My husband is from Chile and a native Spanish speaker. I can speak some Spanish but I’m definitely not comfortable using it on a daily basis. We want to raise our kids to be bilingual. How do we go about doing that?
There are significant cognitive advantages as well as social benefits to raising and fostering bilingualism. Bilingual children naturally learn to decontextualize language earlier because it is part of the process of acquiring two languages simultaneously. The ability to deconstruct language is an important skill when learning to read. Children need to be able critically look at language in order to be able to pick up various features such as phonemes and letter shapes in order to learn to read well. Bilingualism literally translates into children who are better readers. A child with native like fluency can be a part of their native culture to a degree that someone who has lost their native language cannot. Bilingual children understand their own culture better and can better understand someone else’s. They can literally communicate with millions more people in a way that is much deeper and easier than using translation devices. Children who are raised in bilingual homes do not confuse the languages (a common myth) and it only improves cognitive development.
The most effective way to learn a language is to be immersed in it. If your husband’s native language is Spanish then all of his communication with your child would be in Spanish while you would communicate in English. If you have a nanny or family members the child could engage with in Spanish that would be a huge support. For children with both parents or in single parent homes where the primary language is one other than English, parents should keep the home in the native language only. Get books and music in your native language and fully immerse your children in your language and culture as well as with your well developed linguistic prowess that you already possess as a native speaker. Your children will learn English growing up in an English dominant country and they will be submersed in English for most of their lives. The only threat to bilingualism is losing the family’s native language which is always a true loss linguistically and culturally. If you are concerned about your child not understanding a relative or teacher, you can let that go. Think about how your child learned English from you. Babies and children do not initially understand what we are saying, it takes time, engagement, repetition and practice.
For monolingual families there are many options to becoming a bilingual family or raising bilingual children. Here is a list of suggestions: Travel, nannies and childcare in target language, travel, preschools and classes in target language, books, music, tv shows and films in the target language, travel, and find a family who would like help with English and trade your skill sets. There are many language schools that normally cater to native speakers from that country but welcome other families as well. On-line programs like Rosetta Stone can be very useful but nothing takes the place of in-person dialogue and learning or in person or on-line programs where your child can converse 1:1 or in a small group with a native speaking volunteer, student or instructor.