Proven Strategies for Raising a Bilingual or Multilingual Child

thank you in different languages on chalkboard

Written by: Where Parents Talk Staff

Published: Dec 26, 2023

by Katherine Martinko

Parents often like the idea of raising a bilingual or multilingual child, but worry that exposing a child to additional languages at a young age might confuse them. This is a myth based on outdated research, according to Dr. Viorica Marian, an Endowed Professor of Communication Sciences and Disorders and a professor of psychology at Northwestern University.

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Welcome to where parents talk. My name is Lianne Castelino. Our guest today is a leading global researcher in the field of bilingualism and multilingualism. Dr. Viorica Marian is an Endowed Professor of Communication Sciences and Disorders, and a professor of psychology at Northwestern University. Her research focuses on how language operates in the brain, and her lab has been funded by the National Institutes of Health of Health Research. Dr. Marian is a psycholinguist and author and a mother of three. Her latest book is called the power of language, how the codes we use to think, Speak and Live transform our minds. Dr. Marian joins us today from Evanston, Illinois. Thank you so much for being here.

Thank you for having me. It’s my pleasure to be here.

Before we dive into some of your details of your research, could you paint a picture for us in terms of the current landscape of bilingual and multilingual people around the world?

Sure. So there are a little over 7000 languages spoken in the world today. And it is very common for people all over the world to grow up with two or more languages from early childhood and then acquire additional languages later in life. In fact, it is estimated that the majority of the world’s population more than half of the world’s population is bilingual or multilingual. It is very common in countries all over the world in Europe and Asia and Africa and South America to grow up with more than one language. So for the world at large, bilingualism and multilingualism is the norm in North America. Canada is largely a bilingual nation in the United States, which has historically considered itself monolingual. The demographics here are changing as well. So currently about one out of five households, about 22% of households speak a language other than English at home as a primary language, but the proportions vary with some states like Arizona, Florida, New Mexico, California, for example, the proportion of bilinguals and multilinguals, is even higher. And it’s rapidly growing due in part to differences in birth rates, as well as immigration, there are a number of people who speak two or more languages, and the United States is changing as well. So this is really an introduction to the linguistic landscape in which we find ourselves today.

On that note, you’ve been studying this for over 25 years, can you give us a sense of, you know, the core area of your research and of your study?

Sure. So I am interested in how speaking two or more languages, changes our brain, changes our health changes our cognitive processes, changes our development, our interactions with others, our self identity? As you can see, that’s a lot of questions. So we’ve ran many experiments with children as young as two. And as adults as old as on average, 85 years old, looking at how being bilingual or multilingual impacts their lives. And we are finding that the languages we speak have a profound influence on everything we do. And on who we are, so they really shape our lives. They shape how we perceive the world world, how we interact with the world in significant ways.

What are some of the basic findings of your research that you believe parents might be surprised to learn about?

There are so many, you would almost need to specify an age range that we want to look at. But I think I’d start I’ll start by saying that there is a lot of misinformation out there about raising bilingual children. One of the biggest misunderstandings is that raising. So often parents are told that that raising children with more than one language will confuse them will lead to language, delays or language disorders are cognitive problems. And there is absolutely no evidence for that. So raising children with two or more languages will not confuse them. There is no evidence that being bilingual or multilingual was detrimental to one’s cognitive development in some of the biases that, that surround this come from our older research, where research with children who spoke two or more languages had other confounding variables. So for example, if you look at some of the research was done on migrant children on people who didn’t have a lot of education, who were leaving in a social and economical conditions that were lower. So if you look at those populations, you can see differences. But when you look at individuals, for example, in Canada, in Europe, you don’t see differences between bilingual and monolingual children. So what it really comes down to is that poverty is bad for you and is affecting your development not being graded with two or more languages. So if you take how this confounding variables like parental education, income, socio economic status, that you then you don’t see any disadvantages and negative impacts, negative outcomes to raising bilingual children, on the contrary, you see multiple advantages and multiple benefits to raising a child with two or more languages.

