Raising Bilingual Kids in Expat & Immigrant Families
There is this common misconception that bilingual children and those who speak multiple languages are disadvantaged, and lag behind their monolingual peers at school. But research over the years suggests otherwise.
For expat and immigrant families who speak their native language at home, children can understandably need some extra support initially as their exposure grows in their second language.
However, research shows that most of these kids will catch up in their first years of school and some eventually even overtake and outperform monolingual students.
Great News for Expats and Immigrant families
The benefits of being bilingual are endless, and keeping your native language alive can be difficult, but important, especially for children.
Moving to a new country can be stressful at the best of times. But moving somewhere where the community language is different means the additional of an additional challenge.
Many expat and immigrant families worry about their children being behind at school if they speak their heritage language at home. They worry that because their children will enter school not speaking the community language well, that they will be disadvantaged.
Some parents even try speaking the community language at home to prepare them for school because of this fear.
However, children are more adaptable than we give them credit for.
Speaking your heritage language at home is actually an advantage. It gives children the chance to be immersed in their heritage language, a language that will eventually become the minority language as they grow up.
Once children start going to school and are immersed in the community language, the whole situation changes.
MLAH Method –Minority Language at Home
Using the Minority Language at Home strategy tends to give the most balance to both languages. In fact Professor Francois Grosjean, who is one of the most famous specialists in bilingualism, suggests that using MLAH is the best method for helping children to become bilingual.
Sure, the language exposure won’t be equal initially, however as children start school it starts to balance out.
What Research Says
Research conducted by Anita Staneva at the University of Sydney suggested that although children with a second language may be behind initially when they start school, (mainly because they are still learning the community language), many actually outperform their peers eventually.
The study of 19,000 British children between three and eleven years old showed that children who speak more than one language received higher cognitive development than monolinguals.
They found that initially non-native English speaking children were behind around age three because they were being introduced to a new language. However, they were able to catch up by age five, then overtake them by seven years old.
These findings show that if you are an expat or immigrant family, you have no need to worry about your children entering school not being fluent in the community language. Concentrating on speaking your heritage language at home and reinforcing it is much more important. Soon enough the community language will take over.
Bilingual Kids may not be at the level of their peers initially, so what?
If children aren’t speaking the community language at home on a daily basis, it is only normal that their second language skills may not be at the same level initially. If they don’t yet have enough exposure to that language how can they be speaking it fluently?
It is important that children keep that bond with their parents, and keep speaking their native language at home. Because as children go to school and start speaking the community language, their language skills will start to balance out.
Children spend a considerable amount of time at school. 5 days per week, on average 6 hours per day, is a LOT of exposure to their second language. As we mentioned previously, children are very adaptable, and especially when they are young, they are able to pick up a new language with ease with enough exposure.
Eventually, in many cases, the language they speak at school tends to become the dominant one. But if parents keep up their native language at home, balanced bilingualism (or as close to) can be achievable.
What parents can do?
- Don’t stress! Bilingualism is one of the greatest gifts you can give your child!
- Keep speaking your heritage language with your kids at home.
- Keep your native language and culture alive at home.
- It may be difficult, but try not to worry if you see your child’s language skills are not comparing to their monolingual peers.
- Be confident in your community which will give your children the language exposure they need eventually leading them on the way to bilingualism.
- Read more tips: How to improve your child’s language skills.