Bilingual Children: Why You Really, Really, Really Should Start When They Are Young

by Corey · 8 comments

bilingual children why to start when they are young

By Corey Heller
Photo credit: Christina Rutz

There are thousands of reasons out there for why you should help children learn a language when they are young – very young.

Some studies point to the brain benefits of children who are raised with more than one language. Other studies explain how children naturally lose the ability to hear (and thus pronounce) the myriad of sounds around them as time passes. Start their language exposure before that happens! Other studies claim that children who master more than one language are “smarter” in targeted ways and therefore have the chance to excel in a variety of areas, including education.

Although I find all of those reasons fascinating, I find it all less than compelling when it comes to deciding whether or not I should raise my children with more than one language. Those reasons are all so very dry and pragmatic and *sigh* healthy.

Language for me is beautiful, multifaceted and magical. It’s cutting into a thick piece of cheese-cake: decadent, satisfying and daring. Yet it is also light and uplifting, like a gondola ride above the mountain-tops. Language for me is emotional and personal and imbued with more feelings than I can describe.

Despite this, I do think that raising children multilingually from as young an age as possible is important, beneficial, and *gasp* practical but not for the reasons listed at the beginning of this post. I believe that starting young gives our children tremendous benefits in very specific and obvious ways, ones that we may not realize until down the road.

I encourage you to do everything in your power to help your children learn languages when they are young.

Why? Read on…

Getting Started

When my children were young, it was easy for me to raise them in my second language (a language that I didn’t learn until college). Speaking German with them was fun and entertaining and satisfying and their first words in German delighted my husband and me to no end. When my children were young, it was easy for me to raise them in my second language (a language that I didn’t learn until college with the help of educational assistance for military personnel).

As my children grew older, their responses in German became more certain and confident. I was elated! In fact, my mother, a monolingual English speaker, lamented the fact that she couldn’t understand anything that her grandchildren were saying since it was all in German. Of course, before she knew it, my children were just as capable in English!

But what happens when we age? We grow, become more and more part of the world around us and, yes, our language skills develop in leaps and bounds. We long to communicate and participate in the world around us and language is crucial in this process.

Before I knew it, we were having full-blown conversations in German. All five of us. Together.

It was a smooth and comfortable transition from childhood monosyllable responses to sentences and then entire paragraphs about things in which my children were interested: Legos, Playmobil, Lily our cat, blossoming trees outside, playing with friends, the rare days of snow in our front yard.

Language learning had been painless and here we were conversing comfortably. No pain or frustration. No memorization of vocabulary or grammar. No effort.

Traversing the Summit

The problem with raising children in a non-native language in a country where the language is not spoken is that things can get difficult, very difficult, if you aren’t keeping up with the language yourself.

As we all know, if we don’t use our language, it slowly weakens, like a muscle that gets very little use. Our language skills slowly diminish, bit by bit, without us even really noticing.

This is what has been happening to me. I read as much as I can in German, I watch films in German, I even talk to my German husband in German (most of the time). But despite this, my German language skills have not been developing much from where they were when I came back to the United States 14 years ago, and I am fairly certain that they have been waning.

Sure, I could have done more about this: Met with more German friends, done more chatting online with Germans, written more emails in German, practiced German with the dedicated focus that I had when I first learned it. But I haven’t.

This all would be ok except for the fact that my children have been growing and developing and their language needs have expanded. They no longer engage in baby chatter. They now have the need to discuss complex concepts with detailed descriptions. They can’t wait to tell me about the latest construction they built in Minecraft or something new they learned in Math Club or in a history documentary. They long to express what is in their minds with ever-increasing detail.

This is fantastic except for the fact that their complex language needs now have come to outreach my German skills – I can no longer help them expand their German language abilities. I don’t know how to express the nuances of their descriptions in German and therefore can not help them with the vocabulary and grammar that they need. Sure, we we can look up a number of words together (which is fun and educational) but it just doesn’t fulfill the needs of spontaneous conversations and discussions which they desperately need to expand their German language skills.

For my children to be able to express themselves fully in German, they need to be exposed to these more complex elements in German.

Why You Must Start Young

Even though my children and I are hitting a road-block when it comes to complex conversations in German, they do have their native-speaking father with whom to talk. This isn’t even close to the amount of language exposure they receive with me since I am with them all day long (we homeschool). But it definitely makes a difference in their German language skills. He provides missing words and corrects grammatical errors along the way when they are together. And most importantly, he provides examples of more complex German which our children hear and take in.

Why do I bother to explain all of this? What does this have to do with your family’s situation?

Because of this: My children can only do what they do now because they have had years and years of developing their language skills. They can only now engage in more complex discussions in German because they have had years and years of becoming familiar with the language, adding new words and grammar slowly and methodically over many years.

If they were to try and start now (as they are doing with Spanish) they would be faced with an enormous gap between what they would want to say and what they actually could say. This is what makes language learning so painful. Instead, they are able to express themselves in German, filling in vocabulary holes here and there rather than feeling like they need to traverse deep crevasses.

So when people ask me why we should start our children young with a language, I say that it is so that our children will have a chance to develop their language skills over a long period of time.

If we start young, then when our children attempt to speak their first few words and sentences, these will be appropriate for their age and conversational skills. It will feel natural and comfortable for their linguistic stage in life. They will not be starting out with single words when they so desperately want to describe something complex.

Since they will already feel very comfortable with the basics, it will be an easy, smooth transition to each new stage (as long as they are given opportunities to increase their language skills each step of the way).

