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The Secret to Raising a Bilingual Child

One of the greatest gifts you can give your child is the gift of bilingualism. Why you ask? Being bilingual can open so many doors and help you throughout your life. So before we dive into the secret, let’s take a look at some of the benefits of raising a bilingual child, as well as the nuts and bolts of doing so: parent resources, a few of the methods, and crafting a plan.

Benefits of Being Bilingual

There are so many benefits to being bilingual! A second language can help you in every area of your life from your career to your health to your relationships (via emotional connections). Curious? Read on!


Fluency in two languages doesn’t just help you travel abroad with ease; it can help you in your career. A second language might also help you earn more for doing the same job as your monolingual coworker. (6) The additional language skill can even create employment opportunities where there might not otherwise be one. (6) And knowledge of more than one language can give you an edge when competing against other candidates for the same position. (6)

Deeper Understanding

If you are fortunate enough to have parents from different countries, being bilingual helps you connect on a deeper level with your roots. Fluency in both languages helps you communicate with your relatives as well as understand the untranslatable words often connected to the food, dances, and music of a culture. If biliterate, you can consume literature written in one of your native languages without losing any of the nuances and subtleties that can be written out of even the best translations.

Better Brain Function

Did you know that being bilingual can even make you more creative and better at problem solving? (2) Even though a bilingual person is speaking in only one language, both languages are activated in the brain. And the brain needs to resolve this conflict, which helps the brain work through “mental puzzles.” (6)

Because bilinguals navigate the world in two different languages, they become adept at switching back and forth between the two languages by learning to shut out distractions in order to concentrate on the language. As a result, bilinguals to become good multitaskers because multitasking isn’t really possible; when we multitask, we simply switch quickly between two or more tasks. (5)

Another cognitive benefit of functioning in two languages is better at making decisions. Our thoughts are expressed in language; it should not be surprising that being bilingual affects they way we organize thoughts. Studies have shown that the parts of bilingual people’s brains “devoted to memory, reasoning, and planning are larger than those of monolinguals.” (3) And decisions made using our second language tend to be “less biased, more rational, and more systematic.” (3) In sum, bilinguals take favorable and more rational risks.

Different Perspectives

Ties to a language and the corresponding geographies will give bilinguals insight into topics affecting those areas that monolinguals might not have. But more than that, speakers of two languages often sound differently and even perceive themselves differently, depending on the language they are speaking.

New to me … I learned while writing this post that bilinguals “literally see the world differently.” Those who speak two or more languages can apparently perceive differences in colors that monolingual speakers cannot! (2)

Brain Health

Bilinguals who suffer from dementia are diagnosed an average of four years later than the average monolingual speaker. (4)


Methods of Raising a Bilingual Child

It’s really not enough to speak to your child in two languages and expect that they will be fluent in both. Afterall, “A goal without a plan is just a wish.” (1) Experts on raising bilingual children recommend choosing one of several tried and true methods. A brief description of the most commonly used methods follows below.

But to better understand the methods, a brief explanation of “majority language” and “minority language” would be helpful. The majority language is the language spoken by the majority of the inhabitants of country (or region within a country). The minority language then is a language different then the majority language spoken in a country (or region within a country). (7)

One Parent, One Language

If one parent is fluent in the majority language and the other parent is fluent in the minority language, each parent speaks their native language to the child. This ensures that the child is exposed to both languages at home; however, the child will likely be exposed to the minority language less than to the majority language.

Minority Language at Home

This method requires the child to use the majority language at school and at most places outside of the home; however, at home, the child uses only the minority language. This method works well for families whose first language is not the majority language of the country or region in which they live.

Living Abroad

Should you be so fortunate as to have the opportunity to live abroad, your child would have the benefit of learning a second language in school and everywhere outside of the home. Homelife would be reserved for teaching the parents’ native language.

Language Immersion Schools

With enough hours logged, a child who studies in a language immersion school can become bilingual. The child learns a minority language in school, while outside of school hours, the child uses the majority language.

Resources for Parents Bringing Up a Bilingual Child

There are so many benefits of being bilingual that if two languages can be spoken and taught to a child, it makes sense to do so. But the thought of raising a bilingual child can be daunting … it’s a tremendous commitment! And it can be confusing as to how to go about it.

Fortunately, there are several very good books on how to raise a bilingual child that further explain the above methods. If you feel strongly about raising your child in a bilingual home, but don’t know where to start, I recommend you begin by reading a book on the subject. Most books on the subject provide some basic information, including the four main strategies for creating a bilingual environment for your little one; and as with most things in life, having a plan in place will help you to stay committed to your goal.

