Five Tips to Raising a Bilingual Child When Only One Parent is Bilingual

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bilingualSo you’ve heard all about the benefits of bilingualism and are ready to teach your child another language. The only problem? Only one parent speaks another language. Not to worry! It is still possible to raise a bilingual child even if only one parent is bilingual — you will just have to get creative when it comes to exposing your child to the second language. Here are five tips to get you started.

1. Come up with a plan.

The “one parent one language” (OPOL) framework is a research-based idea that is common when only one parent in the home is bilingual. Basically, one parent will always speak one language (e.g., English) with the children, and the other parent will always speak another (e.g., Spanish). You can find many resources online to help you if you want to implement OPOL in your home. 

Regardless of whether you follow OPOL or decide to create your own system, there are many things you will want to consider. For example, will you still use the second language with your child if he has an English-speaking friend over to play? How will you encourage your child to communicate with you in the second language when they are more comfortable with English? 

Also consider how you will take advantage of other methods of language exposure. For example, TV and videos in the second language are great (especially for showing kids examples of others who speak the language), but they are also a passive way of learning. In order to really become bilingual, your child will need to actively speak (and eventually read and write) in the second language. Music and books are a better option, because kids will often sing along in the second language or interact with the book (not to mention that reading books repeatedly are a great way to learn new vocabulary!).  

2. Think about what your child likes to do — and then find ways to do these using the second language.

Get creative with this! If your child likes to decorate cupcakes or build tall Lego towers, find tutorials and videos of these things on YouTube that are narrated in the second language (the English-only parent can try to follow along, as well!). Or try to find a tutor for these skills who also speaks the second language. This is different than a language tutor who would teach your child how to communicate about many different topics. In this case, your child would be learning specialized vocabulary and following commands in the second language — not to mention that he would be learning the actual skill, itself (e.g., drawing)!

3. Soak in the culture that is associated with the second language.

One way to make learning a second language fun is to also learn about the culture, customs, and food that are associated with its home country, and this can be fun for the English-only parent, as well. Find out if local organizations have activities planned for key holidays or festivals. See if there are any child-friendly international cooking classes in your area. Plan an outing to an international grocery store or a family dinner at an international restaurant and in the days leading up to the meal, have your child practice ordering menu items in the second language. Talk about (or have your child research) current events that are relevant to the other country. The possibilities are endless!

4. Seek out native speakers.

Nothing is better than an authentic reason to communicate in the second language. This helps children see a need for the second language and also provides them with immediate feedback. When you attend cultural events, seek out participants, organizers, and vendors who speak the second language and who might be able to have a short conversation with your children. Even a simple interaction with someone (e.g., asking them, “How are you today?,” or “How much does this cost?”) can be a learning opportunity and give children a boost of confidence as they practice their speaking skills. You may also be able to find a native speaker who offers virtual language classes using Skype!

5. Find a community of learners.

Find out if there are any formal language learning programs in your city. These aren’t always housed in typical schools or learning centers, so you may have to do some searching (e.g., we have a Chinese church nearby that offers Chinese classes on Sundays). Also remember — every little bit helps! Just because a program isn’t full time doesn’t mean that your child won’t benefit from it. And if you can’t find anything for your target language, create your own community! Form a group on Meetup or Facebook and arrange playdates for the children so they can use the second language with their peers and with other parents. 

Raising a bilingual child is no easy task, but hopefully these tips can make the road a little easier!

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