7 tips to raise your kids to be multilingual and set them for life
I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel. — Maya Angelou
Speaking fluently in multiple languages can give your kids an added advantage when they enter their professional lives. A fluent speaker in English, Mandarin and Spanish can communicate to approximately 40% of the world’s population without having to use Google Translate.
Though technology is making quantum leaps in this arena, there is a different level of connection between people when they speak the same language. It’s not just about the words being spoken, but quoting Angelou, how you make people feel when you say them. This connection is what will make your kids excel and differentiates them from their future (robot) competition.
The not-so-secret formula
The formula I prescribe is mainly for parents who are multilingual themselves, but can also be adapted if just one parent is multilingual.
The formula is fairly simple. It is based on the one-parent-one-language approach, and uses the principle of association.
Association by person
- When kids communicate with their mom, they must do it in the mom’s native language (MNL). In my family’s case it’s Mandarin.
- When kids communicate with their dad, they must do it in the dad’s native language (DNL). In my family’s case it’s Spanish.
- When mom and dad communicate with each other, they must do it in the language of the country where they live (CNL). In my family’s case it’s English.
- When kids communicate between themselves, they must do it in MNL or DNL. In my family’s case it’s Mandarin or Spanish.
- When kids communicate with anyone else, they must assess if they can speak MNL or DNL, and if not, then speak CNL.
Association by location
- When kids are in school, they likely will speak CNL.
- When kids are at home, they must speak MNL or DNL.
- When kids are in any other location, they must assess if they can speak MNL or DNL, and if not, then speak CNL.
There may be situations where parents and kids are together at school to meet the teachers. In such cases, they must use discretion. Typically, out of respect, we speak CNL when the teacher is present, and continue with MNL or DNL when not present.
That’s the easy part. The hard part is enforcing the formula. Here are 3 principles that will help.
I’ve often heard parents lament that their kids do not want to learn a language not used at school. Do not blame the kids! Kids will be kids. The ultimate responsibility lies with the parents. If the parents are committed, their kids will follow the formula instinctively.
If you and your spouse are convinced that multilingualism is good for your child, commit!
Sometimes commitment is not enough. You also need to make the formula work, especially when the whole family is involved. For example, at dinner, the parents may be speaking English to each other, and suddenly need to redirect their attention to their kids, but forget to switch to their native tongue. In other situations, to be spontaneous, parents just don’t switch languages.
Parents must always be aware of the language they’re using; especially when the kids are small and are just learning how to talk. If children see inconsistent behavior they will not follow the formula and the party is over!
Constant repetition is imperative for the kids to get the language ingrained into their brains.
Reading the same stories, singing the same songs, and participating in the same activities over and over are important even if it becomes tedious for you!
Move on to other activities only when you can tell your kids have mastered the vocabulary and grammar. Be wary when kids start mixing words from different languages in sentences. Correct them immediately and don’t let this go far.
Make sure to go back and repeat the same activities after a few months.
The 7 tips
If you are committed and consistently repeat the formula you are half way there. The following tips will help you achieve the other half.
1. Start super early
The best time to start applying the formula is when your kids are little; in my case, I started from the time my kids were in my wife’s belly.
You should aim to have your kids immersed in MNL and DNL before they enter pre-school. They will not have fully developed their language skills, but you can tell they can fully understand you, and are trying to talk in your native tongue.
2. Start with no more than 2 languages
Assuming you want to teach your kids more than two languages, start with two. Once the kids have a stable foundation with those, introduce the third language.
In my case we started with MNL (Mandarin) and DNL (Spanish) from the time my kids were newborns. CNL (English) was introduced during pre-school and other community-related activities.
3. Reinforce the weaker language constantly
The prevalent and weaker languages interchange as your kids are growing; adjust your strategy when there is a language skill imbalance.
When your kids are younger than four, chances are the language used by the mom (MNL) is the prevalent one. When the kids are older, the language used in school (CNL) will become the prevalent one. Here are some actions to reinforce the weaker language:
- When watching TV, be very strict: Only allow your kids to watch movies in the weaker language. Netflix, YouTube, and DVDs offer movies in multiple languages.
- When in the car, only play CDs/mp3s, and kids’ stories or music in the weaker language.
- When eating, encourage conversation or spelling games in the weaker language. For example, while eating I would ask my daughter to spell simple words like “niño” (boy), “niña” (girl).
- When singing, translate songs they learn in their prevalent language in school to the weaker language. For example, when my daughter spontaneously starts singing “Head and shoulders, knees and toes…,” I immediately join in with “Cabeza, hombros, rodillas, pies…” (Spanish version); and keep insisting until she switches to Spanish. She actually has a lot of fun when I do this! The translation does not have to be 100% accurate, but try to keep the rhythm of the song.
