Your Brilliant Baby in Week 11: Raising a Bilingual Child

Baby’s Brain in Week 11

Let’s say your first language is French and your spouse’s is English, and you’re debating whether to speak both languages with your infant. You wonder, will starting my baby off with two languages confuse him? Could we delay his language development if we expose him to both from birth? You know you want your baby to be fluent in each language, but you’re stumped: How do you go about raising a bilingual child?

What the Research Shows

Researchers who study language development in children know that babies are actually born to learn any language, be it Spanish or Swahili. But while babies are born with the capacity to pronounce all the sounds (called phonemes) in all languages, between six and 12 months of age this skill fades as the baby pays attention to the utterances, intonation, and diction of the languages used in his own home. Babies mimic the sounds they hear in their environments, thus strengthening their abilities to make the sounds they’ll need when they actually learn to talk.

Therefore, if a French-speaking mom wants her child to pronounce the French “R” perfectly, it’s best to give Baby the opportunity to hear it by speaking French language parentese. And chances are Baby will pick up on Dad’s southern accent over time, as well.

Week 11 Brain Booster

Go ahead, speak both (or many!) languages at home. Your child will sort it all out in good time. He’ll learn to speak French to his grandmere and grandpere, and English to his grandma and grandpa.

And what would happen if—remember, you speak both English and French—your child consistently listened to you speak English to your spouse, but you spoke French exclusively to him? Not to worry: Your baby’s brain is fully capable of learning French words from you (plus how to use them and with whom), and he’ll do the same with English from Dad.

What if both parents are native speakers of, say, Mandarin Chinese? If they speak Mandarin exclusively at home, will the child ever learn English? Yes. She’ll learn it at school and from living in the culture where English is the dominate language. She’ll only learn Mandarin from her parents. If the Mandarin-speaking parents want their children to learn Mandarin fluently as a native, they need to speak it exclusively in their home. By doing so, the children’s language skills only benefit.