5 Tips for anyone raising a bilingual child

Hii! I posted a poll about this on Instagram today, and you guys said you wanted to hear more about the subject… so here we go!

Like I mentioned in my IG stories, my first language is French. Even before having kids, it was always my plan to speak French to our boys. Most of my family, both on my mom’s and dad’s side, are French, and many of them don’t speak a word of English. It’s important to me that our boys can speak to their cousins and that they be in touch with their French heritage. My Dad would’ve wanted that, too.

When I had Liam, I only spoke to him in French (which is why he understands basically everything!) He can translate most words and is overall very receptive to the language.

Noah, however, understands a lot less. He seems intimidated by the language. Me writing this post is also me holding myself accountable to do better. It is sometimes really difficult to switch between languages (I speak English to Joe and French to the boys!) but I know these efforts are worth it. Language is SUCH a gift, and I know that first-hand.

Graduating from my MFA in Creative Writing in 2014. I’ve been in the U.S.A. since 2008!

My life would’ve been SO different had I not gone to an American school (thank you Mom and Dad for that one) and learned English so young. Pretty much the entire course of my life would’ve been different… and I most likely wouldn’t be in New York today!

I promised I’d share a few of my tips for anyone trying to raise bilingual kids. It may feel daunting right now (I often struggle with this), but you’d be surprised at how much little ones are able to absorb! Liam surprises me every day with his developing French/English vocabulary.

Basically, this is what we try to do at home:

I shared a book I read when I was pregnant with Liam called “7 Steps to Raising a Bilingual Child”. One of the chapters highlights that, when possible, parents should each have a respective language. In our house, Joe (and his family) speak English to the boys, and I speak to them in French (along with my family, both in SXM and France.)
I try to ask the boys a lot of questions. I’ll often ask, for example, ‘what does “méchant” mean in English?” or “ou est la chaise?” to quiz the boys and see if they actually understand the words. Question everything, and don’t assume they understand. Sometimes, all it takes is a little clarification. The more exposure to the language, the better – trust me, they absorb it all!
Storytelling is a great way to teach a language. Picture books allow children to understand stories more easily. I love sharing French songs and nursery rhymes with the boys. They know “Au Clair de la Lune” and “Une Souris Verte” by heart!
Our kids love their technology. They love watching TV, so we allow it as long as it’s educational (and not more than a few spaced out shows a day!) On Youtube, you can find the French version of many popular shows we watch in the U.S. like Caillou, PJ Masks, or Dora the Explorer. There are plenty of videos on colors, shapes, and phonics as well! Liam loved Bob the Train (or, should I say, Bob Le Train) when he was little.
It’s easy to get discouraged when, despite your consistent efforts, your child doesn’t speak the language. If you keep going, it is only a matter of time before they do! Don’t sweat it too much, and just focus on exposing your child to the language as much as possible.

Are you raising a bilingual child? Share your story in the comments below! xoxo

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Johanna Riehm teaches in the department of Communication and Media at Manhattanville College and in the department of English at Mercy College. She teaches courses in the history of communication, public speaking, and social media, as well as creative and technical writing workshops. Johanna’s work has been featured in Graffiti Literary Magazine, The Write Place at the Write Time, The Bangalore Review, Cactus Heart Press, and the LaMothe Review. She is working on her first longer work, a creative nonfiction novel called We Carved Our Names in Tamarind Trees.

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