Growing up bilingual and why it's not always a piece of cake
Illustration credit: anonymous.

Bilingual upbringing and education have risen in popularity in many European countries. That is without taking into account already bilingual countries. Bilingualism can be defined as “fluency in or use of two languages”. Freedom of movement and increased immigration within the European Union mean that more children are growing up with parents who speak different languages. According to the Eurobarometer Report, 19% of people living in the EU are bilingual.

It is becoming increasingly necessary to speak more than one language in a globalised world. Many people are opting to bring up their children bilingually even if they are not native speakers of the language. The main reason being that children will be able to speak two languages from a young age and will not have to learn this skill later in life. But is bilingualism as easy as it seems for children, parents and teachers?

I myself was raised in a bilingual household. I grew up partly in the UK and partly in Germany. At home we speak a mix of English and German. Many people around me always say I am lucky and they wish they were brought up bilingually. I feel thankful for the way I was brought up, which I consider to be a privilege. But I also know it’s not always that easy. I remember my awful spelling and grammar in both languages during my school years. I can’t help but notice my younger siblings struggling with reading and writing right now. We also tend to mix the languages. We either star a sentence in English and finish it in German or insert an English word into a German sentence and vice-versa.

Challenges of a bilingual childhood

Many studies show that children who grow up being exposed to two languages start speaking fluently later than children who grow up monolingual. This is often confused with a delay in speaking. A child learning both English and German might know 50 German and 50 English words. In total, the child knows 100 words, but it might seem as if they know less in comparison to a monolingual child who knows 90 English words and who might seem more fluent in that one language. This can be disheartening for parents as well as the children themselves.

It has been proven that bilingual children are not likely to have issues with speaking, but reading and writing are a different matter. This is likely because they are learning two sets of phonetics which can be very different. In the case of German and English, the letter “e” is pronounced very differently. The English “e” has the same phonetic sound as the German “i”. For young children, especially, this can cause confusion.

It is common for bilinguals to have one dominant and one secondary language. This is a natural occurrence, because individuals are always exposed to one language more than the other. It is mainly the case if, for instance, German and French are spoken at home, but individuals live in a German-speaking environment. Naturally, German will be the dominant language.

Sometimes, children might not even be able to write in one of their languages, if they go to school in a monolingual region and, at home, they are fluent in a second language. If that language is just spoken, but not taught to the individual in question, they are often not confident writing or reading in that second language. Children who grow up in bilingual communities such as Miami (Spanish-English), Montreal (French-English) or Barcelona (Catalan-Spanish) are less likely to have this issue because of the ongoing use of both languages.

Code-mixing is also a common occurrence, where two languages are mixed, but mostly in speech. For example, a bilingual person fluent in English and German might say: ‘The sun is shining heute. (today). The speaker is moving back and forth between two or more languages. Bilingual individuals often tend to mix their languages if they can’t think of a word in the language they are speaking, so they fill in with the same word from the other language.

In certain instances, a child can grow up in a bilingual household, where there is a clear separation between languages. This enables their brain to make a distinction between the two languages, hence code-mixing is not common for them. It is usually the case of children speaking one language with one parent and another language with the other parent, without merging them together.

Perks of a bilingual brain

While there are challenges that come with bilingual education or upbringing, there are many benefits to raising children bilingually.

Bilingual individuals are able to switch between two different language systems at ease. This means that their brains are very active and flexible. This leads to forming more cognitive connections from an early age. Bilinguals tend to be better at logical thinking, focusing, understanding and problem solving.

Seeing as bilingual children already know two languages, they are also likely to learn more languages easier and at greater speed, because they already have a wider understanding of grammar and vocabulary.

A bilingual upbringing usually comes with a childhood immersed in two cultures. Having the understanding and feeling part of several cultures is an incredible gift that has many advantages, especially in later life. Individuals with a broad cultural background tend to be open-minded, tolerant and willing to learn more.

Besides all of the social and cognitive advantages, being bilingual opens up many possibilities. Bilinguals can easily interact with many more people of different backgrounds. Many businesses are looking for employees who are fluent in foreign languages. In nowadays’ globalised world, being able to speak more languages is becoming a necessity, so individuals who naturally already speak two languages are at an advantage.

There are many ways to raise your children bilingually. Stricter methods are common where the child’s parents each speak a different language. Experience has shown me that this approach is very difficult to maintain. It requires a lot of determination and persistence.

In my family, we speak whatever language comes naturally. My mother mostly speaks English and my father mostly German, so our dinner conversations are usually a fun mix of both.

Some families tend to opt to speak one language at home and let the child learn the other language themselves in kindergarten or at school. For example, if a family originates from Germany, but lives in a Spanish-speaking country, they might choose to only – or mainly – speak German at home and let the child learn Spanish from their peers. Another way would be if children are sent to a bilingual kindergarten or school. Many parents are allowing the institutions to teach their children one language, whilst they are in charge of the other.

Overall, being bilingual is a privilege and an opportunity. In our interconnected world languages play an essential role. And with every advantage of a bilingual upbringing comes a challenge that parents and children alike must overcome.