Parents of different languages: How to develop bilingualism in children

Parents of different languages: How to develop bilingualism in children
Parents of different languages: How to develop bilingualism in children?

We often hear that children are like sponges and can learn any language easily when they are young. This is true, provided they are exposed to it often in a variety of contexts and are motivated to learn another language.

Language development in children exposed to two or more languages

The preschool period is conducive to learning languages because of the adaptability of the brain of toddlers. In addition, at a young age, children more easily distinguish the sounds of the different languages in their environment. This allows them to speak an accent-free language.

However, some parents fear that learning more than one language will cause a language disorder in their child. It is not so. Recent studies show that learning two or more languages does not cause language impairment, nor does it worsen language difficulties in children who have them.

For example, a child who has been exposed frequently to two or more languages since birth should say their first words around 1 year of age and make combinations of words (e.g., “drop ball”) between 18 and 24 months of age.

Particularities related to learning more than one language

It is quite usual that a child who speaks two or more languages does not have the same strengths in each of them. For example, it can produce better constructed sentences in one language and use a more precise and richer vocabulary in the other language. Similarly, he can know the vocabulary of emotions in the language used at home and that of animals in the language used at daycare.

The important thing is to consider all the sentences and words produced in both languages. This is how we can assess whether a bilingual child’s language development is normal, and not by assessing their language skills in a single language.

In addition, the language best mastered at a given time may vary and change over time and depend on the context in which the child uses it as well as on the people to whom it is addressed. Thus, he can use and better master one language rather than another during a certain period of his life (e.g. home language at 4 years old) and become better in the second language during another period (e.g. in 2nd year of elementary school).

Finally, children may mix the two languages in one sentence when they do not know the word they are looking for in the other language. This is a normal phenomenon that we also see in bilingual adults. We should not worry about it.

Newcomers and learning French

Parent immigrant qui parle dans sa langue maternelle à son enfant

The most important thing to promote a child’s language development is to talk to them on a daily basis. For immigrant parents, it is preferable that they address their child in their mother tongue. Thus, they will probably be more likely to talk with their toddler. In addition, the better the child masters the language spoken more at home, the easier it will be for him to learn another language.

If they attend a French-language daycare, the toddler will quickly realize that educators and other children do not understand them when he speak in his mother tongue. It is therefore possible, at the beginning, that he speaks very little or not at all for a short period of time.

He will begin by understanding the words, then the sentences he hears. To be understood, he will use gestures, then words. Little by little, he will be able to make short sentences, even if they are sometimes poorly constructed.

A solid foundation in the child’s mother tongue will help the child to better master the language learned in day care or school.

In general, a child is able to have a conversation as a child of his age after 1 to 3 years of regular and diverse exposure to a new language. The same thing happens when a child enters school without speaking French.

Moreover, when a child learns to speak French in school, it is perfectly normal for him to:

  • mixes French and his mother tongue when speaking;
  • refuses to use his mother tongue at home, because French is associated with his new friendships and allows him not to appear different from others;
  • becomes less proficient in their mother tongue if it is not stimulated at home. He may, therefore, for a certain period of time, have poor language skills in his mother tongue and in French;
  • makes several grammar mistakes.

Factors that influence the learning of more than one language

Several factors influence the learning of different languages and the choice of the language spoken by the child: age, time of exposure to languages, the status of these languages in the country of adoption, etc. However, regardless of the context and environment in which the child grows up, it is important that parents demonstrate a sense of pride and adopt a positive attitude towards the use of these languages. Thus, the child will want to learn them more.

On the other hand, it must also be remembered that bilingual children remain children first and foremost, with their own personality, needs and preferences, and that they can choose one language over the other, despite the will expressed by their loved ones.

How to help a child learn a new language?

Reading stories to your child in the different languages around them is an effective and fun way to stimulate their language.