I’ve selected two books because I’ve had a few exchanges with each of the authors and think very highly of them. Both authors have personal experience in raising bilingual children. And each is passionate about helping other parents raise bilingual children. I think you’ll find their insights extremely valuable.

Maximize Your Child’s Bilingual Ability (Adam Beck)

Adam has a popular blog, entitled Bilingual Monkeys and a forum, called Bilingual Zoo, for parents to exchange ideas. And he offers a free newsletter in which he discusses lots of issues that are important to parents interested in raising bilingual children. The author also has first-hand experience raising two bilingual children who speak both Japanese and English; his role in their bilingual home was to provide the exposure to English, the minority language.

Adam’s book, Maximize Your Child’s Bilingual Ability, has two parts: perspectives and principles. The second part focuses on the “how to” aspect of rearing a child who will become fluent in two or more languages. One of his main points that really resonated with me is that for a child to become bilingual there must be both exposure and need. This guidebook weaves together Adam’s personal experiences of raising his own bilingual children with research on the subject, which together will help you devise a plan for raising your children to be bilingual.

Bringing Up a Bilingual Child (Rita Rosenback)

Rita Rosenback raised two multilingual children. In addition, she has a blog and runs a private Facebook group, which encourages members to share questions and answers on topics relating to raising a bilingual (or multilingual) child. Rita also holds regular sessions through the group to present certain topics of interest to parents of bilingual children and to answer related questions.

In Bringing Up a Bilingual Child, Rita discusses seven C’s: communication, confidence, commitment, consistency, creativity, culture, and celebration. Each of these principles serve a purpose in helping parents to create a nurturing environment for their children in a bilingual home. The book is a practical guide geared toward those starting their journey of raising a bilingual child; it will help you craft an action plan to help your child to become bilingual.

Crafting a Plan for a Bilingual Home

Start by selecting one of the methods listed above that will work for your family. Next, determine the amount of time your child will need to be exposed to the minority language (each day). According to experts on raising bilingual children, exposure to the minority language approximately 30-40% of a child’s waking hours; however, more recently I have seen recommendations of 40-50%. (9) That’s a lot of hours to fill!

Amount of Exposure by Age

Newborns, who generally sleep 16 hours per day, will need almost three hours and fifteen minutes of exposure to the minority language to meet the 40% rule. But keep in mind that it’s much easier to expose an infant to the minority language as you can talk, sing, and read to a baby with no resistance from them.

Infants and toddlers sleep 14 hours on average. To meet the 40% rule for them, you’ll need to build in four hours of minority language exposure. As children get older and life gets demanding, parents are often tempted to plop children in front of the television in order to get a few things done … be it cooking a meal, throwing in a load of laundry, or even showering! To the extent possible, try to avoid doing this with infants especially because it’s not just the number of hours of exposure to the minority language the matters, it’s also the quality of the time. Infants learn language by listening to and interacting with people – social interaction with people – “infants do not readily learn language from television.” (8) Just as with a newborn, while your child is awake, some of the best ways to give them exposure to the minority language is simply by talking, singing, and reading to them.

Ensuring enough exposure to the minority language gets trickier as children get older. For example, if you live in the U.S., and your child speaks English in school for eight hours, and they sleep for ten to twelve hours, they should really only use that minority language in the home. As regards homework, you can discuss the English homework in the minority language, but it will likely need to be completed in English. And of course, as your child gets older, there is the strong possibility that they will want to “be like their friends” and speak English at home …

Squeeze in Minority Language Exposure & Interaction

When you come home tired from a long day at the office, coming up with fun ways to engage in this other language can feel like more work. So you’ll need to devise ways to incorporate the second language into your home life.

Start with a Plan

Your chosen method will serve as a basis for your plan, but it’s helpful to sit down and draft a blueprint. A written plan will be easier to stick to than if you just carry an idea around in your head, just like it’s more likely that you will achieve your goals when you write them down. Like Rita Rosenback says, raising a bilingual child requires consistent effort; it’s a marathon, not a sprint! There are no shortcuts, you must get your child to utilize the minority language for several hours each day. And sticking to that plan is how you will maintain that necessary consistency.

Your plan should outline windows of time during each day and list an activity or two that you can do with your child to reinforce the minority language. It can be something simple: Read two books in Spanish from 7:00 to 7:30 am Monday through Friday before heading to daycare, or sing songs in Spanish during bath time 7:00 to 7:30 pm Monday through Friday. When you come home from a long day at work, it will be easy to skip a language-reinforcing activity if it’s not blocked out on your schedule.

Finally … The Secret to Raising a Bilingual Child is … to turn mundane, everyday activities into fun opportunities for children to use the minority language listening, talking, reading, and/or writing.

