How to Raise a Bilingual Child & The Benefits of Learning a Second Language

More than 1 in 5 school-aged children speak a language other than English at home, according to And parents who once thought teaching their child two languages might hurt the child’s ability to learn their first language have been proven wrong. Children who learn two languages develop speaking skills as quickly as their peers, according to the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association. While children may initially have smaller vocabularies in both languages, the number of total words they know is the same as a monolingual child. And, of course, as children work with the languages, they learn both fluently.

“It is always a difficulty to learn a new and different language,” says Judy Chen, who previously worked at the New York Chinese Cultural Center, which starts teaching Mandarin to children before their 4th birthday. “However, once you get the hang of it, it becomes easier and easier. For younger children, it is easier for them to retain new things they learn.”

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What are the benefits of being bilingual for kids?

Children who learn multiple languages benefit in many ways. 

Learning a second language introduces kids to other cultures and traditions.

Kristin and Jeff Graham became interested in language classes as a way to explore their Russian heritage. “It was an easy decision to pursue the learning of Russian language, music, and art, and we made it part of their growing experience,” Kristin says. “We believe knowing another language can only help. We also hope that someday they will pass it down to their children.”

Being bilingual helps kids in school.

Mara and Stephan Weidman who sent their kids to the German International School of New York both believed that not only would it be nice for the kids to speak Dad’s native language, but their kids would benefit from the bilingual education. “It can only help their young brains learn better,” Mara says.

In fact, according to a National Health Institute study, children who grew up learning multiple languages are better at switching between tasks. The skills in understanding and speaking more than one language, like refocusing from a mentally demanding task such as writing an essay to a more artistic one such as painting, engage working memory, inhibition, and shifting. Other studies show increased neural activity in response to completely unfamiliar languages.

Kids who speak a second language could earn more money.

Another striking benefit? A 2020 report from the Bureau of Labor and Statistics projects that jobs for interpreters and translators will grow 20 percent from 2019 to 2029, much faster than the average for all occupations. And studies have shown that bilingual employees can earn 5-20 percent more money per hour than those who speak only one language.

“Whichever career our children choose, knowing another language can never be detrimental,” Chen says. “Many people believe Americans are ignorant to the outside world. By learning another language, which helps children learn about cultures, we can prove those who think Americans are ignorant wrong.”


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How difficult is it for kids to learn a new language?

Parents who are worried about the toll learning another language can take on children’s schedules shouldn’t fear. Many classes are offered weekly or several times per week. Classes are often more laidback than at traditional schools; children complete a variety of activities including singing songs, playing games, or making crafts to learn the language. Even if parents don’t understand the language, they can still help their children learn it, Chen says.

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“Chinese is not the easiest language to learn, and a little motivation goes a long way,” she adds. “Parents can also take Chinese with their kids and learn with them. This way, they can both practice it together at home. Many of our parents regret not having learned Mandarin at a younger age and don’t want their kids to go through the same thing.”

It’s more difficult to learn a language after age 12, but it’s not impossible. So while their children will pick up the new language first, parents shouldn’t be frustrated.

How can parents help kids learn another language?

Parents don’t necessarily have to learn another language for their children’s language acquisition to be successful. There are many programs, like Muzzy BBC, and kids can read books like Bob the Builder in French (Bob le Bricoleur) or Little Red Riding Hood (Cappuccetto Rosso) in Italian. There are also toys, games, and flashcards in different languages. If your child is enrolled in language classes, ask their teacher for recommendations. 

Older children who know the basics of a foreign language have more options for practicing speaking, reading, and writing. They can find a pen pal they would like to exchange emails with. Those who like computer and video games may choose to learn through those avenues. Plus, there are many language podcasts and apps available.

Here are some other suggestions from local experts for how parents can help their children learn a second language:

1. Buy music in the target foreign language.

By playing music in a foreign language on a regular basis, parents and children develop an ear for the language, helping with vocabulary recognition and aiding with the correct pronunciation of words and phrases. Soon, both of you will sing along! 

2. Attend classes with your children (and pay attention!).

When a child is enrolled in a toddler-age language educational play class, one of the biggest secrets to his or her success lies in the behavior of their caregiver, says François Thibaut, founder and director of Language Workshop for Children. “At the LWFC, we’ve noticed a tremendous correlation between a child’s accomplishments and the way their caregiver acts in class,” Thibaut says. Merrily prompt children to watch and listen to the teacher. React enthusiastically to new activities when they’re introduced, too.

3. Encourage relationships with native speakers.

Whether your children meet them at a local group, cultural institute, or school, relationships with native speakers are crucial to learning to speak a foreign language properly. Organize game nights with other speakers and only speak that language.

4. Label items in your house with the word in the target language.

Buy a pad of sticky notes and put them on items in your house in the target language as your child learns the associated vocabulary. “Be creative! If you don’t have a fish, let your child draw a goldfish bowl and label it ‘le poisson’ if your child is learning French,” suggests Shawn Scott, director of instruction, North America at Berlitz. “When your child opens the door, remind him or her that it is a ‘porta’ if he or she is studying Italian. When your child encounters the words on a daily basis, he or she is much more likely to remember them.”

5. Celebrate the culture and heritage of native speakers.

Prepare a dinner with cuisine from a country that speaks the language. Try participating in a cultural event or festival, like Cinco de Mayo or Lunar New Year. Such immersion activities that are not focused on rote learning make adopting the language more exciting, less like a chore.