Multilingual and Bilingual Children: Benefits and Challenges

Do you remember learning your ABCs? You had to make sense of the squiggly lines, the sounds they represented and all the rules that magically appeared when you formed words (oh, the joy of silent letters!). Well, what about learning your ABCs and your 诶比西? Or how about your αβγ while still learning your wahid, itnan, talata from your one, two, threes? 

This is the reality for many bilingual children, meaning those who speak in two languages. And it doesn’t stop there. Some children are multilingual and learn up to four languages by the age of five! While this may seem strange from an Australian perspective, learning two or more languages from birth is very common in many parts of the world and monolingualism – speaking in one language – is considered unusual.   

Such an undertaking can be overwhelming for any parent, so we’ve broken down some of the common methods of nurturing multilingual and bilingual children, and the benefits and challenges behind them.

One Parent, One Language

One Parent, One Language – or OPOL – is perhaps the most common bilingual approach. As the name suggests, this method involves each parent only speaking to their child in one language. For example, if a child were learning English and Italian, one parent would only ever speak to the child in Italian, while the other would only ever speak to the child in English.  

The theory is it creates necessity for the child. If they want to communicate with each respective parent, they need to pick up the language. Necessity is key as learning a language is hard work, and children often revert to what’s easiest and only do things if they absolutely must. 

The main benefit of OPOL is it provides structure with children as they learn with a native speaker of the language in a controlled environment, so they will be exposed to the speaker’s native accent and nuances. The aim of OPOL is to establish double monolingualism, meaning they are equally fluent in both the native and minority languages. Keep in mind, this is a very high standard. 

The main challenge of OPOL is consistency, as parents aren’t always one-on-one with their child. They will hear the parents speak to each other over dinner, when they’re out in the community and it can be difficult for parents to follow the method all the time. This can lead to a situation where the child may still understand the language but reply in the native language or confuse the two.  

Minority Language at Home 

Minority Language at Home – or MLAH – is where the minority language is the only language spoken within the confines of the home. One of the major benefits of this approach is it maintains the structure of OPOL while strengthening the cultural bond of the family by keeping the traditions of the family’s home country alive. 

One of the challenges of MLAH is for young children that are not yet at school age or are not attending childcare or community events, as they may have little to no exposure to the native language by the time they enrol and may fall behind their peers. Children who learn the minority language before three years old and then learn another are considered sequential bilingualists. 

Time and Place Method

The Time and Place method – otherwise known as T&P or Situational Bilingualism – relies on the contextual nature of language. Parents may employ a different language when visiting grandparents who speak the minority language, enrol their child at a monolingual school, assign a certain area in the house (such as a language room) or even while holding chosen objects like a special book or sentimental item.  

Time also plays a pivotal role as parents can designate certain days of the week, weekends, hours in the day or even entire weeks at a time to speak a certain language, highlighting the power of T&P – it’s entirely up to the parents!  

This also presents challenges. If too flexible, it may lack the consistency that is pivotal to instilling the minority language. It may also have similar challenges to OPOL, where children might understand the minority language, but reply in the native language.  

Mixed Language Policy

The Mixed Language Policy, or MLP, encourages parents to speak freely and use languages interchangeably, creating a consistent stream of both languages to the child, without favouring one.  

The arguments against MLP are that it creates confusion for children so they may favour one language and speak a slang or dialect in the other (e.g. Spanglish). Another potential shortcoming is that it doesn’t allow enough monolingual conversations, so exposure to one language isn’t focused. 

There are also Mixed Systems, or MS, where one parent only speaks a native language while the other speaks the native language and the minority language.  

What Does the Science Say?

There has been extensive research examining bilingual and multilingual parenting techniques and their efficacy. According to Adam Beck, author of Maximize Your Child’s Bilingual Ability, OPOL has a success rate of 74.24%. While this sounds high, this is a considerable drop off when considering the prominence of OPOL.  

In a study on 110 English-Spanish bilingual families in Madrid, the researchers found that: 

  • 54% used OPOL 
  • 29% used a variation of MS 
  • 13% used MLAH  
  • 2% used MLP 

The effectiveness and prominence of these methods continues to be hotly debated, with many experts and families praising some methods while denouncing others. It’s about trial and error, so don’t feel like you must follow one method religiously. Read books, listen to podcasts, speak to friends and family, and borrow elements from different methods to see what works for you, as no two families are exactly alike!

Why it’s Important

You may be asking yourself: why bother? If you live in a country where almost all the people your child will work, study and live with speak English, why go to the extents listed above? 

In interview with ABC, Sheila Ngoc Pham, host of the My Bilingual Family podcast, suggested that it’s about more than practicality and fosters ‘greater empathy and understanding of difference and being able to understand different ways of speaking and thinking.’  

In fact, this is exactly why teaching monolingual and bilingual children another language is so difficult. Language use is borne out of necessity, and if children don’t need the language, they often don’t appreciate the undertaking. The benefits are often cultural and sentimental, however there is growing research that suggests multilingual and bilingual children exhibit improved cognitive function.  

Languages are a way for families to connect with their homeland and pass down their traditions. This has created a sense of urgency with some families, as there is a belief that minority languages only last three generations in a new native country: 

  • 1st Generation: strong in minority language, weak in native language. 
  • 2nd Generation: strong in native language, weak in minority language. 
  • 3rd Generation: strong in native language, speak little or no minority language.   

Dr Anikó Hastoss of the University of New South Wales suggests that parents should manage expectations when teaching bilingual and monolingual children, and not to blame themselves as children are growing up in a very different world. Keep in mind, the native language will almost always become the dominant language due to school, friends and cultural influence such as movies, television and books, so don’t be too hard on yourself.  

In a 2015 study, one parent outlined how teaching bilingual children became a shared learning experience

‘I read to my kids in Spanish, and then I try to read with the English that I know. If I’m saying a word wrong [in English], even if it’s with the little one, he says “no,” and corrects me. We learn together.’ 

This paper also highlighted that while several studies suggest bilingual and multilingual children have economic advantages over monolinguals, others have indicated no such advantages are evident. However, this is subject to change in the coming years ‘given the current focus on global economic issues.’ 

Ultimately, structure and patience are key in teaching bilingual and monolingual children. It can be hard for them to understand, especially when they don’t see the tangible benefit. Try and make it fun, play games with words and numbers and show them why it means so much to you, your family and your heritage.  

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