Raising a Bilingual Child

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Recent studies cite a number of advantages to bilingualism, ranging from "sharper brains" to delay in Alzheimer's.  These studies, coupled with growing minority populations here, have rushed many eager parents to join the fad of raising bilingual children. But are they really ready?

The definition of bilingual is "able to use two languages with equal fluency." Having some knowledge of a second language isn't enough. To raise a bilingual child requires more than a few hours a week of language school. It requires significant and long-term exposure to the minority language.

A path to success is for one parent to speak to the child completely in the second language. This requires a significant lifestyle change, and can lead to awkward social situations.  Family and friends may feel left out, especially when the other parent does not speak the language.

I have spoken to my four and six-year-olds in Mandarin since they were born, in the presence of my all-American husband.  But I have the advantage of understanding both languages, and many terms don't translate well because of the cultural reference. My husband often will be left out of a joke funny to native Chinese speakers only. So ironically, bilingualism can set up artificial barriers to communication.

Bilingual children are given the gift of deeper dialogue and connections with a whole other culture. I feel this when my sons talk to their great-grandparents. For those not raising their kids bilingual, do not panic. Our goal is to maximize their lifelong happiness and those surrounding them, a goal achievable in many ways. Scientific studies say there's another way to sharpen a brain -- music.


With a Perspective, I'm Vickie Tsui.

Vickie Tsui is a research scientist and author of bilingual children's books.