Thai and myself English, but it was recommended by a linguist to not use the 3rd language, Chinese, due to it might confuse the child, so I used mainly tapes and songs. her 3rd language isn’t as developed, difficult to converse, though her accent is much better than mine!

    However, with my younger daughter and son, I’m now using all languages, wrong or right pronounciation (not a native Thai or Chinese speaker), and found that the little ones substitute some chinese words into their sentences! and have no trouble with their thai accent, as they are getting that from school and other family members.

    little kids brains are like a house, fill it as much as you can when they are young!

    Thanks for the post!

    1. I live in Europe and I meet kids that know 3 or 4 languages no problem. The brain flexible when it is young, if you miss this window of language opportunity, it will take many years to make up for it.
      I am a linguist and I think your linguist if wrong. The child might at first be confused a little but begins to create order our of chaos and their brain moves to a much higher level, basically they will be smarter.

  4. I am a 22 year old bilingual, I can speak English french and Portuguese. I always spoke Portuguese at home was only majorly exposed to English when I joined school at the age of 3. At the moment I cannot differentiate which of my languages I am better at as I believe i have mastered both of them. The only language I see as second is “French” because I learnt it at a much later age of 12 which I am now close to getting my masters in it. So through personal experience can say that starting a language at the age of 3 is not too late at all. It depends on the intelligence of the child and fundamentally how good of a learner he becomes.

    1. Age three is not too late and I am very impressed with your trilingualism. It is never too late to learn a language. I think the optimal time is under the age of 3 but from 3 to 8 there is a lot of opportunity to be perfectly fluent bilingual.
      I still think native speaker sounds are formed under the age of 3.

  5. Hi,
    I moved to France at the age of 4 with my family (English being my mother tongue), and went to a French school right from the start. I don’t really remember learning to speak French, it just happened suddenly after appx 3 months. One minute I wasn’t speaking at all, and a few months later I was getting the best marks in the class for French dictation.

    At home we always spoke English, and French was practically forbidden. We had English TV, and my dad, an English language teacher, made me follow the English curriculum in the UK. I hated it at the time! Who likes writing essays at the weekend, and reading out loud every night? But it was all worth it – I got an A in English when I sat GCSEs as an external candidate, and am pleased to say that now at the age of 25 nobody can tell whether I am English or French, either when I speak or write, and this landed me a pretty good job 😀

    And it doens’t end there: I studied German up until the age of 18, and Spanish at uni. I even spent a year in Spain so my Spanish is pretty fluent. It might sound like I’m boasting, but I don’t give myself any credit for speaking 4 languages. That’s just what happens when you move abroad at the age of 4!

    So for anyone out there who might have concerns about their children’s bilinguism, this is what needs to be done:
    – move your kids abroad before the age of 5
    – send them to a local school
    – speak to them in English at home, never in the local language
    – only watch TV in English and read books in English
    – get your kids to follow the English language curriculum from back home
    – and bingo, you have a bilingual kid

    1. This is very good advice. I am impressed. I have meet many Americans in Europe that speak the local language at home and their kids grow up speaking English with an accent and with a weak vocubulary. You need to speak English at home if you are living abroad.
      Also watch TV in English as well as Youtube etc.

  6. I speak German fluently, but with like tons of grammatical mistakes, and I am teaching my 2 year old son german, I have 2 questions:
    Do you think that it is a good idea for me to teach him? I am afraid that he will inherit my mistakes.
    Is it normal that he only knows about 50% of what he knows in Spanish our native language (keep in mind i only see him after work and only when I’ve had a good day) For example he construct sentences using Spanish, or Spanish sentence structure with German words.

    1. I think it is great you are teaching your son German. But be more of a teacher than a native speaker. That means expose him to as much German native speaker tools and material like YouTube and TV and Children’s books. You can read to him. If you do this it will be fine. I do this with my daughter and Polish. If he hears it for 3 hours and uses it now and then with you no problem. But I think bad grammar is better than no grammar. The more exposure the better do not be afraid to teach him this language.

  7. I am a greek-american raised in Greece. I attended an american elementary and a greek-american high school. my first degree is from a greek university and my masters from the U.S I am bilingual and I know a bit of french and very little bit of german and italian.

    my daughter is almost 6 and she is totally bilingual. I speak english to her, i find american girls to come babysit her and she watches tv mostly in english. she goes to a greek school but they have english every day for bilingual kids. (there is only one more bilingual kid in her class but the rest have also been much exposed to the language) my daughter does not yet know how to read or write yet in either language.

