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When to introduce a new language to a bilingual child? Part 1: Family and Society

When to introduce a new language to a bilingual baby? Advice from a specialist in bilingual family interaction.
When to introduce a new language to a bilingual baby? Advice from a specialist in bilingual family interaction

by Soile Pietikainen

Parents often ask me about when should bilingual children acquire a second language? The ideal time to introduce a language to a child depends on the role of a specific language in that particular child's life. In the first part of this article we tackle when to introduce the parent's native languages and when to introduce the language of the local society. 

You may have heard the mantra of “the earlier the better”. It is a common belief that parents should introduce multiple languages to children as early as possible to achieve the highest level of bilingual competence in the long run. It’s not that’s simple. Here is your guide to the wise choices. 

When should we introduce our native languages to our bilingual baby? 

This is easy - from birth. Without a shadow of doubt, I recommend parents to build their unique parent-child relationship from the very first day in the parent’s native language. This applies to all bilingual families - regardless of whether they live permanently in one place or move between countries as expat families. 

This not just about language. It is also about ethnicity. Ethnicity is about belonging to a shared culture and being recognised by others as belonging to that culture. The only way to understand any culture is to live it in its own language. It is a fundamental part of the human experience to grow up connected with the language and culture of our parents. 

When should we introduce the local majority language to our bilingual child?

If the local language is also a parent’s native language, then you introduce it from birth, simply because it is already a family language anyway. This applies to all bilingual families - regardless of whether they live permanently in one place or move between countries as expat families. But be mindful that when a local language is also a native language of a parent it is likely to dominate early on in your child’s life. Pay a lot of attention to achieving normal age-appropriate native language development in the minority language of your family. Bilingual Potential can provide all the help you need with this. 

When to introduce the language of the local society, if it is different from both parent’s native languages and our family lives permanently in the same country?

It would be good to begin actively developing your child’s ability to speak the local language only after your child is showing healthy language development in the parents’ native language(s) that are minority languages locally. This is very important: focus on establishing the minority language(s) of the home environment first. 

If possible, I would limit contact with the majority language until the age of 3 when your child is routinely speaking in 3-word sentences in the minority home language(s). As the local language is likely to dominate the home language(s) surprisingly fast, the focus at ages 0-4 is in keeping the minority language the child’s strongest language. This does not mean living a life in social isolation. It just means that we know our priorities. Of course, the local language is part of life for the whole family. 

Should we introduce the local language to our children at all, if it is different from the parent’s native languages and we live only temporarily in the country? 

This depends on your children’s age and the length of your temporary stay. 

Introducing the local language to young expat children:

If you are temporarily living in a country where the local language is not one of your family languages, then your young child does not need to learn that language at all. They would lose it anyway as soon as you move again, and they do not yet have a life outside of the family home. 

Introducing the local language to school aged expat children:

On the other hand, if your child is in school in an international language and you are staying in the country for a year or more, then it makes a lot of sense for children or teenagers to learn the local language as a foreign language to take part in the local society in a range of ways that greatly enrich their international life experience.

Understanding and speaking the local language lite by little open to the children the opportunity to begin to understand the country and to experience it. The same applies to adults of course. Local language is the only gateway to the first tentative steps a foreigner can take towards a genuine intercultural understanding. That widening of our worldview is after all the beautiful thing about living abroad, isn't it?

This article was written by Soile Pietikainen. She is a sociologist specialised in bilingual family interaction with over 20 years of experience of resolving bilingual family situations that have gone wrong. She is trilingual herself and a mother of trilingual teens. Soile is the founder of Bilingual Potential, an ethical enterprise dedicated to language minority children’s right to their parents’ native languages. 

In the next blog post is about introducing bilingual children to the language they will need for school