So let’s talk about some of those benefits. Because the fact is, in many households, parents may speak one language, their kids might be the translators for their parents. And then the children go to school and they’re learning a second language, maybe their primary language in many households. So can you take us through some of the benefits of bilingualism or multilingualism?

Yes, I can. But before I answer that question, I do want to mention that the scenario that you described where children, service brokers, language brokers, for parents and family members, is actually not ideal for this children and places them often and in in a difficult situation and challenges the traditional family roles that parents and children should have. So I think it’s important to remind parents of the challenges that putting the child in this role of interpreter caregiver language broker puts the child in and the many negative consequences that that can have for family dynamics, good children’s development, and for parents well being as well, that is not an ideal situation. Unfortunately, that’s the situation that many immigrant parents find themselves in. But to the extent possible, I’d like to encourage these family members, this adults to prioritize taking language lessons, becoming fluent in the language of the country in which they live, becoming as much as possible, self sufficient and independent, so was to not lead to this role reversal and have to take their children out of school in order for them to translate the appointments. And just really make sure that the children get a chance to still be a kid. That’s that’s sometimes lost in this immigrant family dynamic. So that’s a taking us around to the question that you asked what are some of the advantages to growing up with two or more languages, and some of them are obvious you will be able to communicate with more people you’ll be able to be exposed to multiple cultures and ways of thinking you will be well equipped linguistically when you travel, there is a relationship between bilingualism and multilingualism an income and salaries later in life you’ll have more opportunities professionally, also socially interpersonally. But there are also some other benefits, including some some advantages to cognitive development, for example. metalinguistic awareness kicks in early in bilingual children and what I mean by that it’s this ability to reason about language in an abstract way. So for example, a bilingual child understands earlier that the word that you may have for an item like this pan, for example, you can call it a pan or you can call it stylo or you can call it Ruchika. It doesn’t change what this item Ms. children understand earlier that the name and the object are not one in the same, they’re two separate things. And this is a pretty advanced mental linguistic skill, knowing that the world we have around us and the labels we use to label the world, and not one at the same that you can label something, whatever it is, you want to label it, and it doesn’t change the object monolingual kids acquire that ability a little bit later in life. So that’s, for example, one. One instance, in which growing up with two languages can be beneficial. But the experience of living with two languages can translate to lifelong consequences can have lifelong consequences. And one of the most remarkable ones is the fact that people who speak two or more languages experienced some afforded some protection against some of the cognitive declines that we see with aging, including delay off clinical symptoms of Alzheimer’s and other types of dementia on the range of four to six years, depending on the study and the population. So it seems that this experience constantly juggling two or more languages, gives us our brain a workout keeps our minds active and agile in a way that translate that has this long term consequences later in life.

So understanding the research and the science as you do, what would you say to parents who maybe want to, you know, bring up a bilingual or multilingual child in terms of what that language instruction could optimally look like, in the home and at school? And what age should that start at?

