Bilingualism is being embraced across the world and as the world becomes closer than ever, raising bilingual children is something all parents want to do irrespective of their own cultural or linguistic background.
Speaking more than one language has many benefits both for communication and brain development in children and toddlers. This begs the question, what second language should the parents teach their children when raising a bilingual child?
Before we get into the specifics of languages and the ecosystem around them, let's take a brief look at how teaching two languages to your child are advantageous for them.
The benefits of raising bilingual children
We have talked in our previous posts about some of the physical and mental benefits of raising bilingual kids. Check out The benefits of a bilingual brain.
Bilingual children have nothing short of superhuman abilities when it comes to brain development. Brain scans have shown that bilingual children are superior to other children as they have heightened cognitive abilities, better problem-solving skills, and are more resistant to mental disorders like Dementia and Alzheimer's in later stages of their lives.
Being bilingual physically affects the brain, where bilingual individuals have a greater volume of grey and white matter in their brains which leads to faster brain synapses and increases an individual's proficiency to complete organization and sorting-based tasks. This higher neural volume (number of neurons and dendrites) has also been shown to create alternate neural pathways to mitigate age-related cognitive decline.
Now that we know a little about the benefits of being bilingual, let's dive into the specifics of language development to understand what language is right for your bilingual baby!
The criterion for selecting a language for your bilingual infant
The available input
Language learning in children is highly reliant on the quality and quantity of input available. It is this input, that ultimately makes a language important in the child's mind and they would be inclined to learn. This is what makes English the most spoken and taught language in the world, it is prevalent in many schooling systems in most countries.
When selecting a language, see what input is available. If one of the parents speaks a different language than the majority language, that may be the default to go towards. Early language development will be highly reliant on how motivated the parents are, so if one of the parents speaks the target language, that will be ideal.
If you are targeting a language that both you nor your partner can speak, you will have to find books, programs, and study material in the target language. Often parents would teach themselves alongside the child to enrich their vocabulary and exercise their language skills.
Environmental factors are next. As I said in the section above, the available input will be critical to language development and this furthers that point. The environment that you are in can dictate what language you should teach to your child.
Environmental factors include the geographical location and the cultural formation of that location. If you live in Canada, it makes sense for your child to learn french as a second language, in addition to English. Living in Mexico will require a child to learn to speak Spanish, a child in India should know Hindi and a child in China should know Mandarin. These aren't minority languages by any means but rather majority languages in their local environment.
Based on the location you're in and intend to be in, you should teach your child the local language of that country or region so they can navigate their immediate environments with ease. This will be crucial for their everyday interactions. They may speak English in school but the local language is equally important if not more.
Career and financial benefits
In the case of a child, it may be difficult to imagine this but knowing what languages are in-demand from a career perspective and having your child learn one of the languages spoken in a different country. Schools in Asia, have a strong focus on English because of this we see a lot of people from Asian countries having high-paying jobs in the US and Canada.
Similarly, learning a European language alongside the majority language will open a lot of education and career prospects for your child. Germany offers free higher education to foreign nationals, so knowing German can greatly benefit an individual financially and from a career perspective.
Mandarin, the major Chinese language is the second most spoken language in the world after English. Almost 800 million people speak Mandarin. While difficult to grasp, it can really open doors for someone wishing to do business with Chinese companies.
The last and one of the major criteria for raising children to be bilingual is the language support available to your child. These support systems present themselves in the form of language immersion programs in schools and private tutoring in the target language. Yes, you can teach the basics of a language to your child starting at birth but they would need to learn the grammatical rules as well to be an effective communicator.
Whether it's a minority language or a native language, you will have to seek professional education support for the language of your choice. As I said, language immersion programs exist in most schools within North America, you will have to see if it's available in the target language, or adjust the second language to be something that is taught at a professional level in your country or city.
What is the right choice?
Even when the factors above are considered, you may not be sure what to select. In which case, you should know that children early on, only learn what they like and enjoy. They follow the path of least resistance, so before you go on a language tour, seeking different languages for your child, ask yourself what you think will be easiest for your child to learn. Don't push your child to learn multiple languages at once, just focus on the 2 and they can learn other languages later on.
As for right now, seek the path of least resistance for your child. If the dominant language in your region is English, other roman languages like French, Spanish or Italian might be the right choice. Remove all barriers to learning and enrich the input to the best of your abilities. Check out our post on Raising a Bilingual Child.
In recent times we can see an upsurge in parents wanting to raise their children to be bilingual. Bilingual children also have clear cognitive and processing advantages compared to monolingual children.
It's natural that parents want to promote bilingual development in their children and the best time to start is when your child is still a baby. There are a few factors that impact the selection of language including the kind of input available, environmental factors, career, and financial advantages, and lastly the language support available to you and your child.