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Raising Bilingual Children: Don’t Pass Up the Opportunity

When young bilingual families first decide to start a family one of the concerns they face is the choice to either raise their children as bilingual or monolingual. Some of the concerns come from nothing more than myths. In my experience it is always in the child’s best interest to be raised bilingual. Allowing your child to learn both languages will not only give him or her a upper hand as an adult, it will also allow the child to keep a connection to his or her roots.

A child will first learn in the parents home language and then as he or she spends more and more time outside the home, for example at day care and school, they will start to learn the language of their environment. Of course as with anything there are concerns, such as whether or not kids who are bilingual take more time to learn how to speak. I think that has more to do with each child and their home environment. In my own world I have been surrounded by many children who are raised bilingual and everyone has had different experiences, much like children raised in monolingual homes. It’s true that initially there will be some confusion, but kids will soon figure it out and will do just fine, they will soon be able to speak and think in both languages, and will separate the two instinctively.

I once had an experience with one of my nieces that will illustrate that not only do these children understand both languages even when they don’t yet speak both, they also think in both without conflict. We would speak as much Portuguese as possible around my niece, and as a result her first words were Portuguese and the language she basically communicated in, but since we would speak to each other in English when we thought she wasn’t paying attention , she understood us when we spoke English (to our surprise). When she was about 2 years old, my sister-in-law realized she ran out of milk in the house and in a effort to get my attention to go get the milk without my niece noticing, she turned to me and said, “Oh, there is no M-I-L-K“, spelling out the word. Well my niece turned to us and said, “nao ha leitinho?” which, translated, means “there is no milk.” Up until then my sister-in-law had sometimes voiced concerns that maybe making such an effort to teach her daughter Portuguese could be detrimental, but it was clear that she was not having a problem learning both languages. Not to mention that we were impressed that she knew what we were spelling milk at the age of two.

The gaps that bilingual children may experience when they first start school will soon be filled, and they will figure it out. I also differ from the thoughts that a bilingual child thinks in only one language and then translate into the language being spoken. That was never true for me. I for one always remember thinking in whatever language was being spoken at the time, even if it was both. I would process my thoughts in both languages without any conflict. There are so many benefits from growing up bilingual, not only in the work place, but also in your personal growth that it really is a wasted opportunity when a bilingual parent chooses not to pass that knowledge on to a child. I really can’t think of a negative aspect of being bilingual and most people that do will find it that if they dig deep enough those concerns are usually political, rather than linguistic.

About the Author: Silvia Pinho is a project manager for office assistants, a writer,  and also provides Portuguese/English translation. She is located in Portugal.

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