- When playing games, only play in the weaker language. This is especially important if you have more than one kid, because they will tend to play in the language used at school.
- When it’s time for bed, tell or read stories only in the weaker language. Storybooks with drawings are particularly helpful where you point at the different pictures and constantly repeat their names night after night. Then have your kid tell you the story even with their limited vocabulary.
4. Expose your kids to different environments and situations
We have family and friends who speak different languages, so interacting with them benefits the kids. For friends with similar-aged kids, we keep watch so that they speak the weaker language when they play. If they drift towards the prevalent language, we “warn” them not to continue, otherwise no next time!
In my family, grandparents have also played an important role in the development of multilingual skills for my kids. More often than not, grandparents speak CNL (English) poorly and prefer to communicate only in their native tongue. This shortcoming is beneficial because the kids are forced to speak in the grandparent’s native tongue, and with this the two generations bond even closer.
5. Show your kids the value of being multilingual
As your kids grow up and start hanging out with their friends, they will not want to switch languages anymore. Fortunately, this has not happened to us.
We’ve always ensured our kids value their multilingual skills. We often tell them these are special skills not all kids have, and therefore they are unique. When we meet other people who express admiration that our kids speak other languages, we make sure our kids notice so they realize their uniqueness is appreciated!
Other ‘tricks’ we use is telling them that they can share something secretly when they learn other languages. So if my kids don’t want me to know about something, they speak in MNL (Mandarin) with each other. Another trick I use, having two daughters, is to play the “princess card” by saying that real princesses speak 3 languages or more.
Trips are another way for your kids to value their language skills. We have travelled to China where my kids have been able to interact with family there in Mandarin. In Peru, Mexico, or the US, my kids reap the benefits of speaking Spanish.
6. Full immersion is the best
In our case, we don’t worry about reinforcing the third language, English. At first, the pre-school program was a bit of a struggle for the kids as they were “officially” introduced to the third language; however, within a month we saw vast improvements.
Kids will pick up another language fairly quickly when they are fully immersed, and this is why my kids have so easily caught up with English.
I was born in Peru, so I travel there every now and then to visit family. While I’m there, I enroll my kids full time in a local school, including extracurricular activities. Ideally one stays with family during such visits, so the kids are pounded with the language 24/7.
7. Enroll them in language schools
Language schools where your kids spend 2 hours a week on a Saturday learning a given language is a good complementary activity.
Enrolling your kids in this extracurricular activity as the primary means to raise your kids to be multilingual is unfortunately a waste of time and money.
Most often the kids attending are at different skill levels, and have no motivation to learn. It’s common to see kids speaking CNL during the class, where they learn only a few words in MNL or DNL. Even the teacher often speaks CNL to give instructions.
I do take my kids to a Spanish language school as a complementary activity. Moreover, I request that the teacher speak with my children only in Spanish. I also ask her to make my kids assistants given that in most cases, they are the ones speaking Spanish the best. By being assistants, my kids practice their Spanish more and gain confidence in themselves.
The next level: Teach them how to read
Providing the foundations of a language at an early age will do wonders for your kids; however, to ensure they will be able to learn even more at a later age, and on their own, they must learn how to read.
Fortunately for me, Spanish is an easy language to learn to read; you can even read in Spanish without knowing the words.
Starting at age 5, I taught my daughter to read Spanish. I spent the first two months getting her to memorize all the sounds of the Spanish alphabet. Then I spent another 3 months reading stories with her. At the same time, I started playing spelling games using simple Spanish words like “mesa” (table) where I would say the word in slow motion so she could relate to the sounds in the alphabet. Within a few months she was able to read Spanish stories by herself.
In the case of Mandarin, my wife teaches my daughter one new character every few days, and stops every now and then for review. Slowly but surely, my daughter has learned to read and write 75 characters since age 5, and counting.
There is no one-size-fits-all solution when you want to bring up your kids multilingual. This article describes what has particularly worked for my family, with the hope that some tips will be useful to you.
My daughter is now 8, and speaks English, Mandarin, and Spanish fluently. Her writing skills require continuous work, but she can write in all 3 languages. She is now learning French as a second language in school. We did not opt for a French immersion school because we thought she would need help with homework, and neither my wife nor I speak French.
My second daughter, now 4, is following in her elder sister’s footsteps. I’m confident that if we continue applying ‘the formula’ we will be successful with her too!
Third baby is coming soon, and I’m already speaking Spanish to my wife’s belly!