How to bring up a bilingual baby


Is it too early to start introducing two languages to my baby? Can babies be bilingual?
How can I bring up my baby to be bilingual?

My short answers to the first two questions are “No” and “Yes”.  Of course babies can be bilingual and it’s never to early to introduce multiple languages.  Read on to find out how…

The information in this post is a mixture of my personal experience of bringing up bilingual children – first my daughter, now five, and now also my son who, at four months old, is just at the beginning of his bilingual journey - and information from other bilingual parents and language acquisition or bilingualism experts of various sorts in other blogs and podcasts.

At to the end of this article you can find links to the resources I used.

How To Bring Up Bilingual Babies - What I've Learnt So Far


What I've learnt so far about raising bilingual babies


With my daughter, my first child, I was determined to bring her up to be bilingual.  My native language is English but that is the minority language here as the main language in our household and outside in the community is Spanish.

I began speaking English to her while she was still in the womb, which meant a conscious effort on my part as I was used to using Spanish as the day to day operating language.  It also meant, for some odd reason, that I started talking to the dogs in English, too!  In the later months of pregnancy I would be out for a walk with one of the dogs chatting away in English but not quite sure if I was talking to the baby or the dog!

Anyway, I made the decision to speak only English with my daughter and, right from birth, this is what I did.  I ignored the negative comments from certain people who told me that there was no point because she wouldn’t be able to understand me (I know now how important that early exposure to language is and why).  There are a few obstacles along the way that we have had to deal with and will keep having to deal with, however.

It became a habit that I didn’t have to think about – I would automatically switch to English to address my daughter even if I was talking to someone else in Spanish.  On a few occasions when she was a bit older and we were with Spanish-speaking children I spoke to my daughter in Spanish so as not to exclude the other kids and it felt so strange and unnatural.  Generally in these types of situations I’m switching between English with my daughter and Spanish with the other children.

How To Bring Up Bilingual Babies - What I've Learnt So Far

When should I start?

As early as possible!  The general consensus is that the earlier you start to introduce two or more languages to your baby, the better chance they will have of becoming bilingual and the easier it will be for them.

Having said that, it’s never too late.  The best time is from zero to three years old when children are still learning their first language and their minds are still flexible.
But from ages four to seven children are still capable of learning a new language alongside the first and come to speak both languages like a native speaker.

After puberty, when you learn a new language you learn it through the lens of your first language, generally translating between the two.  New languages get stored in a separate area of the brain from the mother tongue.

This was my case; I started learning Spanish in secondary school.  I had minimal exposure - only the few hours of school Spanish each week.  What really helped my fluency was going to live in a Spanish-speaking country much later.   After fifteen years in Mexico I guess I would call myself bilingual and even find myself thinking in Spanish sometimes.  But it's been a very long journey for me.

How To Bring Up Bilingual Babies - What I've Learnt So Far - Languages Quote

How do I raise a bilingual baby?

Start early


As I mentioned before, you should start as early as possible, from the third trimester of pregnancy onwards.  Babies can hear voices and distinguish the changes of pitch and intonation – different in different languages - even if they can’t hear the words themselves.  According to studies, newborn babies tend to prefer songs that they heard while in the womb.

The capacity that babies’ little brains have for learning language is mind-boggling.  Did you know that all babies are born with the ability to identify and distinguish between every possible sound of any language in the world?  It doesn't matter where they were born or what their parents' nationalities are; what matters is the languages they hear and have spoken to them on a regular basis.  And in theory as many languages as you like!

As they get older, from around ten months old, they will start to lose this skill, instead just focussing on the sounds of the languages that are relevant to them, the ones they hear daily.  This is why it is more difficult for us later in life to understand differences between the sounds of a foreign language which don't exist in our own native languages.


Be a part of our community for more resources, advice and support in raising bilingual and/or expat children:
Bilingual & Expat Parenting Facebook Group


Baby Talk

How do you talk to your baby?

Did you know that "baby talk" - that peculiar way we instinctively talk to babies using a high-pitched sing-song voice - actually serves a purpose in their language acquisition?

Apparently this way of speaking, also called infant-directed speech, helps babies process the language and understand where words begin and end.

Personally, it's not always easy to use baby talk with my baby, it doesn't always come naturally, but I've been trying to do it as much as possible.  And in fact it is what he reacts to most, he smiles at my smile and the interesting sounds I'm making!  Sometimes he will answer me, too, with cooing noises.

Of course this way of talking is much more likely to capture a baby's short attention span than normal speech which probably sounds a lot more monotone and boring.

So if you use baby talk with your baby keep doing it as much as you can because you're giving your baby an advantage when it comes to acquiring language skills.

