Raising a bilingual child

Raising a bilingual child – 3 myths

While I was studying child psychology, one module, speech development, was of particular interest to me because we’re raising a bilingual child – she speaks Estonian and English. I did a lot more extracurricular studying for that module and would like to share some myths out there and also draw some real-life examples from our own lives.

Myth #1 – Bilingual children have speech delays

Some children do start speaking later so there are no hard and fast rules they are the bilingual ones and even if there is a delay, it’s just temporary and by school age the differences usually even out. Just so you know what the speech milestones are, here’s a useful table I found. I’m sure there a different versions out there and not all can be 100%, for example, she can name the main colours and counts to 20 in English and 10 in Estonian at three years of age.

Now, speaking from experience, I do believe our daughter’s speech is slightly delayed compared to her peers. Her English speech isn’t as clear or fluent as her friends’ in London and she’s only picking up Estonian phrases since she started kindergarten when she turned three this autumn. I’ve spoken in Estonian to her since her birth but she repeated or remembered only a small portion of words but I’m confident that because I was so insistent in speaking in my mother tongue, she has a perfect understanding of it. And often this is the first huge step towards mastering a new language. I wasn’t too worried when she started state kindergarten in Estonia, I knew she would understand everything, it’s the other way around that concerned me a little, but turns out it’s been going quite smoothly. She has new words, phrases and songs weekly, if not daily! Whether I understand everything she says is a different matter. Also, rather than switch between two languages, she often mixes them up and creates the funniest sentences and she speaks with an accent!

Here’s a wild thought – could her slight delay be because Estonian is such a hard language to learn? I’m really not making this up because according to research based on Foreign Service Institute’s rankings it’s the most difficult Latin alphabet based language to learn for a native English speaker but of course, learning a language is subjective, it also depends on one’s memory capacity and motivation. Still, just saying… 😉

Myth #2 – Bilingual children mix the two languages

Most do while they sort out both languages in their heads. Normally, one of the languages has a stronger influence and the minority language will inevitably borrow words from the majority language vocabulary but again, experts agree on this, that it’s temporary – as the vocabulary improves in both languages, the mixing disappears.

Even bilingual adults mix the languages and I’m a living example. After being abroad for 16 years I speak a dreadful Estonglish, quite often I struggle with the Estonian equivalents and just use English words instead but I’m getting much better as I’m more exposed to Estonian again.

As I already mentioned, her Estonian has come by leaps and bounds since starting Estonian kindergarten and I’m glad I didn’t put her in an international one. The aim while we’re living here is for her to pick up Estonian better than I could have ever taught her. I’m now really curious to see (hear) how her speech develops and at what point she will naturally switch between speaking in English to my husband and in Estonian to me. Until then, I get this: “I magab here”, “I käisin pissil.”, “It mahub!” and so on…

Myth #3 – It’s too late to raise your child bilingual when they’re older

Yes, it’s true that learning a second language is easier for children under 10, and even easier for children under five, compared with how much effort it takes for adults. Studies show that after puberty, a new language is stored in a separate area of the brain, so a child has to translate or go through their native language as a path to the new language. But it’s never too late! It’s just easier to start earlier.

We are raising a bilingual child by choice. I spoke to her in Estonian before we knew we were moving here so I always knew I’d want her to speak this unique sounding language. A tiny population uses it but would you not want to stand out just because of it? Also, being bilingual has some real advantages – bi- and multi-lingual people are better at observing, multi-tasking, and problem solving. They have a larger working memory even for tasks that don’t require language skills.

If you only speak one language at home but can command another one (something that isn’t taught widely at schools) very well, why not introduce it to your child before they pick up a third or fourth language at school? Here’s a tip though – you need to be very consistent and having them watching TV in Spanish and hoping something will rub off won’t quite cut it. It’s good to have some structure through your daily conversations that are meaningful and connected to real life situations. Story time is a good option and learning songs or playing games in another language as well.

Some fun ideas and strategies for raising a bilingual child.

And some further reading to those interested – a great article on what clinicians need to know about bilingual development.

To have another language is to have another soul.’