I just had a “play on words” session with one-year-old Katerina who was saying, “Queso?” for “Que es esto?” (What is this? in Spanish). Katerina’s mom is like so many new parents who want to raise their children bilingual, and she’s doing it successfully. As we played together, she spoke to Katerina in Spanish and addressed me in English. Parents often ask if that will confuse their child. No, children are amazing language learners and learn to associate a language with a person.
I worked with a family whose two year-old twins had heard only Swedish from their mom and nanny and English from their dad since birth. When it was time to go to bed they said goodnight to mom in Swedish, to the nanny in Swedish and then to their dad in English!
Almost every time I speak to a group of new parents the question comes up, “What is the best way to raise my baby bilingual?” My answer is that certainly there are many areas of the world where this is done seamlessly without instructions. But the best way is to separate the languages your child is hearing by person or place. In other words, Mom speaks only Spanish to Katerina, Dad speaks English, grandma speaks Spanish, preschool might be only in Spanish and so on. When you make the boundaries clear it is easier for your child to learn the two languages. Avoid mixing the languages, using words from each language in one sentence.
Recently, a mom asked me evaluate her child for a possible language delay. According to my evaluation he was behind but I learned that both parents’ first language was German. The grandparents lived with them and spoke only German, Dad was speaking English and mom was speaking both German and English to her little Marcus, sometimes mixed in the same sentence. He was two years old and had a few words that were in English. I would never suggest that mom stop speaking German to her son since there is more than a language connection there. But I did suggest that while we were building up his English that she segment her day and speak English to him for the main portion of the day and maybe reserve German for her evening routine with him. I believe part of his language delay was that he was confused by hearing a mix of languages without the boundaries of people and place.
I will admit it takes some guts to choose to speak a language other than English exclusively to your baby. Parents have shared with me that they are afraid their child won’t understand them or they feel awkward doing it. Or what if it doesn’t work? Go ahead. I tell parents it is a gift you can give to your child to raise them speaking more than one language. You have an amazing opportunity if you or your spouse, relative or nanny are fluent in a second language. Your child will pick up English from the community. Our neighbor has raised her children hearing exclusively Lithuanian. When her son was three years old, his English tutors were his neighborhood buddy and his peers in preschool!