    I want her to start learning spanish for a girl who is a native speaker. if she likes it i will also take spanish lessons.

    My question is whether it’s too soon for her to start a third language?

    1. Not at all. I study languages teach languages and am a father of a bilingual daughter myself. It is not too early to start another languages.

      The international children I know speak three or more languages without a problem and only adds to their confidence and makes them unique in a positive way. They are less obsessed with silly things teenage girls get caught up into and more using their brain. I know a girl who speaks Polish, Arabic and English another that speaks Polish, Hungarian and English. I know others that speak many more languages. It does not matter as long as it is fun and not a burden for your daughter. These girls survived adolescence better than their peers in my opinion.

      Studies show that learning languages young makes your brain more flexible when you are older and you maintain your cognitive function. At age six she still has a chance of being a accent-less native speaker.

      There might be a time of struggle but her brain will reorganizes at a higher level and adapt eventually and she will have a unique advantage in life. Better than sent your daughter to Harvard is to have her speaking several languages. Languages are fun and builds confidence similar to playing chess. Watching videos and movies and listening to music in foreign languages opens you up as an adult or a child to another world.

  8. Hi, well I hope you can help me. I don’t know in which category I fit in. My parents are Argentinean, and I was born in the States. We lived there till I was 5. I could understand when they spoke in Spanish, but I used to speak in English. However, although I was more fluent in English, I wasn’t as fluent as an English speaking child of my age. To make things worse, we moved to Argentina and I’ve been living here since. When I arrived, my parents sent me to an English institute where I didn’t fit in since there wasn’t a level for me, I was placed with bigger children and I got embarrassed by knowing more. I stopped speaking in English until I was ten, and after that I’ve been learning the language, but I feel that I am “learning” it instead of living it. I’ve tried with native teachers, but I still feel I don’t control the language. I read, watch movies, everything in English, but I feel like I’ve hit a plateau. I’ve just started some German classes, and I notice the difference with my English knowledge but I don’t know how to improve any further. I’m opened to any suggestion! And if there is any piece of advice for German learning I would be very thankful too. Best wishes, and thank you for reading. B.

    1. You need to be patient. English language learners read an intermediate stage faster than other languages for various reasons, however, to become really native fluent it is harder than other languages as it is so diverse and widely used and there are so many idioms. You have to be patient. If you could live in an English-speaking country for a while or in some way interact with a native speaker on a regular basis this will help. Movies and books are great as is the radio.

      Eventually with years you will learn most of the idioms and usage. Your grammar seems fine, at least compared to other writers many native speakers so I would not worry about that. More focus on pronunciation at this point as if you reduce your accent you will most likely sound like a native. Americans use basic grammar for example, but can tell foreigner by their accent. Accent work takes work though.

      I have to reduce my accent in Polish. It is possible but you need to practice with audio over and over until you get it right. If you are young it will fall into place anyway with more exposure to tha langauge.

  9. Any advice would be appreciated.
    My eldest son was 5 months old when we moved to Germany from England. Since then we have had another son born in Germany. They are now almost 3 and almost 2 (all bar 3 or 4 months) and have been attending Kindergarten in Germany for around 7 to 9 months (5 days a week, 6 hours a day). My husband and I are both English only speakers so they only hear English at home. They both understand German well and have many German words, the eldest speaks more English but he did not attend Kita until he was 2 years old. The youngest started German daycare at 1 so I would say would be more natural in both German and English. I am so proud of them being able to understand both languages and don’t want them to lose this skill, however, we are moving to Vancouver, Canada in 6 weeks time.
    I am able to speak a small amount of German but only to the end of level A1. My husband knows only a few words. Is it possible to keep their German going through TV and films? I am worried through watching only TV that they will not practise pronouncing words and sentences. They obviously cannot read and I find reading childrens books really difficult in German as I don’t understand them enough to read with any expression.
    We have thought about letting the German go and aiming to get them into French Immersion school at 5 but I am told these are very popular so I can’t guarantee it. Daycare in general is very expensive in Vancouver, I would assume that German speaking daycare would be even more so.
    I’m so worried they will lose the ability to speak 2 languages. Any ideas or experience would be appreciated. Thank you.

