Raising bilingual children: the essential guide

Australia is a melting pot of nationalities. Over 300 different languages are spoken in Australian homes today. With approximately one in five people speaking languages other than English at home, it’s good to understand how children are introduced to their parents’ native language and how they can be supported to make the most of having access to more than one language.

Raising a bilingual child has many benefits, including helping the child’s development, sense of identity and reinforcing cultural background. Despite popular belief, learning more than one language does not confuse a child. If a child knows a parent’s native language and can speak it well, it can make it far easier for the child to learn English as a second language. In fact, better academic results have been reported amongst those speaking more than one language; they can focus more, have better analytical skills and are good at multitasking.

Once the child is an adult, they will have the advantage of speaking another language, which is useful for socialising, travel and business. Enriched by another culture and having a sense of belonging, a bilingual child will often feel more confident.

There are various models that can be used to teach a child their parents’ native language.

The one person-one language model

This language model is useful for couples where different native languages are spoken at home. For example, if the father speaks French and the mother speaks German, you simply speak to your child in your native tongue. This is straightforward for the child and enables the child to learn more than one language in the home.

If you want your child to be fluent in a particular language (other than English), it is recommended that you only speak this language to your child when at home. This cements the child’s learning process and also helps broaden their vocabulary.

This one person-one language model also has other benefits. For example, it’s a wonderful way of connecting with your child through parts of your life like your background or culture that are precious and important to you.

This language model also allows the child to both listen to and speak the language. The model works best if both parents understand each other’s language, so no party feels left out of conversations with the child.

The minority language model

If you and your spouse both speak the same native language at home, the minority language pattern is a good way of supporting bilingualism. Let’s set an example. If you’ve migrated from Turkey, and both parents speak Turkish at home, this will be the minority language because for the rest of the time, the child will be speaking English at school and in the neighbourhood.

Essentially, the minority language model is one where your kids speak, hear and use your native language most of the time at home – because that is the language you, the parents, are both using.

Quick facts on bilingualism

Learning a language other than English will not slow a child’s progress with learning English at school. Studies have shown that those can who can read and write in one language already are likely to have a strong general understanding of language and will be at an advantage when learning another language.

Bilingualism does not delay speaking. Children will develop their speaking in two languages the same rate as other children speaking only one language.

Bilingualism does not confuse children. Children can easily identify who to speak to in which language.

Helpful tips for doing it right

  • Bilingualism for children - Sage Institute of Child CareJoin or form a support group with other bilingual kids – find others that are learning the same mother tongue and get together for social activities.
  • Read your child stories in the language they are learning.
  • Play fun games speaking only your native language.
  • Go to the library and get books and videos spoken in your native language.
  • Tune into a local radio station that uses the language the child is learning.
  • Get creative – think of hobbies and activities your child enjoys and incorporate the language into their activity. For example, if the child likes cooking, give them a cook book written in your language.

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Vicki Tuchtan

Vicki Tuchtan

Vicki Tuchtan is the Academic Director at Sage Institute of Education. She oversees learning processes, teaching outcomes, resources and course development. A passionate advocate for bettering standards of training in Australia, she is currently writing her PhD thesis on defining quality training in the Australian vocational education sector.
Vicki Tuchtan

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