How to Raise your Child Bilingual

An increasing number of parents make the decision that they want their children to grow up bilingual, or even speaking three languages. The reason for this can vary, it might be that the parents have different nationalities and each wants to pass on their own heritage and culture, the parents might live in a foreign country and want to retain their mother tongue or parents might just want to give their children a head-start in life by learning a foreign language from the beginning.

Whichever reason, bringing your child up to speak more than one language requires determination and a plan of action! Unsurprisingly experts share the opinion that time is of the essence, i.e. the earlier you start, the better and that consistency is key to successful bilingualism in children.

The most common approach, often favoured if parents have different nationalities, e.g. the mother is German and the father is English as it is the case in my family, is called OPOL.

OPOL stands for One Parent One Language. In practise this means that each parent only uses their own language when speaking to the child. In my family that means that I speak German to the children, my husband speaks English to them and my husband and I speak English together. This can look and sound very confusing to bystanders, but the children get to hear and to speak both languages and they know consistently which language to use. My daughter knows that Mummy says ‘Katze’ but Daddy says ‘Cat’ which gives her a sense of stability and reassures her in a strange world where things can have many different names.

A different approach is called OLOL. This stands for One Location, One Language. This approach can be particularly useful if both parents speak the foreign language, e.g. a Swedish Couple lives in France. Both parents will want to speak their mother tongue to the children, so they both speak Swedish to each other and the children. But as they want to make sure that the child learns to speak the language of the country they are living in, in this example French, they only speak their mother tongue at home. Outside of the home, they speak French.

This approach can also be useful for parents where only one speaks the foreign language. Parents often find it difficult to stay in their mother tongue whilst out and about. People might stare and they feel embarrassed or they consider it impolite to speak a language that others don’t understand or they might find it hard work to constantly have to translate to others what they said to their children. The OLOL approach offers a solution without sacrificing consistency.

Whichever method you feel right for yourself, if you make the decision to bring up your child speaking several languages, make that commitment, decide on your approach and be consistent. Your child will benefit from it in the long term. And the earlier you start and the more support you give the child e.g. by attending play groups in the foreign language, the better the chances that he or she will understand and speak the foreign language to a good standard.