Bilingual Babies

by NDFAuthors

  • Dec 01, 2014

There are many great ways of raising bilingual babies, we suggest you read some of them.

Not only is being bilingual a useful skill to have in such an interconnected and globalised world, but also recent research from Singapore has shown that bilingualism has wider benefits than mere linguistic advantages. Tests on babies have shown that those who were bilingual got bored more quickly when shown the same picture repeatedly, favouring new images instead. This thirst for novelty has been linked to the higher IQ later in life. Interestingly, the results were the same no matter the language pairings tested, whether a combination of European languages or European and Asian language families. A possible explanation could be the greater information processing skills required by bilingual children as well as the challenge of learning two languages with reduced exposure to vocabulary in both.

Whilst this research only takes into account ‘crib bilinguals’ (raised with two languages from birth), there remain neurological benefit to bilingualism acquired later in life. However it is not an easy thing to do, to bring up a bilingual baby and it requires patience and consistent effort even if both parents or other family members are fluent in other languages.


How to raise a bilingual child?

There are two main approaches used in raising a bilingual child, and choosing between them also depends on the linguistic skills of the parents:

  • One parent, one language

This is a particularly good approach if both parents have different mother tongues. Each one can then use that with their child. There also then needs to be an agreement as to which language is used when all the family is together and what language the parents use in front of the children. Consistency is the key here and the children learn very quickly which language to use with which parent. If a language that they speak with one parent is also the same language that they hear in their environment and at school, they will develop it more quickly, simply due to more exposure. Finding a playgroup, or other families to practise the other language with might also help to continue the learning progress. Having a childminder who uses one of the languages is also a good way to reinforce the language outside the home too.

  • Minority language at home

This is when all family members (regardless of their native language) all use one language at home. Outside the home, such as at nursery or school, children begin to learn the community language. This can be hard for parents who see their chatty little boy or girl go to nursery and not say a word for several months as they try to get to grips with the new language. Among many children of this age who are new to English, there are very few who struggle with it for a long time, and even if they are not very vocal, they can communicate their needs and with their peers.


Both of these methods can have their downsides and sometimes it will feel like a real effort. The key is to find what really works for you and your family. Whilst children are flexible and adaptable to new languages, consistency in whichever approach you choose is likely to yield the best results. It is important to remember that you are modelling language to your child, so if you are modelling a language that you are not competent at or confident in, this will be what they learn from you.

One problem with both of these approaches is that they require at least one parent to have a language at home which is different from the dominant language spoken in the community around them. Short of immersing yourself and your family in a community or country which speaks another language, or possibly even employing child care who speaks to the child solely in the desired language (and it can be maintained consistently over a number of years), it is hard to achieve true bilingualism. However, this should not put people off from trying to acquire  usable knowledge of another language and sharing that with their child.


There are a number of other options available:

  • Using grandparents, other family members or friends – This works best when it is someone who has a frequent and consistent presence in family life – it doesn’t have to be  just down to you as parents. Perhaps your child can go for a playdate once a week to your friend’s house where they all speak another language or maybe grandparents can solely use their mother tongue when they spend time one on one with your child.
  • Bilingual nurseries, playgroups or childminders – This is a more expensive option, but the numbers of these establishments are increasing as parents are increasingly aware of the benefits of early language learning. Whilst it is more likely in large cities that there will be a choice of bilingual nurseries, many nurseries now also offer some language time during the week which may be a fun introduction.
  • Learn a language together – If you don’t have a operational knowledge of a language, perhaps you could learn as a family. Some places hold classes for adults and children together. Put up signs around the house to remind you of new vocabulary and go on holiday to that country trying to use their language as much as you can together. This particularly works well with slightly older children who learn a language more methodically, rather than relying on assimilation.
  • Bilingual resources – Even if you don’t have fluency in another language, you can help your child develop a working knowledge and develop their vocabulary. Bilingual books (with an audio CDs, so you don’t have to worry about the correct pronunciation) are a great way to share new language. Games such as snakes and ladders using the target language numbers are a great way to develop number flexibility, and songbooks can really cement large amounts of vocabulary.


Whichever approach works for you and your family, the key is in consistency and persistence. Any language which is not maintained falls by the wayside, whether it’s about basic functional language or true bilingualism.