From the moment they're born, mamas take seriously their job to teach little ones all about the world around them. And fortunately, as a child's curiosity explodes in the toddler years, opportunities to set them up for a life of learning abound. While there are certainly many ways to raise a life-long learner, research continually points to the benefits of bilingualism as a way of opening young children's minds and boosting their educational advantage for life.
"Research shows that bilinguals have stronger executive function skills in comparison to monolinguals—that is, bilinguals have been proven to outperform monolinguals on tasks that involve multitasking, paying attention and focusing, and mental flexibility," says Ilana Shydlo, Speech-Language Pathologist and founder of Polyglot Parenting.
That's because even when a bilingual is speaking one language, their brain is actively suppressing the second language, resulting in a cognitive "workout" that strengthens the part of the brain responsible for executive function and the ability to focus and multitask. "Bilingualism even helps maintain cognitive flexibility for a lifetime—research shows that bilingualism has been proven to delay the onset of symptoms of dementia and Alzheimer's disease," Shydlo says.
As they enter the school system, the benefits become even more apparent in bilingual children. Not only does knowing a second language help children pick up a third (and even a fourth) more easily, but strengthened executive function skills make it easier for them to pay attention in class, switch focus, and multitask during the school day. And the benefits only increase as they get older.
"Knowing another language can be a key in many opportunities," Shydlo says. "Being bilingual gives you a competitive edge in the job market, increases access to a greater number of careers, and allows bilinguals to command a higher salary in their chosen field of work."
Beyond the educational advancements, speaking multiple languages can have a variety of cultural benefits for children, enriching and expanding their worldview in countless ways. For example, when a child learns a heritage language, it unlocks their own background and strengthens bonds with relatives who speak the language. And the ability to communicate with more people around the world across generations allows for opportunities to connect and empathize with others across cultures.
Looking to boost your child's bilingual skills? Here are eight expert-backed ways parents can support bilingualism in their children:
1. Immerse them in the language as much as possible, from an early age, so it’s part of your child’s routine.
Books and short-form video content can play a crucial role in supporting bilingualism—in fact, foundational literacy skills in one language support literacy in the child's other language too.
Set aside time for story time in a heritage language, or make use of short-form videos like Nick Jr.'s Canticos, which introduce familiar songs and nursery rhymes in Spanish to establish a cultural connection that fosters a positive attitude toward the language.
2. Find ways to get consistent language input for your children that is realistic to maintain.
"For instance, a home with two parents who both speak the same minority language (for example, French) may choose to make it a rule to speak only French at home ("minority language only at home" method)," Shydlo says.
"A home where one parent is monolingual in English and the other parent is bilingual in English/Spanish might try the One Parent One Language Method, where one parent speaks only in English to the child, and the other parent only speaks Spanish to the child."
3. Be consistent and persistent.
It can be easy to slip into English in the U.S., but parents who successfully raise bilingual kids to be bilingual adults keep persisting despite that temptation. Incorporate language learning into things you already do every day, like reading Canticos books or watching one of their videos while waiting in line at the grocery store.
4. Make sure your child gets a lot of consistent minority language input from a variety of sources.
Forgetting a language can happen quickly if that language falls into disuse. Look into boosting your child's exposure through heritage language school programs, playgroups, dual language schools, or with regular exposure to books and videos in the heritage language.
5. Keep it positive!
Children are more likely to practice something enjoyable, so find ways to keep the fun in language learning. Make up silly stories in the heritage language, sing songs, play games, take trips to places where that language is spoken, or plan a weekly heritage night where you cook foods from that culture and exclusively speak the language being learned.
6. Take advantage of their sponge-like brains.
"Young children are constantly absorbing language, including from what they overhear," Shydlo says. "Playing heritage language music at home in the background can be a fun and easy way to add more of the minority language into your child's day."Canticos makes it even easier by using familiar songs and rhymes as well as heritage tunes in Spanish. Simply play a couple in the background every day and watch in amazement as your child picks them up in no time.
7. Connect with relatives who speak the language.
Schedule weekly video calls with faraway relatives to boost your child's exposure to the language, as well as increase their sense of connection to their heritage culture.
8. Consider hiring babysitters and caretakers who speak the heritage language.
If your caretaker is able, consider having them speak exclusively to the child in the heritage language, or designate a time of day or week as "heritage language day" to boost exposure.
This article was sponsored by Nick Jr + Canticos. Thank you for supporting the brands that support Motherly and mamas.
Ilana Shydlo is a Speech-Language Pathologist, mom to a bilingual toddler, and the founder of Polyglot Parenting. In her role as a Bilingual Parenting Consultant, she acts as a resource and expert guide for families as they navigate effectively raising children to speak two or more languages. Visit http://polyglotparenting.com/ for more information.