Raising Multilingual Kids – Practical Advice for Multilingual Families

Bilingualism (speaking two languages) and Multilingualism (speaking multiple languages) are the norm in lots of households around the world and indeed around Ireland. The 2016 census showed that more than 600,000 Irish residents speak a foreign language at home. So although we might think a person speaking more than one language is somewhat unusual, multilingual families are in fact the norm with more than half of the world’s population speaking more than one language everyday.

Benefits of speaking more than one language

  • Research has shown that children learning two languages at a young age often have better problem-solving skills.
  • Research has also shown that speaking a second language can mean bilingual children are more focused, better at multi tasking and have a greater attention span than their monolingual classmates.
  • It is now also known that when a child has learned two languages, it is then easier for them to pick up a third or even fourth language.
  • Learning to speak the family language builds important links for your child to their cultural heritage.
  • Speaking more than one language is a valuable skill to have later in life, in the workplace and when travelling.

What to expect if your child understands or speaks more than one language

  • Your child may know/use more words in one language than another.
  • They may use words from both languages in one sentence, or mix sentences from both languages in their conversation (called code switching).
  • When they first learn a new language, they may go through a ‘silent’ period (when they listen but don’t talk).
  • They may appear to have a preference for one language over the other.
  • They may be fluent in using one language and not the other.
  • It is also important to note that speaking more than one language does not cause language delays or difficulties.

Ways to support your child in learning more than one language

  • Continue to speak your native language with your child (even if each parent has a different native language).
  • Speaking your own language will lead to a better interaction with your child. It will help your child to learn different or new languages if they have a well developed first language. Speaking to your child in your native language means you are the best the model of the rules and features of your language, and they can then use this map to help with any new languages they may learn in the future.
  • Talk with your child in your own language about what you are doing in everyday activities (eg. Mealtimes, bath time, dressing).
  • Have fun with rhymes, songs, games and stories from your own language.

When to see a speech and language therapist

There can often be conflicting and confusing advice about bilingualism and speech and language difficulties. You may be concerned that your child isn’t saying very much compared to their monolingual or multilingual peers. Trust your instincts and if you feel you need to see someone for reassurance, then do. Ages and stages should be looked at as general guidelines and it may be more important to keep note of changes and observing steady progress when it comes to learning new vocabulary in either language. As a general rule of thumb:

  • By 18-24 months you would hope to see your child using approximately 50 words (for bilingual children these 50 words might be spread across two languages).
  • By 18 months, you should be able to understand around 25% of what your child says and by 2 years, approximately 50-70% of what they say.

Common Myths and Advice to Ignore

There can often be inaccurate and sometimes incorrect advice given to parents of multilingual children from teaching staff, doctors and other professionals, which can make things confusing and unclear. So below are three pieces of advice which are untrue and unhelpful:

  1. ‘Drop a language, being bilingual is confusing the child’ – This is simply not true and there is no evidence to suggest that learning a second language causes language difficulties.
  2. ‘Speak English to your child as that’s the only way they will learn it’ – Fundamentally, parents should speak their native language to their children. Why? Because a parent’s native language is the language in which they are likely to be most skilled. So when a parent speaks their native language, they can model good quality language to their children and support their language development appropriately. Take, for example, the rules of grammar and vocabulary. Parents may often have a really good understanding and use of English grammar, but they will still always understand the rules of, and speak, their native language to an incomparably high standard
  3. ‘Children learning two languages are bound to be slower and they’ll figure it out in their own time.’ – Just like children who speak one language, a percentage of bilingual children will present with language difficulties and may need intervention to support them in developing their language skills. If you are concerned and feel your child is not developing their language as expected, consult with a speech and language therapist who can provide you with advice and support and arrange an assessment if appropriate.

Find more practical advice about speech and language development here.

This article was also published on Family Friendly HQ.

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