For parents of multilingual children
Q & A about heritage language, bilingualism, multilingualism
What is a heritage language?
It is a language that the child hears from family members, if this language is not the one spoken by most of the community. For example, if one or both of the child’s parents speak Russian, and the family lives in Toronto, then Russian is the child’s heritage language, and English is the majority language.
Is it possible to raise a child as fully fluent in the heritage language and in the majority language?
Yes. However, there are many factors at play. There is a wide range of outcomes, from kids who are indistinguishable from their peers in the parents’ home country, to kids who barely understand a few words - and everything in between.
When do we need to start teaching our child heritage language?
Right from birth! You don’t need to teach it formally. Instead, you need to talk to your child in your language as much as you can, and keep doing this throughout their whole childhood.
Should we delay learning English then?
No. It does not guarantee that your child will be fluent in the heritage language (only consistent use of that language does). But it does put your child at a slight disadvantage, especially if the child starts school without English and needs to catch up with classmates.
Don’t children become confused with two languages? or three?
The short answer is ‘no’. Children do mix words from different languages in one sentence, and some old studies took this as evidence of a ‘mixed’ language system. Later studies showed that even very young bilinguals are pretty good at distinguishing their languages, and usually choose the correct language to talk to a given person.
What should I do to make sure my child learns my language?
There are many things you can do. You don’t have to do all of them, but the more, the better. Most importantly:
- talk to your child in the language as much as possible, on various topics (not just everyday stuff)
- get your child to talk to you in your language as much as possible (motivate, don’t force!)
- try to create opportunities for your child to speak the language with many people (“it takes a village to raise a child” is especially true in this case!)
- teach your child to read and write in your language (literacy helps bilingualism in many ways!)
What you can do with the help of other people:
- Sign your child up for heritage language lessons
- Send your child to a language immersion camp
- Organize time with relatives who speak the language
- Take your child to cultural events in the language
See more suggestions under “Learning Activities”: games and everyday activities
Are there times when I should NOT make my child speak my language?
- When you are with people who don’t understand the language
- When your child doesn’t want to speak it because your child is tired, sick, angry, sad, or too excited