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The method itself is actually simple, but it requires consistency and commitment. You have to expose your child to the target language consistently, for long enough for him/her to grasp the structure of the language and connect the sounds and meanings of the words and phrases.
According to an article posted on the BBC’s website, “How to learn a language in an hour a day”, it takes around 480 to 2200 hours of practice to reach basic fluency, based on the difficulty of the language. The US Foreign Service Institute (FSI) divides languages into four tiers of increasing difficulty for native English speakers to learn – for example, French is in group 1, while Hindi belongs to group 2, with Finnish in group 3, and Korean in group 4.
So the question is, are you willing to expose your child to the target language, for however many hours necessary to acquire basic fluency? If your answer is yes, let me share some methods and materials that have worked with my two children over the past six years.
I live in Quebec, Canada, where English and French are both official languages. But in my household, the primary language is English – French is not a native language for my husband or me.
So, how do we teach our children the second language to be bilingual, in a house where only one language is spoken?
Some might think it would be easy for us, since we are living in a place where two languages are spoken. But in truth, not every Quebecois speaks English and French with equal fluency. Because everyone has different levels of exposure at different times in their lives – besides which, some come from outside of Canada, without speaking either of the official languages.
Here is my approach to raising my children to be bilingual.
1. How many hours in the target language
According to some researchers, children must spend about 24 hours a week in the target language. That is a little over 3 hours a day.
I tried to stimulate my children with audio materials for the better part of 3 hours, in the beginning, the way they learned in their mother tongue.
If your child is big enough to express their specific interest, you could allocate more time doing things your child enjoys doing in the target language. Language learning should never be painful for your children, so help them enjoy the time with the new language as much as you can.
2. Exposure to the sound.
To learn a language, the first step is getting used to the sounds, and becoming familiar with how the language is pronounced.
I let my children get used to French through nursery rhymes, and then short children’s shows. There are tons of materials on Youtube that you can easily access.
Here are a few great shows in French that I’ve used:
- Peppa Pig Francais
- Le Petit Royaume de Ben et Holly
- Le Village de Dany
Since these shows also have an English version, you could show it in English first and then the French version, if your child is starting the new language after preschool and having a hard time. But since these all tell simple stories with easy dialogue, your children will quickly grasp the meaning.
3. Say a word.
Even after exposing your child to the target language, she/he might not speak a word for a very long time. But don’t be discouraged. Children normally start to speak their first words in their mother tongue after around 12 months of daily exposure.
I taught my kids a few new words in French while they were simultaneously learning English. So, they would refer to some things in French and others in English. Although it looks like this would confuse them, eventually each language establishes itself in their heads, and they sort it all out without much difficulty.
Methods to teach children a new language
1. Time and place
This method seems to work well if your children attend a daycare or school where the target language is spoken.
2. Target language at home
This is a variation of the first method, where the parents choose to speak the target language at home, but outside the home, they speak the primary language.
So, if German-speaking parents living in Canada want their children to learn German, for example, they would speak German with their children at home, but outside of the house they would speak English (or French).
3. One parent one language
This method requires commitment, especially when a parent has more than one active language they use daily, since they should decide on one language to communicate with their child consistently.
For example, if the mother speaks only English, but the father can speak English and French, obviously, the mother would speak only English to their children, while the father would speak only French with them.
4. Mixed language
This method is what our family chose for my children. We speak to our children in English and French, depending on the subject and circumstances.
Can a child learn 2 languages at once?
Yes. It just takes consistency and commitment on the parents’ part, though it can be hard to maintain that persistence.
Unless the second language is the native language of one of the parents or a close family member, it might be hard to include the language as part of your family life, even if your family happens to be in a place where the new language is spoken.
But, as long as parents are committed to incorporating the target language in their children’s life consistently, for at least the minimum required time each day, this should not be a problem.
Is it good to raise children to be bilingual?
Yes. There are countless benefits to being bilingual.
1. Bilingual children can better segregate important points and ignore unnecessary information
2. Bilingual individuals tend to be better at solving complex problems and better at planning, and are generally more creative than monolinguals.
3. Bilingual adults show slower brain ageing.
4. Bilingual individuals have greater access to many more resources, people to interact with, and even better opportunities in the job market.
5. Studies have shown that bilingual employment rates are higher compared to monolingual people, and people speaking more than one language have a higher median income.