In order for a child to be fluent in two or more languages, he must hear them often and have the opportunity to speak them. In some communities, such learning occurs naturally if the languages in question are spoken equally, and if the child is in contact with different people in his family or entourage who speak them.

It is preferable that parents do not mix languages in the same sentence when addressing their child, as this can interfere with the learning of the minority language. However, language mixing does not harm the overall development of the language.

When one of the two parents speaks a minority language

If one parent speaks French and the other speaks a minority language, it is important to increase the opportunities when the child is exposed to the minority language. Adopting a positive attitude towards this language is necessary to promote his learning, because the toddler understands very early that one of his languages is not widely used outside his home. Since he is naturally more exposed to the language of the majority, the child develops less ability to express himself in the minority language. This can lead him to understand the latter, but not to know how to speak it.

It is possible for a child to learn to read and write in French as well as in another language. To help him in his learning, it is important to explain the differences between the two languages. For example, for a child who is learning to read and write in French and Arabic, it may be pointed out that the meaning of writing differs depending on the language. In French, we read from left to right, while in Arabic we read from right to left.

When both parents speak French

When French is the mother tongue of both parents, fostering bilingualism requires some planning and effort. They must then agree on strategies to encourage their child to learn another language. For example, the week is spent in French and the weekend in English.

Children may not respond in the expected language because they do not have the words or sentences to express themselves. When this happens, it is important to offer the model of the expected sentence to the child. Next time, he will have the words or sentences needed to express himself in that language.

What is a minority language?

A minority language is a language used by a minority of persons in a society, whereas a majority language is the language used by the majority. There are a variety of minority languages. For example, in Quebec, English and Tamil are two minority languages, but at different levels. English is used by a larger community than Tamil, making it easier to learn the language.

Tips for Promoting Bilingualism in Your Child

  • Speak to your child in your native language. Use it too when you play with him. You represent a better role model for him when you use the language you master best. Remember that it is much better to talk to him in your mother tongue than to speak to him very little.
  • Develop a social network where both languages are used. Attending friendly meetings, community events, and other activities with people who speak each of the languages allows your child to practice these languages and understand that both are useful and valued.
Even if some of these solutions are not always possible, the important thing is to promote a balance between the two languages as soon as possible.
  • Make sure your child acquires a solid foundation in the minority language at an early age by enrolling them, if possible, in a daycare service where it is the only language used or the main language.
  • Make a list of services offered in the minority language (e.g., health professionals such as doctors or dentists, libraries, cinemas, community centres), and give priority to them. To do this, you’ll likely need tome long-term vvvv, and pervvhaps travel longer distances, but your efforts will benefit your child.
  • Expose your child to books, movies, music, and TV or radio channels in both languages. These activities will strengthen their language skills and appreciation of both cultures. Since it is often difficult to find books in multiple minority languages, do not hesitate to choose books without text (or in another language) and tell the story in your native language.
  • Visit family members who speak the minority language or receive them in your home. Stays abroad or visits by extended family members also promote the learning of this language.

When to worry?

If you feel that your child has a language delay compared to children his age in the language to which he has been most exposed since birth, consult in speech therapy.

If your child is learning a new language at daycare, make an appointment with a speech therapist if they express themselves very little or not at all after several months of exposure or if they seem unable to communicate properly with those around them after 2 years of exposure to this language.

However, it is not necessary to speak to your child in a single language if he has a language delay. Research shows that speaking in two languages should not make his difficulties worse.  

Things to keep in mind

  • Learning two or more languages does not cause language difficulties and does not aggravate them either.
  • To assess a bilingual child’s language development, one must consider his skills in both languages, not just one.
  • It is important that immigrant parents speak in their mother tongue to their child, as they will be more likely to speak to them.


Naître et grandir

Scientific review: R. Sabah Meziane, M.P.O., Ph. D., orthophoniste et chargée de cours à l’Université de Montréal
Research and writing:
The Naître et grandir team
Updated: October 2021


Photos : and GettyImages/Pollyana Ventura