Becoming Bilingual

The perks of learning two languages as a child.

When you think of the advantages your child might enjoy if he were bilingual, the most obvious is that he would be able to communicate in two languages. While that's a good reason in and of itself to learn a second language, what many parents don't realize is that there are many other perks to being a bilingual kid than just being able to chat in a language in addition to English.

Nothing gets the brain machinery going like learning a second language. Mastering two sets of vocabulary and grammar rules, and learning how to shift from one language to another, provides terrific stimulation for your child's developing brain. And the list of language, academic and cognitive benefits your child reaps as a result is a lengthy one. For example, as bilingual kids compare and make connections between the words in two languages, they end up thinking about language itself. This sophisticated exercise comes early and naturally to bilingual children.

Young bilingual children also have a head start over their monolingual peers when it comes to reading. Research shows that bilingual kids have increased "phonological awareness," meaning they are better able to recognize different sounds within one word - the first step in learning to read. Grasping language rules also tends to come easily to children who are bilingual because they have already had plenty of practice juggling words, sounds and meanings in different languages. In fact, studies show bilingual children understand rules and process information more easily than monolingual children even in math. And the bilingual advantage doesn't stop there. Research has found that bilingualism promotes abstract thinking and sharpens problem-solving abilities.

Children who learn a second language also become more culturally aware. Teaching a child a second language opens his eyes to a larger world and helps him understand that people of diverse origins share the Earth. Becoming bilingual also teaches a child that people around the world speak different languages, eat different foods, celebrate different holidays and do many other things differently, too.

Here in the United States, 20 percent of families speak a language other than English at home. Spanish is the number one language spoken by these families, as 28 million people speak Spanish in America, followed by Chinese, which is spoken by 2 million people in the nation. And Russian is the fastest growing spoken language among families in the United States, from a percentage point of view.

It used to be that children in America who were being raised bilingual almost always had bilingual parents. But in a world drawn ever closer by globalization, monolingual English-speaking parents are realizing the increasing importance of foreign-language learning for their children. A quick glance at television programs for young children reveals that the media has picked up on parents' priorities. From Sesame Street to Maya & Miguel, many children's shows have gone multicultural and multilingual.

And, as parents realize that the public school system is not ensuring fluency in a foreign language, they're taking their children's foreign language learning into their own hands. For many parents this might mean learning the second language along with their child, which is a wonderful bonus for both parent and child. Monolingual parents just need to be mindful that the less proficient they are in a second language, the more outside support, such as tutor programs and bilingual playgroups, they will need for their child to progress in the language learning.

Many parents are eager to know what they can do to give their children an advantage in a highly competitive world. One of the best ways to do this is to teach your child a second language.

Five Tips for Raising a Bilingual Child

  1. Start as soon as you can. Waiting generally means not starting at all.
  2. Discuss your interest in raising a bilingual child with your spouse or your partner, and make sure he or she is on board.
  3. Define your bilingual goals. How proficient do you want your child to be in a second language?
  4. Write up a weekly schedule of bilingual activities, noting who will do them and when.
  5. Remain flexible to adjust your bilingual goals and plans as needed.