Top tips for raising an English-Spanish bilingual child

Long gone are the days when bilingualism was viewed as a hindrance to a child’s academic and intellectual development. Modern research has revealed a whole swathe of benefits that result from the ability to speak two languages. But while parents of different nationalities almost unconsciously give their children the gift of bilingualism, parents who share a single language must work a little harder.

young boy in spain

Benefits of bilingualism

The ability to speak two languages is inherently a good thing – more so now than ever. In an increasingly globalised world, those that are able to communicate on an international level are more easily able to find jobs, form new relationships and relocate.

According to scientists from the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, bilingualism also stimulates and ‘strengthens’ the brain. Their study showed that bilinguals were far superior at processing sounds, compared with English-only-speaking participants. Other studies have suggested that bilingualism might help ward off dementia, as well as improving the area of the brain used for planning tasks and solving problems.

How children learn

For children to become bilingual, they must be exposed to both languages on a regular basis. Subsequent learning has been shown to take place in one of two ways. The first is simultaneous acquisition, which occurs when a child is either raised bilingually from birth or introduced to a second language before the age of three. In simultaneous acquisition, children pass through the same stages of development as mono-lingual children, though they may start talking a little later.

Sequential acquisition, as its name suggests, occurs when a child learns a second language after the first is already established. This normally happens after the age of three, and results in slower acquisition than a language learnt simultaneously. Children who learn sequentially may go through a quiet period, where they become almost silent as they build an understanding of the new second language.

How to teach

Whether they opt for simultaneous acquisition or sequential acquisition, parents must decide how the second language will be introduced. The most effective way of doing this is by making a new addition to the family in the form of a live-in native-Spanish-speaking nanny or au pair. Constant exposure to Spanish will soon result in the child adopting the language.

Tutors can also be used to teach children Spanish, though a significant number of lessons will be needed for them to reach fluency. Alternatively, children can be enrolled in language schools, such as Parents who wish to help their children can take lessons themselves, thereby providing the child with an opportunity to speak Spanish at any time.

Some parents choose to immerse children in a second language by spending time abroad. For example, children of a family that has relocated to Barcelona will quickly learn Spanish through exposure to other children.