How do I make my child bilingual?

If you are a non-bilingual parent or couple wishing to make your child bilingual, the following post might be of interest. However, it will not so much contain answers as it will paths for reflection.

I don’t have a definite answer to the question of bilingualism but I can share my own journey as a bilingual child and as a language teacher.

This post will also serve to remind ourselves of an important principle in any learning venture in that we accomplish what we set out to. Starting language classes with the idea of acquiring “some skill” will get us just that. It makes sense perhaps, it is but too easily forgotten.

Let’s start!

My brother and I grew up as “true” bilinguals, meaning were are as able culturally as we are linguistically in two languages.

Our mum spoke to us in English from our first breath on this planet onwards. We sung our nursery rimes in English, watched cartoons, took our first tumbles off our bicycles in English…until we started to go to school in French full-time when we were about 4 or 5.

When I moved to the UK after 30 years living in Belgium it was a seamless transition. Not one UK resident ever asked me where I was from, nor did my behaviour ever give a clue as to my “foreign” past. “You speak as if you were from up the road!”, once exclaimed a hat salesman at Midlands market. And he was right, because in a sense I was from up the road.

The reason my mum accomplished this so well is simply because it was her stated goal. She knew that her kids would be native speakers of English and would identify with the culture of England. No more, no less. The universal Life Principle proves right once more. We get out what we put in, and we accomplish what we set out to.

My skill in French is perfectly on par with my English, but the same transition wouldn’t have been as easy towards France or Luxembourg. What is even more striking is that I know France from having watched French TV ever since I was a child, but I don’t know the French people from the inside. Two languages learned since childhood, two different cultural results. Most importantly, two different targets and two outcomes that match each target.

This account of my childhood is given to you for the purpose of submitting a crucial question for self-reflection about your bilingual project. Ask yourself what the end goal would look like in an ideal world and if the means that are put forward will meet that goal.

If the answer is a vagueness in the way of “because it’s better to have an extra language than not”, it is by far insufficient. If it is the pursuit of a skill for the sake of the skill, such parents will have an easier time signing up their kids to computer-programming classes. (or train them to shoot basketball hoops!)

The second point is the realistic end result you may expect. A mid-level competence in a language will be of mid-level use. Languages have a tendency to require perfection or nothing at all. Knowing this, which tools do we have at our disposal to bring our child to that higher level?

There are schools that offer a good second language program or even fully-bilingual schools. But one thing to keep in mind is the necessity of bringing clarity to the language program and understanding the precise skill of those teachers. For example, a geography teacher who gives geography in Spanish is not also a teacher of Spanish as a second language whose geography class has been made into a tool for learning Spanish.

A child might hear a Spanish teacher give geography in Spanish but not fully understand the hows and the whys of the Spanish language. The child might end up with a form of Spanish that could never pass as the Spanish of a native.

One path for reflection is whether the teachers of that bilingual school are actual Foreign Language teachers on top of the subject they teach. If this was not the case, they might not be able to act as Foreign Language teachers. Remember that knowing the language as a native and knowing how it works from the inside are two different skills.

Will the children work on their pronunciation as well as their listening skills? Will they work on improving their stylistic use of the foreign language by doing essays and reading the classics? A classroom does not cover all the communicative possibilities of a language, and less so if the child is listening to a teacher speak most of their time.

Again, we must look at the end result and ask ourselves important questions about the outcome. A vaguely-defined “bilingual education” means anything we wish for it to mean.

Speaking for myself, I took compulsory Dutch in school for 10 years. It also happens that I lived in a Dutch-speaking area. My results after my senior year were poor despite being one of the best in the class. I barely cracked B1, which would be a very generous score on my part. More likely A2.

These results were not entirely surprising since the National Curriculum never promised to make the children highly able in Dutch. We achieved the purpose we set out to: “some Dutch” that would bring us to an average level of A2. (And spread over 10 years!)

Although it might be a better choice than no foreign language at all, a private bilingual high school might not actually come with guarantee of bilingualism. There are also other organic factors such as the degree of enthusiasm of a teacher. For their compensation, they might not have the burning desire to make each and every pupil in the class a bilingual.

When it comes to a traditional high school, we can all work out that they were not designed to bring pupils to a state of bilingualism. While it would be technically possible to implement such a class, there are many logistical obstacles preventing this from happening.

To round up the ideas shared in this article, it will be important for parents to define what “bilingual” means in their mind’s eye. In the case of my mum, it meant being culturally and linguistically able in English – a goal she accomplished precisely because she set out to. My French came to me through the necessities of living in a French-speaking country.

Any language course or school program will have a stated objective. The mention of the word “bilingual” should never be taken as a synonym for the final result, just as “free range” is not a word that meets a universal definition shared by all farms. A gym named “the fitness club” does not guarantee that each member will be “fit”.

If I were to offer a word of advice to parents who were looking to offer their children a good command of a foreign language at a reasonable cost, I would suggest waiting until the brain has developed somewhat. Depending on the child, they might wait until they are able to rationalize academic information and have demonstrated a certain ability to focus. In my experience, there is a “sweet spot” for learning which comes after their “playing with toys years”. For some children, it will be 11 and for others 14.

Once they are willing to acquire a foreign language, have made a personal decision to commit, and have “seen themselves” speak that new foreign language, there will be ample time for them to learn. Being in their teenage years, they are still sufficiently close to school and have the time on their hands.

As for “perfect bilingualism”, the most convincing results I have seen around me were always from children whose parents spoke to them in two languages. Bilingualism as an ability to jump between cultural groups and pass off as a native in more than one language is an extremely high skill and not one taught in any school.

As a closing remark, I will insist once more on choosing the right source of learning. Picture the end result in your mind and go backwards. Ask yourself how proficient you would like your child to become in a foreign language, knowing that it’s an “all or nothing” situation. A partial knowledge of a language is as good as a car missing a wheel.

Indeed, we always accomplish what we set out to. The quality of our decision to learn a language will exactly match the results we get. It will be crucial to choose your source of learning with care.

For more information on the importance of a decision when learning please read the following article.


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