I’ll start with the second question what age The sooner the better, the earlier, the better. I would suggest, starting with both languages, especially if you speak more than one languages in the home as your parents, grandparents family community from birth right away from the beginning, exposing your child to reach linguistic environment is beneficial the reach of the environment, linguistic, visual, tactile factory, the richer the environment, the better for the brain, the better for development. So right away from birth, raising children with more than one language is is wonderful. But it’s never too late. If your child is already, you know, toddler preschool, elementary school, middle school, or you yourself as an adult, it’s never too late to start learning another language. So what I usually tell parents is the best best time is from birth, and the second best time is now. So that’s as far as the age question. And then how to raise bilingual children. You will be happy to know that there is no one way there are many paths to bilingualism, there are many paths to successful, fluent and happy bilingualism. And it really depends on your child’s personality on your family dynamic and structure. The approach that is most successful is the approach that works best for your family. And in some families, this may look like having the parents speak one language in the home and then the child experience another language outside the home. Or having one parents speak one language and another parents speak another language or having the extended family members the grandparents only speak the other language. Or if it’s an entirely monolingual family, putting the child in a childcare where another language is spoken or hiring a caregiver in the home who speaks another language or sending the child to signing them up for classes like maybe maybe your your church or your synagogue or your community has Sunday classes. So any of this paths are a good path, whatever will it’s just like anything else like health habits, like investing, like wait, you know, whatever is going to be something that you can stick with long term. That’s what’s going to be most successful. Right now there are a lot of ways to learn another language using apps and games which a lot of kids enjoy, because it really capitalizes on our brain’s reward centers. So every time you get a word try to you know, hear a sound, you see an image of serotonin. You know your brain is firing up so it can be rewarding to learn another language that way as well. And you can actually combine all of this things so you can use an app to learn a language. You can have language lessons, and then you can maybe take a family vacation To the culture or the country where that language is spoken. Now, you don’t have to take a family vacation to another country. There are many neighborhoods in cities that have restaurants, festival events, communities that are really diverse. There could be, you know, a little community where you can attend performances and, and interact with people who speak that language. So you don’t need a lot of money to learn another language. You can even trade language lessons with a person who wants to learn the language, maybe an immigrant family who came to this country and they speak the language you’re interested in and you mutually teach each other the other language, there are so many ways to become bilingual. And to raise bilingual children, I think where there is a will there is a way and if you understand the benefits, and the just the enrichment that knowing two or more languages can bring to your life, and the joy and the richness of experiences that you don’t have really access to when you don’t speak those languages. And once you decide that you’d like to add that to your life, there are so many ways to do it. And I would suggest finding the ways that bring you joy, and then it will become a pleasant enjoyable experience as opposed to oh my god yet another thing on my to do list.

Now, very interestingly, you are a product of the very research that you conduct. Having grown up in a multilingual environment, you’re able to speak at least three languages that I’m aware of, and maybe even more, take us through what that look like for you in terms of what impact as you look back on it did you think it had on your life? And then with your kids, as a mother, how do you go about fostering that language acquisition and embracing languages to them?

Sure, so I grew up in Europe. I grew up in Eastern Europe and my husband grew up in Western Europe. He is from the Netherlands, and I’m from Moldova. We met in graduate school in upstate New York and Ithaca. At Cornell, our common language is English. But in Europe, I think just just about everyone is bilingual or multilingual. So for example, in the Netherlands, you so his native language is Dutch, but then you start learning multiple languages in school very early. So he’s fluent in English. He’s born in Germany, he knows some French, you know, some Spanish. My mother in law, who is now in her mid 80s, is similarly fluent in multiple languages. And it’s very common for for, for people in other countries, I, myself am a Romanian, but I grew up in Soviet Union. So I’m from the eastern part of Romania, that was a Soviet territory. So Russia was my second language. And then I started speaking, studying English in school, and later acquired a little bit of French, a little bit of Spanish, just just enough to say, get myself into trouble, but not enough to get out of it. But really, it’s, it’s something that comes naturally, I think when you grow up in a culture where multilingualism is supported by your community, it’s a little bit like healthy living and healthy eating, if you live in an area that’s, that lacks access to healthy food or lacks access to fresh produce, you are not going to live a healthy life, you’re not going to have access to a healthy diet. In the same way, if you are living in a very monolingual environment schooling is in one language your entire communities just in one language, you’re not going to be bilingual or multilingual. Whereas if you live in an environment where growing up with two or more languages, is considered the norm you acquire it just like you acquire literacy or like you learn math, it just becomes a natural part of, of one’s life. So having said that, it’s interesting because I did raise my children in the United States, which makes raising bilingual multilingual children challenging and what people often find and my family’s just, the research shows this and my family shows this and I think many of your listeners will find that too, that with each child in the birth water, there is less than less bilingualism and more and more mild monolingual is so the oldest child tends to be most fluent in multiple languages, and then the second child less so and then the third child is more likely to to not be as fluent in the heritage language of the of the parents, because kids interact with themselves mostly in English eventually. So that’s the case for us as well. As I was saying before, our commonly languages English we speak English at home. I’ll open it with this funny accents we all have our oldest daughter speaks multiple languages, is fluent in multiple languages and is interested in languages, both natural languages as well as computer languages, artificial languages. And then the second and the third child less. So they do take a foreign language in school, they do know some basic phrases, and they can meal know the names of foods. And they can have just a couple of phrases in other languages, but they’re mostly monolingual English speakers. And of course, we wanted them to be fluent in English. And I think a lot of immigrant families really prioritize the education of their children in the language in which of the country to which they immigrated. This is another, I think, myth that people often have where they have this bias as against immigrants without realizing that most immigrants would want nothing less than to assimilate and not to stand out. And not to have the children be identified as non native English speakers, they want their kids to have the opportunities that a native speaker would have in that country. So that comes with advantages and disadvantages, because yes, you have the child speaking fluently in the language of the country, but often losing their heritage language. So it’s a challenge trying to maintain bilingualism and multilingualism in the home.