For our children to enjoy their multilingualism, they need to be able to transition to each of these linguistic stages comfortably, without feeling that they are constantly struggling to express themselves. There is nothing worse than having something to say and lacking the ability to find the words to say it! And even worse: To attempt to say what we want to say but instead to be constantly corrected the whole time! The only way to mitigate this is to make sure that our children’s language skills are one step ahead of what they wish to discuss.

Yes, brain benefits are awesome and it will be great if my children will always speak without a strong accent in each of their languages. But ultimately, what really counts with language is the ability to say out loud what is burning a hole in our minds.

If we can help our children comfortably express themselves with subtlety and nuance, then we will have blown the brain benefits out of the water!

Corey Heller is the founder of Multilingual Living and the Editor-In-Chief/Publisher of Multilingual Living Magazine. Multilingual Living is the place where she shares her knowledge about raising multilingual and multicultural children. Corey, an American, and her German husband live in Seattle where they raise and homeschool their three children, ages 15, 14 and 12, in German and English.

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{ 8 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Ashleigh January 31, 2014 at 6:21 am

So encouraging to hear from someone speaking and teaching their children a language they themselves learnt as an adult, just like me. I love to share my passion for languages but my greatest motivation is for him to gain a more than superficial understanding of his culture that we left on the other side of the world. Language is almost essential vehicle for true understanding.


2 Corey January 31, 2014 at 12:32 pm

I totally agree with you, Ashleigh! We so often forget that language is a vehicle and is embedded with a lot of emotion. I find that I am most motivated to learn a language, or keep one alive, when I have an emotional connection to it. Recently my children started studying Chinese history and because we were so inspired by the culture, we started learning some basics of Mandarin. (As homeschoolers, when they are learning a new subject, I am right there learning it along with them *grin*.) As you point out, language and culture are so very intertwined – it is hard to think of passing on our love of one without including the other. Thank you for comment! — Corey


3 Jonathan February 1, 2014 at 5:21 am

Great article. I’m also a parent who’s bringing up a child in a language that I didn’t grow up with (Welsh, in my case). I’m sure that there are going to be a few challenges along the way, but your article really helps to show why it’s all worth the effort.


4 Corey February 1, 2014 at 2:09 pm

Thank you for your comment, Jonathan. Yes, it has been wonderful raising my children bilingually and I am so happy to be on this multilingual journey with them, despite the frustrations along the way (especially as my German language skills slowly weaken). Kudos to you for bringing up your son bilingually in your second language! It is wonderful that you and your wife can turn to the community for support – that can make all the difference, especially as your son gets older! You have a wonderful blog – your love of fatherhood is infectious! — Corey


5 KDKPRUS February 3, 2014 at 12:45 pm

Corey, this is a fantastic post. I also believe that another benefit of fostering bilingualism or multilingualism in kids when they are young is that it may help them acquire other languages when they are older. I don’t have any scientific proof for this but I strongly feel that this has been the case in my own life. My father is from Denmark and my mother is from Puerto Rico, and during my childhood each parent would speak to my siblings and me in their own language (Danish for my father, Spanish for my mother). In school, I learned English, French, German, and Portuguese as foreign languages, and I feel that having been exposed to multiple languages at an early age helped me “tune” my ear for language learning and picking up on nuances in each language (pronunciation, syntax, etc.). I remember that my French and German teachers commented on how I spoke those languages with no accent (even if my vocabulary was limited), and once on a plane a Frenchwoman was shocked when she discovered, after a 30-minute conversation in French, that French was not spoken at home (neither parent in my family speaks French) and that I had studied the language for only one year up to that point. I definitely credit my multilingual upbringing with having sharpened my ear for foreign languages. Moreover, a special advantage of my situation is that each of my “first” languages belongs to a different language group (Spanish is Romance and Danish is Germanic), which facilitated learning other languages in these groups.

So, though I am not a parent, I definitely encourage multilingual parents to raise their children speaking multiple languages and to start this from a young age, as multilingualism is such a special gift and knowing many languages is such an important asset from both a personal as well as professional standpoint. I don’t think parents should be afraid that their children will get “confused” upon hearing different languages: while there might occasionally be some mixing up, I think the errors get smoothed out with time. I have family friends who are raising children in Spanish and German (the mother is from Puerto Rico and the father is from Germany) with the same approach that my own parents used (each parent speaks only their own language to the children, the children respond in the same language, etc.). To my knowledge, the children entered preschool in the United States without knowing English, but they are doing just fine and, as the elder of the two proudly informed me, have lots of (English-speaking) friends. It really warms my heart seeing this little kids speaking Spanish, German, and English without actually realizing it, and I hope that they are able to keep it up and learn new languages in the future.


6 Mike March 11, 2014 at 4:31 pm

As a father raising his infant daughter (along with mom’s help, of course) in Spanish and English, this is an inspiring read. There are so many reasons to do it, so get to it!


7 Sarah @ Baby Bilingual March 29, 2014 at 9:51 pm

As always, Corey, your infectious enthusiasm and optimism is exactly what I need to hear! I also appreciate your honesty in admitting that you perhaps haven’t done enough to increase your own fluency in German. But for pete’s sake, look at all that you can and still do!

My non-native French seems to grow weaker and weaker, which I notice more and more frequently as my six-year-old is starting to ask questions about subjects that I have never had to articulate in French.


8 Elisabeth Alvarado July 5, 2014 at 2:43 pm

I really loved this! I liked your point about wanting your kids to be comfortable expressing themselves, and therefore enjoying the language. I struggled so much to learn Spanish, and was elated when I got to the point where I could communicate with ease. I want my kids to be at that point early on, without all the frustration I experienced. It’s been a lot of hard work here with our first baby, but so encouraging to hear your thoughts!


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