How To Bring Up Bilingual Babies - What I've Learnt So Far - text about babies' language abilities

Decide on a method

There are different methods or systems you can use to raise bilingual babies who will grow up to be bilingual adults.  You may find it necessary to change the system you are using if your circumstances change or it is no longer working for you.  That's okay.  The key to success is to be consistent with whatever method you choose and to persevere through all obstacles. 

OPOL (One person one language)


This is basically the method I've been using, although at the beginning I didn't know it had a name or that there were other methods.  

It means that each person sticks to one language and babies at first will learn to associate the language with the person who speaks it.  Supposedly this is to avoid confusion between the two - or more - languages, but in fact this is another myth and in reality no studies have found that children need each language to be spoken by a particular speaker. 

I speak only English with my children at all times and their daddy only speaks to them in Spanish.  I haven't been very strict in insisting that my daughter respond to me in English; up to now I've let her choose how she speaks. These days, she usually talks to me in Spanish, sometimes in English, and sometimes a mixture of both.


Minority Language At Home


In this method the whole family speaks only the minority language at home together and the majority language of their community outside the home.  This would obviously work best when both parents are native or very fluent speakers of the majority language.


Time and Place


The language spoken depends on the time or the place.  It could be that a particular part of the day is assigned to each language - as in a school schedule - or perhaps in different relatives' houses different languages are spoken.


Mixed Language Policy


This is a when different languages can be used by anyone, at any time and in any given circumstance.  The languages can even be used interchangeably at the same time.  This method really has no rules, although this means that it could be difficult to ensure that both languages are being used enough.


There are also different adaptations of each method.  You just have to find what works best for you and your family and ensure that your child gets enough quality exposure to each language.


How To Bring Up Bilingual Babies - What I've Learnt So Far - text about language exposure

Interaction is key!

The fact that you're talking directly to your baby also helps them to pick up language. The more you talk and interact directly with your baby, the more opportunity they have to learn.

Studies have shown that just watching or listening to TV or videos in the target language doesn’t help babies’ language acquisition at all.  It can be a useful supplementary tool for slightly older toddlers and children when used in addition to real conversation with real people, but babies are only going to learn a language if they have regular interaction with a real life person speaking to them in that language.

The richest language input usually comes from the parents or caregivers of child, but there's no reason why other people - grandparents and other relatives, friends of the family, etc - can't provide valuable language input too.


Multiple speakers

In fact, it is even better if babies have contact with several different people who speak to them in the target language. More people will provide a richer language input than just one person.

It can be difficult if you don't know many other people in your local community who speak the target language.  Video calls with my parents and sisters provide us with an opportunity for Emma to interact with other English speakers - and even better when they come and visit - at the moment I tend to have to remind her to speak English to them, though!

Even my four-month-old can benefit from video calls; the other day he seemed to realise that the people in the little screen were real and talking to him when he smiled and giggled at his grandparents on Face Time.


The important thing to remember is that language exposure should be meaningful and interesting, consistent and based on real interaction with real people.


How To Bring Up Bilingual Babies - What I've Learnt So Far - Baby Laughing Long Pin


I found lots of useful and interesting information for this article in the following resources:

Babylab podcast

Entre Dos Podcast

Bilingual Kids Rock - How to raise a bilingual child

TheConversation.com - Why it's okay for bilingual children to mix languages

Bilingual Kidspot - How to raise a bilingual child - choose your method

Bilingual Kidspot - Bilingual Babies

Raising Bilingual Children

Keep Calm and Carry On Linking Sunday

Shank You Very Much

6 Comments

  1. This is such a great post!! I am from Norway and live in England! And as you can imagine, I speak Norwegian, my oldest child is fully biligual (or no he's learning German in school and is quite good bless him, so 3 languages). But with my other two, I was really good whilst they were small, up to about age 2-3 (they are now 6 and 8!) aaand then it fell apart... A lot had to do with my hubby who didn't speak Norwgian or understand it and it caused some problems... And I'm the only person I know in England near me, who speaks Norwegian, so there's no places to go for them to interact with children who are also bilingual in that language. :'(

    I'm currently working on introducing it again, and they are picking it up! So thanks for the ideas! I'll def. have a look, and I did join the FB group. :D

    #KCACOLS

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  2. Babies have amazing brains don't they? I think it must be wonderful to be fully bilingual and your children are so lucky that they'll be fluent in two languages at such an early age. #kcacols

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  3. I do believe that teaching kids multiple languages is worth doing. To me it's easier for them to learn at a younger age. #KCACOLS Thank you for sharing all of these resources.

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  4. So interesting - I speak German as well as English and I try and teach my son a few words but because it isn't spoken in the home, it's hard to ever be consistent. Thanks so much for linking up at #KCACOLS. Hope you come back again next time!

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  5. What a great post. i wish i had started with a language with my children at a younger age

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  6. This is absolutely fascinating. I had no idea that our brain stores languages other than the mother tongue in a different way. I am trying to learn french (im 35) and am finding it slow progress now I know why! #KCACOLS

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