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Over 300 different languages are spoken in Australian homes. Around one in five people speaks languages other than English at home.
 
‘Bilingualism’ means being able to use two or more languages. Raising bilingual children has lots of benefits, such as creating strong family and cultural bonds. The way you support bilingualism in your family depends on your family situation and the languages you use at home.

Raising bilingual children: your family’s options

If you and/or your partner speak languages other than English at home, your decisions about helping your children learn to use your native languages will depend on your family situation.

Here are the main models for raising bilingual children.

The one person-one language model
If you and your partner speak different native languages, the one person-one language model for supporting bilingualism might be helpful for you.

For example, if your native language is English and your partner’s is Mandarin, you speak English to your children and your partner speaks Mandarin to them.

This model can work with more than one language other than English. For example, if your native language is Spanish and your partner’s is Italian, you each speak your own native language to your children at home. Your children also learn to use English at school and in the community.

If you want your child to grow up fluent in your native language, you and your partner must each consistently use your native language with your child – rather than swapping between languages. So if you speak French and you want your child to grow up being able to speak and understand French with a broad vocabulary, you’ll need to speak only French to your child.

The one person-one language model can help you both connect with your children in your own languages. Your children get to hear and speak both languages too.

It’s ideal if you both understand each other’s languages so neither of you feels left out when you speak your native language to your child.

The minority language model
You might use the minority language pattern of supporting bilingualism if you and your partner both speak the same native language in your family home.

For example, you might have migrated from Iraq to Australia and speak Arabic to your children at home. This is the minority language. Your children also go to school and speak English with their friends and teachers.

Another example is if you and your partner have hearing impairments and you’re raising a hearing child. Your child learns the minority language of Auslan at home, and English in the hearing community.

Or you might not be deaf, but you’re raising a child with profound hearing loss. In this situation, your child is the minority language user. But you can give your child lots of exposure to the minority language by making sure your child uses Auslan with other signers in the deaf community. This will help your child feel a sense of belonging, self-worth and pride about identity.

The minority language model means that your children hear, speak and use your native language a lot at home, because you and your partner are using it.

If you feel pressure to stop speaking your native language with your children at home, it might help to know that bilingualism and raising bilingual children has lots of benefits. If your children know your native language and can use it well, it can make it easier for them to learn English as a second language.

Raising bilingual children: tips

Here are some practical tips for supporting your child’s bilingual development:

  • Organise playtime with other kids who speak the same minority language.
  • Organise visits to or from speakers of the minority language. If it’s possible for you, visiting countries where people speak your minority language always boosts children’s interest in the culture and ability to speak the language.
  • Read and tell stories in your native language, and encourage your child to join in. Use dress-ups and be creative!
  • Play games in your native language – for example, ‘I spy’, bingo or memory.
  • Sing songs, dance and play music in your language. Children love music, and melody is a great way to help them remember things.
  • Go to the library and borrow CDs, DVDs, picture books, junior fiction and magazines in your first language.
  • Listen to radio programs in your first language, including popular music programs and channels for teenagers.
  • Think about what your child is interested in – for example, soccer, music, TV shows, cooking and so on. Try incorporating your native language into these interests. For example, you could find your child’s favourite recipe or a typical recipe from your community and cook it together using only your native language.
  • Stick with your language choice, and give your child plenty of opportunities to listen to and speak this language.
  • Look out for cultural activities that you and your child can do together, to tap into your family’s cultural heritage and identity. For example, Harmony Day in March each year is widely celebrated across Australia.
  • Don’t give up! Some days it might seem like your child doesn’t want to speak in your native language. But just hearing you speak your native language will help your child learn it.

Bilingualism: frequently asked questions

Does speaking two or more languages confuse children?
No. Children can learn two or more languages at the same time and can understand the difference between languages at a young age. For example, they realise very quickly that they need to speak German to Grandma, and English to the teacher.

Will speaking two or more languages at home affect the way children learn English?
No. A good knowledge of your native language can actually help your child with learning the language of the wider community – for example, English in Australia.

Bilingual children who have a solid foundation in their native language learn the majority language more easily and do better at school than children who aren’t learning their native language at home. For example, children who are familiar with books and stories in first languages find it easier to learn to read and write in English when they get to school.

Will children have problems reading and writing if they’re learning several languages?
No. Bilingual children who are exposed to two different written languages – for example, Spanish and English – or even two different writing systems – for example, Chinese and English – can read and write English at high levels. They might also have a better understanding of the relationship between how words look and sound than their peers who speak English only.

Does bilingualism delay speaking?
No. Bilingual children develop language at the same rate as children who speak one language only. Children learn to speak at different rates, but this isn’t because of learning more than one language at the same time.

Benefits of bilingualism

Bilingualism and raising bilingual children is good not only for your children, but also for your family and your community.

For your child, speaking more than one language easily is linked to:

  • better academic results – this is because bilingual children can often concentrate better, have better analytical skills and are better at multitasking
  • increased sense of self-worth, identity and belonging – this includes feeling good about cultural heritage and minority language, feeling confident about communicating and connecting with extended family members, and being able to enjoy art, music, movies and literature in more than one language
  • diverse career opportunities later in life.

For your family, developing your native language in your children:

  • improves communication among your family members
  • makes it easier for you and your children to be part of your culture
  • boosts your family’s sense of cultural identity and belonging.

For your wider community, when children speak more than two languages, it means that:

  • everyone in the community gets a better appreciation of different languages and cultures
  • children can more easily travel and work in different countries and cultures in the future
  • children understand and appreciate different cultures.

Possible challenges of bilingualism

Raising bilingual children does have its challenges. It can sometimes mean a lot of work, and it’s a long-term commitment.

When you’re raising bilingual children, you need to:

  • make sure they get lots of chances to hear and use their second and other languages
  • give your children plenty of encouragement and support
  • get support for yourself – for example, by talking to friends and family who are raising bilingual children
  • talk to your children’s teachers and get their support for your efforts
  • stick with your choice of language
  • keep yourself and your children motivated to speak your native language
  • look for ways to make your children ‘need’ to speak your native language
  • help your children resist peer pressure to ‘speak English only’.

If you sometimes feel like these challenges are too hard, it might help to think about the benefits of bilingualism – especially the way it can help you and your children develop stronger family bonds.

Sharing support, advice and experiences with other parents can be a big help. You could try starting a conversation about raising bilingual children in our online forum for parents of school-age children.

Bilingual, multilingual and multicultural resources

The websites listed below offer resources and information in languages other English.

Australia wide

Australian Capital Territory
ACT Bilingual Education Alliance

New South Wales

Northern Territory
Northern Territory Government – Multicultural Directory
 

Queensland

South Australia

Tasmania
Tasmanian Government Department of Premier and Cabinet – Culturally and linguistically diverse

Victoria

Western Australia

 
 
 
  • Last updated or reviewed 21-03-2014
  • Acknowledgements This article was written by Dr Susana Eisenchlas and Dr Andrea Schalley, School of Languages and Linguistics, Griffith University, in collaboration with the Raising Children Network.