Infants & Young Children

With infants and young children, sticking to your plan ought to be enough. Infants and young children require “high quality social interaction,” such as talking, singing, and reading for language acquisition and brain development. (9, 10) So it makes perfect sense that these same activities would be beneficial for acquiring an additional language. And even exposure to the minority language is beneficial to the child’s majority language development – so don’t be worried about speaking Spanish to your child at home if you live in an English-dominant area – It will only help them!


Speech is the basic building block for helping your child to acquire language skills. From birth, your child’s favorite thing to look at is your face, and children recognize their mother’s voice from when they were in the womb. So capitalize on this! Talk with your child in an age appropriate manner: slowly, enunciating the words, and with a vocabulary geared toward their comprehension level.


Experts recommend singing (and talking) to your child in the minority language, regardless of their age. It makes sense – How often have you heard that to help children learn and retain information, teachers teach them a song. When attending mommy and me classes, try singing the Spanish version of songs like “Wheels on the Bus” and “Head, Shoulders, Knees, and Toes” in your child’s ear while the other moms sing in English.


There is one tip that every single expert recommends to parents raising bilingual children: reading books to/with your child in the minority language. I found that bilingual books worked best for my two. It helped them to bridge their two worlds: living in the U.S. while speaking mainly Spanish. And because I struggled to find books written in Spanish when my two were young, we created a line of personalized children’s books available in bilingual and single-language versions in any one or two of five languages.

As for the why … Younger children will love being able to crawl up onto your lap for storytime because they’ll have the undivided attention of their favorite person! For my two, reading a book written in Spanish automatically led to a two-way conversation in Spanish as the necessary vocabulary was fresh in their minds.

Older Children

At any age, engaging through the basic strategies of talking, singing, and reading hold true. However, as your child ages, play becomes more important. Also, it’s frequently the case that as children get older, it becomes more challenging to get them to actively use the minority language, but it’s crucial. As Adam Beck says, it’s not just the opportunities to expose your children to the minority language you need to create, but also a need for them to engage with it and use it. One recommendation I have for getting older kids to respond in the minority language is to explain how it’s preparation for something they want. They may need the vocabulary or knowledge of the story for an upcoming trip to visit grandparents (who speak the minority language) or to discuss the book, the subject of the book, or some funny lines from the book with beloved family members whose first language is the children’s minority language.


Talking is one of the easiest ways to incorporate a heritage language or minority language with your child. I found that when I woke my children up in the morning and they were still foggy, if I spoke to them in their first language (Spanish), they always responded in Spanish. And that was a great way to get them speaking and thinking in Spanish. Another great way to “force” your kids to speak in the minority language is to prepare them for a trip to visit family or for any family event where people will be speaking your family’s other language. It can be as easy as spending time making sure they’re correctly pronouncing people’s names. Or it can be more involved, like helping prepare them for a phone conversation with their grandparents which will cover several topics.

Singing & Music

Because I’m not much of a singer, the singing stopped when my kids graduated from the toddler stage. But as children get older, there are opportunities to connect with music. Spanish music has been growing in popularity since the 1990s. But 2017, there was a seismic shift with the release of the song Despacito, after which many songs in Spanish enjoyed mainstream popularity. (11) Just think how popular you child would be if they knew the lyrics and what they mean and how to dance to the song.


Getting my kids to read and write was probably the toughest part of their journey to bilingualism. I’ve found it’s easiest to try to engage them based on their wants and likes. When in elementary school, my daughter decided that she wanted to receive notes in her lunchbox. So for years, both of my kids received notes in Spanish. She got extra practice with the notes because her friends at the lunch table always asked her to read the notes and tell them what I had written. Now, I text them in Spanish; with auto correct, they’re able to text back with all the correct accents and everything!

Playing & Games

Sometimes, chores and errands just have to get done. And dragging my kids to the store was not optional for me. So I always made a game out of trips to the grocery store or even car rides. Since my two wanted nothing more than to play games, they didn’t mind which language we played in. We had dedicated word games in Spanish for the car, like “I spy” (“Veo, veo”) as well as others we made up. In the grocery store, my kids went on “treasure hunts.” They were responsible for finding certain items in each isle. (And yes, there were treasures at the end (a.k.a. donuts).)

As kids get older, despite your best efforts, there may be pushback on speaking the minority language. At that point, you have to make decisions based on your parenting style, goals, and relationship with your child. Some parents refuse to engage with their child if the child refuses to use the minority language. Other parents continue to speak in the minority language even if the child answers in the majority language. Some parents may sit down with older children and try to reason with them and explain the importance of continuing to speak the minority language. Some may offer bribes. Others may decide that the child’s minority language exposure to that point is sufficient, and they switch to use of the majority language. Whatever you decide, it’s your decision as to how much exposure to the minority language to give your child and in what form.

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