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Becoming bilingual: How to help your child learn another language?

It is very important to me that Madi and George are able to speak both English and Cantonese. I try my best to speak Cantonese with Madi and George at home, but it’s hard as my husband only speaks English. Here are someways a child can learn another language and become bilingual.

Becoming bilingual through simultaneous bilingualism:

Simultaneous bilingualism is when a child equally understands and speaks two different languages. 

Simultaneous bilingualism often occurs when a child learns two languages at the same time right from birth.  In this way of becoming bilingual, a child likely has their parents speaking two languages (ie: English and Cantonese) equally, 50/50, right from birth. 

In this method they may also learn another language by having their parents speak one language (ie: English) and another caregiver such as grandparents speaking the other language (ie: Cantonese).

If a child learns two languages from birth and has equal exposure to both languages, they are likely to fully become bilingual.  In this method, they are likely to be fully fluent and balanced in language skills for both of the languages very early on in life. 

Receptive bilingualism:

Receptive bilingualism is a way that a child can learn another language by understanding a second language, but being unable to speak the second language. 

This type of bilingualism usually occurs when a child is exposed early on to a second language but does not practice and speak their second language every day. 

Because of the lack of exposure, they are more likely to understand the language than to be able to fluently speak the language.

Learning another language through sequential bilingualism

Sequential bilingualism is when a child learns one language first and then acquires another language at a later stage in life. 

This is common for children that have immigrated to a new country or whose parents have put them in a language school later in life, like starting French immersion in grade 7.  

With sequential bilingual acquisition, children can still fully become bilingual.  In sequential bilingualism, the resulting language abilities vary greatly from child to child.   Depending on the frequency of exposure, children develop varying language abilities in their non-native language. 

If you hope your child can become bilingual, here are some tips for learning another language that you can use with your child:

  1. Buy bilingual books: Bilingual books are books that are written in two different languages where the same story line is written for each language.  The medical literature shows that children who have access to bilingual books have advancement in bilingual language development compared to children who do not. 
  2. Listen to music, radio, or television in the new language.
  3. Read books or newspapers in the new language. 
  4. Find events or organizations in the new language – festivals, churches, etc.
  5. Attend a bilingual school
  6. Encourage your child to read and write in their new language.
  7. Speak both languages equally at home. 
  8. Give your child positive reinforcement and lots of praise your child for all language efforts.

This post was co-authored by Suzanne Black, MD, BSc and Stephanie Liu, MD, MSc, CCFP, BHSc.


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