About raising multilingual or bilingual children
If you, your partner if you have one, or other people who help you raise your child speak languages other than English, you might want your child to grow up learning these languages. Raising multilingual or bilingual children has many benefits. For example, it can improve communication and bonds in your immediate and extended family.
The best way to help children learn broad vocabularies in languages other than English is to always use those languages with them, especially in the early years.
Raising multilingual or bilingual children: your family’s options
The decisions you and your partner, if you have one, make about helping your child learn to use your languages depend on your family situation.
One person-one language
If you and your partner have different languages, the one person-one language model for supporting multilingualism or bilingualism might work for you.
For example, if your language is English and your partner’s is Mandarin, you speak English to your child and your partner speaks Mandarin to them.
This model can work with more than one language other than English. For example, if you speak Spanish and your partner speaks Italian, you each speak your own language to your child at home. If you both speak English as well, you might choose to use English with them outside the home. Your child will also learn to use English at school and in the community.
It’s ideal if you both understand each other’s languages so neither of you feels left out when you speak your language to your child.
Heritage language as home language
If you and your partner both speak the same heritage language, you might want to make this the language that you and your family use in your home.
For example, you might have migrated from Iraq to Australia and speak Arabic to your child at home. Arabic is your heritage language. Your child also goes to school and speaks 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 children might learn Auslan at home, and English in the hearing community.
The heritage language model means that your child hears, speaks and uses your heritage language a lot, because everyone in the family is using it.
Your child might be less willing to speak to you in a language other than English as they get older. It’s good to keep using the language even if your child increasingly responds in English. Even just hearing the language will benefit your child in the long term.
Raising multilingual or bilingual children: tips
Here are some practical tips for supporting your child’s multilingual or bilingual development.
Play and games
- Read and tell stories in your heritage language, and encourage your child to join in. Use dress-ups and be creative!
- Play games in your heritage language, especially games that focus on language, like ‘I spy’, bingo, ‘Who am I?’ and memory.
- Sing songs, dance and play music in your heritage language. Children love music, and melody is a great way to help them remember things.
- Look for child-friendly word game apps in your heritage language.
- Look for schools, child care centres, playgroups or multilingual and bilingual programs that support your child’s use of their heritage language.
- Organise playtime with other children who speak the same heritage language.
- Organise visits to or from speakers of your heritage language. If it’s possible for you, visiting countries where people speak the language can boost your child’s interest in the culture and ability to speak the language.
- Go to the library and borrow CDs, DVDs, picture books, age-appropriate fiction and magazines in your heritage language.
- Look 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.
- Talk to your children in your heritage language from birth.
- Listen to radio programs in your heritage language, including popular music programs and channels for teenagers.
- If you have family and friends who live overseas, you could encourage your children to connect with them using video-chat or online.
- Think about what your child is interested in – for example, soccer, music, TV shows, cooking and so on. Try incorporating your heritage 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 that language.
- Watch movies or sport in your heritage language – for example, through satellite TV or online streaming services. You can sometimes switch the audio or subtitles of English content into other languages.
- Help your older or teenage child find safe, interest-based online communities in their heritage language. Just be mindful of pre-teen internet safety and teenage internet safety.