Teaching your child to be bilingual

All my children are multilingual. My first born, now seven years old, speaks, reads, writes (all fluently) in three languages (Polish, English, and French). My second is not far behind, he can speak both Polish and English and is now in French immersion kindergarten learning French. My third is just learning to speak, but he knows both Polish and English.

I am Polish, born in Poland. When we came to Canada, I was only six years old. I didn’t know how to speak English, and my grade one teachers thought I was mute, because I didn’t say a word that whole first year. Finally, I broke my silence in grade two, and by grade five I had no accent in my English Language. “Kids learn languages very easily.” – that’s what most people think. In my case, this was true. By grade seven, my parents realized that it wasn’t too late for me to learn yet another language, so they sent me to French Immersion. Again, learning French in Grade 7 was easy – I was operational by Christmas, and by the end of grade 7 I was fluent.

This is a pretty typical scenario for immigrant children. The only difference is that most of them lose their first language very soon after they arrive in their new home. Their parents don’t keep a watchful eye and the language is lost.

A lot of my Polish friends, like me, didn’t know how to speak English when they came to Canada. But after just a few years, they lost all the Polish they knew when they came. “If you don’t use it you lose it!” NOT ME. My parents were very keen on speaking Polish at home. For them, it was a very big deal to keep the language (and the Polish culture) alive. I remember that my parents would make us pay 10 cents for every English word we spoke at home. My brother and I would get in trouble if we spoke English to each other. And even when my Polish friends spoke English to me, I felt obliged to talk Polish back to them.

This idea, of the importance of language, was therefore ingrained in me since childhood. And even in my early adulthood, I found myself taking Spanish and French courses, just for the fun of it. So when it was time to have kids, it was understood that my kids would learn Polish and English at the minimum. But how would I approach this? There was a few different approaches, as I found out:

1. Learn one language first. After the child is a master at this first language, introduce the next language. (This is how I learned.)

2. Learn both languages simultaneously: one parent speaks one language to the child, and the other parent speaks the other language.

After doing a bit of research on the subject, I decided to go with the second approach. I would talk only Polish to my kids and my husband would only speak English to them. From what I read, children could learn two languages at once only with minimal language delays. I didn’t care about this at the time, and I knew that only by immersion could children truly learn a language. Also, I knew that once I started talking with my child in one language it would be hard to switch later on in life.

For my first child, this method worked like a charm. I think he did have a slight delay in language. I remember that some of my friends’ kids were already saying simple sentences by two, but not my son – he was just starting to say words. But it didn’t take him long to catch up. By three years old he talked to me (and my Polish family) in beautiful complex Polish sentences. To my husband (and other English speakers) he spoke beautifully in English. He would even sometimes translate from Polish to English for my husband. But it was perfectly natural for him to speak one sentence to me in Polish and then follow that up with another to my husband in English. I loved it!

Then came our second child. This kid did not absorb language as fast as our first. He had trouble with speaking for a long time. I remember that at three years old he was hardly talking and we were concerned. His vocabulary was very small and he had a hard time remembering words, in Polish or English. And on top of it all, his pronunciation was so bad that it was hard to understand him. He understood everything in both languages, that was at least comforting. But because of the language developmental problems, we asked our doctor for advice. He referred us to both a hearing test and a speech pathologist. And then he said that we should stop speaking to him in two languages, and just keep the one (presumably English, since my husband didn’t speak Polish). I couldn’t believe my ears! My favorite doctor was giving me this TERRIBLE advice. How does he not know the importance of language – multiple languages. On top of it, if I was not going to speak Polish to my one son, then my second son would also lose it. This would have been a huge loss for my kids. So in the end, after doing a little bit of research on the matter, I ignored the advice. As for the hearing test, there was a three month waiting period, so I ignored that as well. When I called the speech pathologist, she told me that given my child was learning two languages at once, that he was still within the normal range of learning to speak. She also eased my fears by letting me know that children can be different, and just because one of my sons learned to speak nicely early on, doesn’t mean that all of my children will be the same. She recommended that I wait a few more months and then decide
whether to proceed to see her. I liked that option, and as it turns out, she was right. My son was showing remarkable improvements. Now, he is fluent in Polish and English and is learning his third language, French. He is definitely not as good at language as my first son. Even now, he mixes the two languages, especially when talking to me. Recently he even puts in French into the mix – it’s pretty funny to listen to. I’m sure he’ll get out of that habit if I’m consistent in correcting him though.

This advice given by my doctor, to speak in only one language, is pretty common, as I talk to other parents. For instance, my Italian friend had the exact same problem with her second child: he was slow at picking up both English and Italian. And just like my doctor, her doctor told her to just talk to her son in English. Instead of being stubborn like me, she decided to follow her doctor’s advice. But this changed her whole life. Now, all her children don’t know Italian, and now instead of talking Italian at home, the language was English. Her children can’t talk to their grandparents because the grandparents don’t know how to speak English. Now the Italian culture is gone from that family. Language really is the gateway to culture.

Lastly I wanted to point to the many studies showing the benefits of bilingualism (or multilingualism). Bilingual people are smarter, healthier, and live longer: