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Translating the benefits of raising children to be bilingual

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Parents who speak more than one language in their home have been asking me lots of questions about teaching their infants and toddlers to be bilingual and what to expect if they try to do this. Well let me translate those concerns into some helpful information about children who are taught or brought up to be bilingual.

More creative and culturally curious

Studies have shown that children exposed to several languages are more creative and better at developing problem-solving skills. Other studies say that speaking a second language helps children have an easier time learning other languages in the future. Growing up bilingual may also lead to cultural benefits — children will be able to better communicate with relatives and may be more eager to learn about the history and traditions of their family’s country of origin, which in turn helps them develop stronger cultural identities.

So, if you want to bring your children up as bilingual, I have some suggestions:

¯ Make a plan for how fluent you want your children to be. Do you want them just speaking the language or reading and writing it as well? Once the plan is made, consistency in carrying out that plan is crucial.

¯ Decide on your teaching approach. The “one-parent, one-language” technique has one parent speaking to the child in English and the other in the second language. The “second language at home” method has children speak in the foreign language at home and in English when out in public or at school with others.

¯ It is important to not mix two languages into one sentence or sentences. If your child does, casually correct them by providing the proper word in the language you are using at the time.

Look for fun, educational online materials to help with the learning as well.

Is there a downside?

So does learning two languages at once delay speech development? Some studies say it may initially slow overall language development relative to children who speak one language. However, by the time bilingual children are ready to enter school, studies suggest they will have easily caught up in their language skills and that no speech and language delay is noted.

Hopefully tips like these will not lose something in the translation when it comes to considering whether or not to teach your young children to be bilingual.

Lewis First, MD, is chief of pediatrics at the University of Vermont Children’s Hospital of Vermont Children’s Hospital and chair of the Department of Pediatrics at the University of Vermont’s Larner College of Medicine. You can also catch “First with Kids” weekly on WOKO 98.9FM and NBC5.

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