Dr. Marian, let’s talk about your book, The Power of language, it has been described as revolutionary. In what ways do you believe it is revolutionary?

Well, that’s an interesting question. So most books about language are written from the point of view of monolinguals. They’re written about, if you think about language and mind, if you’re thinking about how language develops language acquisition, language development, most books out there are from the perspective of a monolingual. community, it’s as if everyone in the world is monolingual, which is, of course, not the case. So to think about language, and mind as an entirely monolingual scenario, and to only study the monolingual mind and language development and monolinguals leaves out a huge segment of the population, the majority of the world population gives us an incomplete understanding of the human mind and human capacity. And it gives us in fact, then the inaccurate understanding of human potential human mind human brain. And you can think a little bit about medicine. Up until just a few decades ago, most medical research was done on the man, and was done often on white man. And we now know that heart disease manifests differently in women than in men, or diabetes manifests itself differently in the populations indigenous to North and South America who metallized sugar differently than in white populations. So if we just study, you know, heart disease, or diabetes and white man, we are getting an incomplete inaccurate understanding of these conditions. By the same token, if we just look at the monolingual mind, we really don’t get a full understanding of language, cognition, the human condition more generally. So there is this famous quote by Toni Morrison who said that, if there is a book you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it. And this book, The Power of language, is the book I, as a person who speaks more than one language have always wanted to read, but it hadn’t been written. I walk through libraries, bookstores, and they’re all this books that don’t reflect the experience of people who live their lives across two languages or more than two languages. I live my life in more than one language. And I wanted to bring this knowledge about how language and mind interact in speakers of more than one language to a general audience outside the lab outside scientific papers. For people who can find their find themselves reflected in the pages of this book, find the experiences reflected what is it what it’s like to be bilingual? How does it change as in for people who are not bilingual and multilingual to get a better understanding of this ability that our brains have? Up to accommodate and juggle multiple languages simultaneously.

Let’s dig into that a little bit. How would you go about summarizing or encapsulating how the brain processes multiple languages in layman’s terms.

I will start by saying that your brain never completely turns off the other language. That is another misunderstanding of misinformation that people have people often think that as we speak English right now, any other languages that you know, perhaps if you speak French or Spanish, you’ve turned them off. It’s as if you’re using the language switch your switch one language off, you’re switching out on on you use it, you switch it off, you switched out on, and you sort of switch between the two languages in that way. That is actually not the case, our brain is this amazing super organism that processes information in parallel at all times. And it processes languages in parallel at all times. Even though right now It’s facilitating English, because we’re communicating in English. All the other languages that we know are also being processed and active, to some extent, not to the same extent as English, but they are still active in the background. So our brain is constantly facilitating one language and controlling competition from another language because it will do little good to our conversation if I suddenly started speaking Romanian or if you suddenly switch to French, for example. So this ability to constantly green light, one, language and red light, the other language makes our brains really good at focusing on what matters and controlling what doesn’t matter. This is one of the core skills components of executive function that our brains have. And through this experience controlling multiple languages all the time, our brain gets really good at processing, competition and, and controlling parallel activation across languages and across not just languages going from this domain specific experience with language to domain general experience more globally. So if you can think about it a little bit, like giving your brain a workout. And it’s a benefit that our brain gets all the time. So you often hear about the benefits of doing word puzzles or Sudoku problems, or engaging in some other cognitive activity, which is wonderful and great, and we should all be doing reading and doing all these other things. But with all those things, you have to take time out of your life out of your daily schedule to engage in that activity. Whereas with bilingualism and multilingualism, simply by knowing two languages, your brain is constantly controlling them and and and you get this benefit simply by choosing which language you are going to talk to a person versus not so it’s it’s it impacts our brain continuously.

