What Language Should You Teach Your Bicultural Child?
Updated: May 14
It can be difficult to know what language to teach your child when you are a bilingual or multilingual family. Particularly if you live in an English speaking community yet you speak another language at home as your first language. Do you teach your child to speak the same language that is used in the society in which you live? Or do you teach them your native language although it is not commonly used in your society? Then again do you teach them all the languages you speak? It can be confusing as bicultural parents to know what language you should teach your bicultural child.
This is a topic that we have started to discuss as parents given our son is now a toddler and learning to speak. My husband's first language is Punjabi therefore naturally he wants to be able to teach our son to speak in his native language. Though he can also speak Hindi which may come in useful later in life should our son be raised multilingual. Yet my heritage is Australian Finnish so I speak English though no longer can speak Suomi. However if I were still able to speak Suomi that would mean our son would be exposed to four languages. Which would make it even more confusing as to what language to teach him.
I was raised in a bilingual family with my father being Australian and my mother Finnish. Whilst I was a child my mother and her family spoke Suomi to me therefore I learnt the language. Though at home my parents spoke English which made it my first language. Once my Grandmother passed away my mother didn't continue to speak Suomi and it wasn't long till I couldn't speak the language anymore.
Being bilingual or even multilingual not only allows you to learn a part of your culture, but provides so many more opportunities in life. Learning more than one language as a child also means you don't need to go through the stress as an adult, as it gets more difficult to learn another language the older you get.
Research has actually shown that learning more than one language at a young age gives them an advantage over their monolingual peers in executive functioning. Furthermore many countries whose second language is English, it is common to teach their children to be bilingual or even multilingual. That is the cultural norm for them given that English is the most commonly spoken language in the world. Such countries as India, you will find that many children are fluent in English.
Though won't it confuse your child teaching them more than one language? This is actually a misconception as the moment your child is born they have the ability to differentiate between languages. Therefore should each parent speak to their child in a different language they learn to differentiate between the languages and who they should speak them with. The same is said when the time comes to learn to write. Just as they can differentiate and learn to speak multiple languages, they can do so with writing multiple languages. As your child learns to speak multiple languages it is only natural that they will mix words from both languages when they speak. This is just them learning rather than what some may see as confusion.
But some parents, particularly those who move abroad to English speaking countries, only believe in teaching their child one language. Whether that is because they believe it will confuse their child. Or possibly because they want to teach them their native language given they live in a English dominant society. Or they may believe it will delay speech or impair learning abilities. Personally I believe that it is beneficial for the child to at the very least learn the language of the society they live in. In addition should you be bilingual or multilingual then learning more than one language is fantastic.
I know many people who have decided to go against teaching their child English, which is the spoken language in their community. They chose to only speak their native language around their child because they believed their native language would be lost and assumed they would learn English at school anyway. Eventually the child had to go to school and couldn't speak the same language as the rest of the children. Which meant the child then had to catch up to peers.
Albeit there is no evidence to suggest these children will have learning difficulties or speech delays. Though why have your child endure this pressure and feel ostracised because they have to learn the local language while their peers can already communicate with one another. Sure they will eventually catch up however if you can speak the local language then why not teach your child this in addition to your native language.
We are fortunate in our family that we are both competent with English and speak it at home as our first language. Therefore our son will be able to transition into school easily without the need to then learn English. He is not only exposed to English at home but when we visit friends and family. Which should hopefully make him more proficient in English. In addition my husband speaks Punjabi to him on a regular basis although he doesn't hear us converse in Punjabi like he does in English. Though he is also exposed to the language when we visit my husband's friends and family. Although it isn't as often it is enough to at least enable him to differentiate the languages and learn to speak both English and Punjabi.
It is amazing just how intelligent toddlers are as our son already knows multiple words in Punjabi mean the exact same thing in English and will respond in the same manner. For instance when we ask him to come here in both English and Punjabi he understands that they mean the same in each language.
There is no research to suggest that children are confused or have learning difficulties because their bicultural parents speak more than one language. A lot of research actually evidences the opposite and that it improves their executive functioning.
What language do you teach your bicultural child?