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Raising Bilingual Kids
Raising a bilingual child is challenging. Yet, it’s not impossible and there are plenty of ways in which you can foster an environment for your child to become proficient in more than one language. The key is to remember that there are multiple ways to accomplish this and to keep an open mind to your own child’s wants and needs.
We interviewed two parents, Mark and Yuriko, who have successfully raised bilingual children here in Japan.
Mark is a father of a 17-year-old daughter attending a Japanese high school in rural Japan. He and his Japanese wife raised their daughter bilingually in Japan while spending months at a time in Mark’s home country, Australia.
Yuriko is a working mother to two daughters who both after attending university in the United States are now living and working in Japan. She raised her daughters bilingually moving back and forth between Tokyo and Seattle, Washington, USA with her American husband.
For all Mark, Yuriko and their spouses, raising their children to be bilingual was a priority. Mark and his wife felt that "being bilingual was a massive opportunity for work, for life, and for just enjoying being in Japan or being in Australia." Yuriko too, felt that language was a huge asset and "the one thing you can give your kids... Even if we are unable to leave our kids with money, we knew it was a skill that they could fall back on as a source of income." In addition, as non-native speakers in the other language, both Yuriko and her husband knew it was a lot of work to be proficient in a second language as an adult. They knew it was relatively easier to acquire another language when you are younger and as a result, focused on raising their children bilingually from the start.
Based on their interviews, here are 3 tips to keep in mind when raising your child to be bilingual:
1. Start your kids early
Both Yuriko and Mark exposed their children to English and Japanese from when they were babies. Mark spoke to his daughter in English while his wife spoke to her in Japanese. Yuriko and her husband sent both of their daughters to a Japanese preschool while living in the US and they spoke both English and Japanese to them in the home. Both Mark and Yuriko agreed that the earlier you get them started in both languages, the better.
Scientifically speaking, children’s brains are like sponges. According to a study conducted by Dr. Paul Thompson and his team at the UCLA Laboratory of Neuro Imaging, brain systems specialized in learning new languages grow rapidly from around age six until puberty. However, these linguistic brain areas experience a dramatic shutting down of growth from ages 11 to 15. So both advice from Mark and Yuriko are scientifically substantiated. The earlier you start your kids in learning a second or third language, the easier it will be for them and the more proficient they will be.
2. Create more opportunities for your kids to speak in the two languages
Sometimes, it can be better if these opportunities come from someone other than their parents and from activities; not formal lessons. For example, Yuriko sent her daughters to an English summer camp where they both absolutely thrived. Because of this experience, both her daughters were on board to move back to the US in order to better their English and eventually attend an international school back in Tokyo. Yuriko said that she believes "it is important for kids to have the opportunity to use both languages as much as possible and not just from their parents or studying at a desk. It is important to provide them with an environment where they have a chance to talk to all kinds of people in both languages; in school or in an activity where it is fun. International schools were great for both of my kids. I think that making parents do everything is not so effective."
Mark's daughter too, became more interested in learning English when she had more opportunities to speak it. Initially, his daughter had little interest in speaking English despite his attempts to teach her both informally at the dinner table and formally during bedtime story readings. They lived in the countryside of Shikoku, where no one spoke English; English just wasn't relatable for her. However, after Mark and his wife sent his daughter to a primary school in Australia for a couple months, it all changed. Mark recalls, "then, she had a lot of friends who were speaking in English so suddenly, English was cool." He said even after they got back to Japan, "speaking English was fun and it was like me and her had a secret language that we could talk to right in front of other people and we enjoyed that".
For Mark and his wife,
"It wasn't really difficult getting our daughter to speak both languages in that once she went to a primary school in Australia for a couple months, she realized the benefits of speaking English and being bilingual right away. Also, with my rafting company, we've always had guides or customers who are foreigners and so it's a bit different to other places in that quickly this tiny little Japanese girl could ask customers what they wanted and needed and then translate for the other staff. She had a special role by being bilingual."
While Yuriko and Mark both decided to temporarily send their kids to a school overseas, you don't have to send your kids overseas in order for them to find opportunities to speak their second language. You could also put your kids on a sports team in their second language or hire a babysitter who speaks their second language. You can create opportunities for them in ways that are compatible with your family's life.
3. There's no one path to bilingualism
There are many ways to raise kids to be bilingual. Yuriko recalls being encouraged to have one parent speak English and the other Japanese. This is exactly what Mark and his wife did with their daughter. However, Yuriko and her husband didn't do so and she explains, "We didn't do that I think mostly because I was lazy. When you are living your daily life, you want to communicate with the kids. Sometimes, you just don't take the time to patiently talk to them in just one language which may not be dominant to them."
Yuriko also remembers being told that because her daughters had to learn two languages at once, naturally, their language development may be slow. She said that while this turned out not to be true for her daughter, "...having that kind of advice helped us be less worried and more relaxed" as it assured her that a slower rate of development was not anything out of the ordinary for bilingual kids.
Stress less and cater to the needs of your children and the circumstances of your family's lifestyle. There's no single or "incorrect" way to help your child become bilingual.
CareFinder is committed to helping you foster a stress-free environment in which you can increase the opportunities for your kids to interact with people in their second language. Just like Mark and Yuriko shared from their experience, the more opportunities your children have to interact in the language naturally, the greater motivation and proficiency your children will have in both languages. With babysitters from over 60 countries, CareFinder babysitters are from all over the world and speak multiple languages. Hiring a bilingual babysitter can not only provide your child with more opportunities to practice their second language in a fun way but can also provide them with a great role model and motivation to speak many languages!