If you’re about to have a baby and you and/or your partner happens to be bilingual, you’ve likely heard the age-old suggestion that it is best for each parent to speak one (and only one) of the two languages. For example, one parent always speaks Spanish and the other parent always speaks English. As it turns out, this practice is relatively antiquated and doesn’t necessarily offer your child the best opportunity to be fluent in both. languages. In fact, research is showing that the context in which a language is used tends to be more influential than who speaks the language.
So what is the best way to raise your child in a bilingual home? Well, we sat down for a conversation with Dr. Stefka Marinova-Todd, associate professor at the School of Audiology and Speech Sciences at the University of British Columbia, to find out. In a nutshell, your goal should be to make the communication as natural and free flowing as possible.
Speak the Language You are Most Comfortable With
The quality of language your child is hearing is just as important as the quantity. That is why it is important that each parent only speak in a language they are comfortable with. In this way, your little one will be sure to get the highest quality of language input. If this results in each parent speaking only one of the two languages, that’s totally fine! And if you are both native speakers of the same language and therefore are most comfortable speaking the same language, that is fine too. This might mean that only one language is spoken within your home, but if that language is different from the native language of the culture you are living in, you can rest assured that your little one will be getting plenty of that second language outside of the home.
Establish Context for Each Language
Assuming both parents are comfortable speaking both languages in the home, consider establishing context for each of the languages. One example of this is to make breakfast a time when both parents are speaking Spanish and dinner a time when both are speaking English. Another way to allow context to dictate conversation is to consider the topic. If you’re discussing school or work, perhaps you speak in the language used most often when interacting with others in daily life. And if you are discussing family, community, or other topics around the culture your language comes from, you could then prioritize your native language since that is the language you would typically encounter in that environment.
While these are some ideas to get you started, the most important thing to remember is that however you choose to do it, speaking two languages in your home will not confuse your baby. Sometimes it may appear as if your little one is confused when they tend to mix the two languages together, but what is actually happening here is called code switching, and it’s considered to be a good thing, not a bad thing. In fact, code switching is such a normal phenomenon that even fluent bilinguals will mix their two languages together from time to time.
To sum it up, focus on both quantity and quality of the language input your child is receiving while also remembering to keep it natural and free flowing as possible. Whatever you’re doing, don’t stress! Any amount of a bilingual environment you offer to your little one will do great things for them!