Bilingualism: FAQs

Oxford Brookes BabyLab

Frequently Asked Questions:

What does being a bilingual mean?

There are many ways to define what being 'bilingual' means. Usually it's about someone's ability to use two or more languages in everyday life. For babies, being bilingual is about being exposed to two or more languages.

There are many different ways of being bilingual:

• Some children hear multiple languages at home and may use different languages with different family members

• Some children speak a different language at home to what they use in nursery or school

• Some children can understand a language but may not speak or write it

How early should we start speaking both languages to our child?

As early as possible, from birth or even before! Research shows that children do not confuse their languages no matter how early they start learning them. In fact, evidence shows that infants are much better at differentiating sounds of a language if they have heard it early on - by about 9 months of age children ‘specialise’ on the language(s) they hear at home.

However, this doesn't mean that children will have difficulties with a language in nursery or school if they haven't heard it at home prior to starting to attend. Children adapt and learn super fast!

What is the best way to raise a bilingual child?

There is no ‘correct’ method that works for all families. There are a number of myths around children confusing languages if a parent doesn’t stick to speaking in one language only, but this is not true. Babies are amazing at distinguishing languages - much better at it than adults are!

Can I raise my child bilingual if I am the only one who speak my native language, living in an English-speaking environment?

Absolutely! The hard part is making sure they have enough natural exposure to your language, so keep using your native language whenever you can when talking to your child. Experiences, such as speaking to family and friends from your home, and holidays you may take to your home country, will all boost your child’s exposure to your language.

We are not native speakers of English. Should we be speaking English at home?

Even if you don’t speak English at home, your child will pick up English very quickly once they start nursery or school. There isn’t any harm in letting your child's exposure to English begin naturally and gradually. When children go to English speaking school, there is no risk that they will fail to learn English. Actually, what may happen is that the children 'reject' their home language in favour of the outside language.

Nonetheless, you can give your child some exposure to English by meeting with English speaking friends and attending English-language playgroups before they formally enter a nursery or school setting.

What is the best way to teach a child two foreign languages spoken by one parent?

You are setting yourself a difficult task if you would like your child to learn two languages from you alone in a third language environment. The hard part is making sure they have enough natural exposure to both of your languages. Most of the time, one of the two languages you want them to learn will be more relevant somehow, and the trick is to provide enough opportunities for them to use the less relevant one in a way that isn’t forced or artificial. One way, if you can manage it, is to put children in situations where only the “less important” language is used so that there is no temptation to mix languages or revert to the “more important” language. For example, this could be a specific-language speaking club or reading books together in that language!