We live more than ever in a very global world, regardless of the city, that country the village that we are in, what can you say to a parent in terms of any other strategies that they could use to support their children to learn another language?

like anything else, creating positive associations between the child and the experience you want your child to engage in is key. And if you’ve if you’ve tried to get your child to learn to play the piano or the violin or any of the you know that already children are going to be resistant to some things and and love some other things. Fortunately, with languages, you can find positive ways to create this positive associations between speaking another language and playing with a friend who speaks that language or between the language and the food that the child might like. All language and entertainment like movies or it really depends on the age of a child but if you You have that option. Having the child which shows in the language you want the child to know if the child is a teenager having their electronic devices using the interface in the other language, really, really being enthusiastic and positive about those experiences not making it as a chore or something that is unpleasant. That’s just the main thing and in, in, in ensuring that the child will want to learn another language. And there are different strategies. Some parents choose to speak different languages on different days of the week, where you know, Mondays English, Tuesdays, French and Wednesdays Mandarin, for example. That’s one way to do it, or the other families who choose this what’s known as the one parent one language approach. That’s another way to do it. Other families say You know what, they will learn English or French or whatever the community languages. They will learn it by school by childcare when they go outside the home. So we’ll prioritize our heritage language at home and speak that language at home. That’s another way to do it. Again, there are many paths to successful and happy bilingualism and multilingualism.

Dr. Viorica Marian, Endowed Professor of Communication Studies and disorders author of the power of language, really fascinating discussion. Thank you so much for taking the time to join us today.

Thank you so much for having me. It was a pleasure to talk to you

Dr. Marian spoke with Lianne Castelino, host of Where Parents Talk, about her latest book, The Power of Language: How the Codes We Use to Think, Speak, and Live Transform Our Minds, and why parents should embrace teaching languages in the home. She was in Evanston, Illinois.

Multilingualism is the global norm, with more than half of the world’s population speaking at least two languages in childhood and acquiring more later in life.

In the U.S., 22% of households speak a language other than English, with this statistic changing based on the state. Sometimes this results in a child needing to act as a “language broker” for parents, which Dr. Marian says is not ideal. It puts kids in a tough place and creates role reversals that immigrant parents should try to avoid by prioritizing their own language learning.

There are obvious social benefits to multilingualism, from being able to talk to more people and travel more easily, to understanding other cultures. Cognitive benefits include earlier “linguistic awareness,” which is understanding that an object and the label we give are not the same thing; monolingual children tend to acquire this later.


Dr. Marian explains that languages also afford protection against cognitive decline, with some studies showing a four to six-year delay in the onset of Alzheimer’s and other types of dementia in multilingual patients. “It seems that this experience [of] constantly juggling two or more languages gives our brain a workout [and] keeps our minds active and agile in a way that
[has] long-term consequences later in life,” she says.

Book cover: The Power of Language: How the Codes We Use to Think, Speak, and Live Transform Our MindsThere are many ways to encourage language learning, from speaking it with your kids, to hiring a caregiver or signing up for childcare where another language is spoken, to taking classes and using language-learning apps, to traveling and visiting areas of your city where it’s spoken, attending performances or concerts, interacting with people who speak that language, or trading lessons with an immigrant who wants to learn English.

There is no single best way, Marian says. “Earlier is better, but it’s never too late.” Of course, it’s easier to do this in places where multilingualism is the norm (not the case in the U.S., but common in Europe), but it can be done anywhere.

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