    1. Hats off to you for keeping them bilingual. This is what we did with my daughter when we moved back to the USA. Films and TV. Then we made friend with Polish speaking families in the area so the kids can have play dates.
      In Poland we had a tutor come twice a week when she was learning Chinese.

      I would pay for a tutor to keep up with German if you can afford it. Even once a week and make them study. They will complain but it will open their brains and world more than going to Harvard. Do not ever confuse school with your education.

      I would pay for a tutor, get them books and songs and CDs and movies and computer games, I love computer games in different languages.

      I konw they are young and not ready for books, and computers but songs alone are good. They will fall behind but if you can get play date friends and tutors they need not to.

      You cna learn German and speak it to them even more, even if you have an accent. My wife has an accent in English but speaks to our daughter and she has a British Accent as she love Peppa Pig and Clipper the dog so much. She picked up a lot of words from there.

      Try Peppa pig in German. It is great for vocabulary.

  10. How do I raise my 4 children in Arabic and English. Live in Australia but my kids understand but don’t speak it as much except a few sentences here and there. Oldest is 10 and youngest is 4. How do we correct this? My first language is Arabic fluent and I speak English excellent as well but husband isn’t, he is more fluent in english and speaks less Arabic. I feel like I have let my kids down by not making them speak from when they were young. Is it too late? The older two get annoyed when I make them respond in Arabic. The younger two don’t.

    1. You have to raise the to speak Arabic. It is a language that is important in the world. Like English or Chinese or French or Spanish Arabic is an international world language. Do not let them be upset with you for not teaching them. I say this only to motivate you of course.
      They are at a perfect age. Speak to them in Arabic even if your husband speaks only English. Get a tutor, I did for my daughter and they could watch fun things like movies in Arabic but most important you speak to them and make them understand how important this is.

      If they know how great their culture is maybe the ten-year old will get inspired. I was very curious about the world at that age and loved my heritage. They will protest and complain but who cares.

      My friends that learned other languages, they complained and are now glad they speak it.

      So you have to sell them a little with sugar and a little with vinegar, that is gradually guide them to learn a little more and more.

      Ten is not too old, it is young. You can have native Arabic speakers to communicate with under your roof. Try to get a tutor maybe as it will be different if it is coming from someone else. You can check Gumtree for tutors in Arabic or even on Skype as long as the older one gets some home work. It will be better than sending them to a good university.

  11. My son was born in the US and is now 12 months. Both my husband and I moved to the US from Germany 5 years ago. We speak both English and German but when at home we only speak German to each other and our son. So far we have been speaking to to him in English whenever we are on play dates, swim class, at the doctor’s office, etc. So we speak English to him pretty much anytime we leave the house and somebody else is around who might not understand German. We thought that this way he would be exposed to the official language and in the long run will understand that he needs to speak English to others so they can understand him. Recently, a friend has warned us that we should only speak German to him no matter where we are otherwise we would confuse him. Is this correct? Should we use only German when speaking to him and English for everyone around him? We do not want to confuse him but we want others to understand what we say to him.

    1. I think you are on the right track. This is what we do. We speak Polish to our daughter all the time at home and in public at Wholefoods or in the park everywhere. She is five and it does not confuse her because kids naturally separate the languages via thousands of years of human evolution teaching them to accommodate various languages.

      I recommend finding a school. We send our daughter to an all day Polish school on the weekends. It is a real pain to drive and wait for her as it is far away, but it is worth it. We go to a Starbucks and work for like seven hours on the weekends. Or something that is connected to a structured learning. Also vacation in Europe etc. Or you can get a tutor. But I highly recommend you maintain the bilingualism like you do because it affects IQ and brain flexibility.

      I personally do not care what others do not understand what we are saying around me.

      However, I live in Tampa, Florida and I think at the playground and at her school English speaking is a minority, really. I live in an nice area too, upscale, but people are from Latin America, Asia and India and the Middle East and Europe, so everyone is from somewhere else. America is based on this and to speak another language in public even around others in my area is very acceptable and has a cool factor too it.

      Maybe your in a different demographics then I. But Tampa, Florida it is like the UN or EU at least.

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