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  • Nene Bilingüe Mami

What does Literature say about Raising Bilingual Children?

Updated: Oct 17, 2019


Introducing a second language is best when done as early as possible.

I love learning! True, I am a teacher, which one would assume would most likely be the case. If only someone would pay me to go to school I would be a full time student all my life! Ironically, if we are open to learn something new we are just that, students of life!


I first began to be intrigued with bilingual children as a subject matter before having my own children. Growing up bilingual I didn't think much of it. It wasn't until my undergraduate studies that I began to explore the topic more. I recall choosing bilingual education as my topic of choice for my Ethnic Studies capstone at Santa Clara University. I felt as if the chosen topic brought in my Urban Education minor, Phycology and Spanish majors all into one. "Bilingual Education" was not an offered course, so my advisor placed me on independent study where I created my own syllabus, chose my reading materials, and composed my own learning goals and objectives. All this lead to my final product - a 20+ page paper on the history, importance, and implications of bilingual education in today's schools. Here I am, continuing my learning through the eyes of a parent to bilingual children.


As promised, in a recent IG post I said I would be reading a few books regarding raising bilingual children and share my personal take-aways from each. By no means is this a full summary or "spark notes" (is this still around?) for each chapter of the book. If something intrigues you, please head to your library to check-out the book to get the full picture.


There are many titles out there that are about bilingualism, bilingual children, and bilingual education - not counting the numerous articles in academic journals filled with case studies. This is the first of three that I found by simply searching my local library's catalog.


Raising a Bilingual Child: A Step-by-Step Guide for Parents

by Barbara Zurer Pearson Ph.D.


There is no clear definition of what it is to be "bilingual." The one thing that is known is that two languages cannot reach the same level of development in all areas. Unequal exposure will lead to a dominant and non-dominant language with different skill levels in speaking, understanding, writing, and reading.


The author explains the difference between two types of bilinguals: Bilingual First Language Acquisition and Second Language Acquisition. What sets them apart is the root of learning each language. She includes a beautiful metaphor and graphics of trees to represent each language. In short, Bilingual First Language Acquisition is where the child learns two languages at the same time. In other words the child will have two first languages. A Second Language Acquisition Bilingual, the second language is introduced and learned after the first language has been established. These children will have a clear first and second language.


According to Dr. Barbara Zurer Pearson there are two modes for a bilingual person. She goes into detail of how the bilingual brain functions. Whenever a bilingual person speaks, both languages are activated in the brain. The brain makes the decision of which language is suppressed and which is produced. A bilingual brain will either be in Monolingual Mode - use of only one language or Bilingual Mode - use of both languages together aka "Code Switching." Code switching used to be thought as a bilingual fail due to a person not having the skills needed in one language to finish a thought. However, it is now considered a skilled behavior which can only be done when the person knows the correct grammatical structures of both languages to go back and forth between the two languages within the same conversation.


When making the decision to raise a bilingual child Dr. Pearson identifies 4 methods for parents to establish a bilingual environment. She starts off by saying, "The key to raising bilingual children is for parents to establish the minority language [the language spoken by the minority population]. The majority language [language spoken in schools, government, and media] is a given." The most important factor affecting whether a child becomes bilingual is exposure and use of both languages.


1) One Parent One Language

Each parent is assigned a language and is consistent in addressing the child in that language. In some cases, this could lead to raising a trilingual child when each parent speaks a different minority language and allow the natural exposure to the majority language while out in the community.


2) Time and Place

This strategy is commonly used in a dual immersion school setting where either language is used for specific subjects or time of day.


3) Minority Language at Home

This method provides more exposure to to the minority language than the One Parent One Language strategy. While in the home the minority language is used by both parents and the majority language is only used outside the home.


4) Mixed Language

This strategy is not highly recommended and may lead to not enough exposure to the minority language since there is no true technique for when to use either language.


5) Family Immersion (added by Nene Bilingüe, not included in her list)

If you have the opportunity to move or have an extended stay in a country where they speak the desired second language your entire family will be immersed not only in the language but also in the culture.


Once your family has chosen a strategy be consistent in its use. The author lists the following considerations as you make your decision:

-How much time will each language be spoken?

-What language will the parents speak with each other?

-How well does each parent understand the other's language?

-Which language will you speak outside the home?

-How will you handle having guests in the house?

-Will the language policy be the same in the presence of other children?

-Are you enthusiastic and comfortable using the minority language even if you are not a native speaker?


In addition to the above take-aways, Raising a Bilingual Child includes 36 case studies of families using the above strategies. Reading these may provide families with a sense of how others are choosing to raise their bilingual children and how that approach pans out for the family. The author also addresses bilingualism and language impairments, topics that are separate but can have an impact on raising a bilingual child.


Just as Reading Rainbow always ended their book reads, "Well, you don't have to take my word for it." Go on and read it yourself. What are your take-aways?