Raising bilingual children has its benefits and doubters

Story highlights

  • Children exposed to more than one language benefit from increased memory and attention
  • Some parents worry about assimilation or their kids getting teased for speaking a second language

(CNN)In a playground in Paris, 3-year-old Raphael Jegouzo excitedly tells a little girl, "Me too, I speak French!" Like many other children his age, he learned to speak French at home -- except his home is Brooklyn, New York.

"My husband's family couldn't believe he spoke French as if he were living in France," Raphael's mother, Raquel Jegouzo, said. At home, Raquel speaks to Raphael in English and French. His father, Erwan Jegouzo, a native French speaker, speaks to Raphael exclusively in French.
    Raquel and Erwan Jegouzo pose as superheroes with their children.
    The Jegouzos might be doing something right. According to Emory University psychology professor Laura L. Namy, the best approach to raising bilingual children is to start early. "The child should hear as much of both languages as possible from birth, ideally from two different speakers who consistently speak one of the languages to them," Namy said.
    Pediatrician Dr. Gwendolyn Delaney agrees. "The earlier the better. Studies have shown that children exposed to more than one language have greater tissue density in the areas of the brain related to language, memory and attention. The effect is particularly strong when the additional language is introduced before age 5."

    Are there downsides of bilingualism for kids?

    Delaney and Namy said the most common worry they see in parents who want to raise bilingual children is that exposing children to multiple languages early on might confuse the child. They both said this should not be a concern. According to Namy, children begin to learn the sounds of their mothers' native languages while they are in the womb, and they can tell the difference between that language and other languages from birth.
    "As long as children hear two distinct languages being spoken at different times, they would not get the languages confused," Namy said. "They may occasionally substitute a word from one language into a sentence in the other language simply because they haven't acquired the full vocabulary in both languages yet, but this doesn't imply that they don't understand which words belong in which languages."
    The notion that their child could lag behind in speech might stem from parents comparing the speed at which their child is reaching language milestones -- which has nothing to do with how many languages they are learning. "Language acquisition isn't a race. All typically developing kids get there in the end, and there's a lot of normal variability," Namy said.
    Children are more versatile than parents might think.
    The Ramos family lives in West Palm Beach, Florida, and the parents speak to their children in Spanish at home. They are surrounded by friends who speak English, Spanish or both. Jismarie Ramos said her son, who just turned 4, learned by himself to identify people who speak a specific language and engage in a conversation in that language. "If you talk to him in Spanish, he will reply in Spanish without me telling him to. If you say 'hello' instead of 'hola,' he knows right away to engage in a conversation in English," Ramos said.

    Barriers to bilingualism

    The benefits of bilingualism are a no-brainer to some parents. Known advantages include cognitive benefits and being competitive in a global market as adults. A study published last year in the journal Psychological Science found bilingual children have an advantage when it comes to social abilities and communication skills. However, for other parents, the benefits of bilingualism are not so cut and dried.
    Delaney has patients who have expressed concerns about teaching children their native language for fear that they'd have a harder time assimilating to American culture. A lot of them worry their children might get teased by their peers because they speak another language or have an accent.
    "I encourage parents not to let the fear of being identified as a first-generation American family keep them from giving such an important head start to their child," Delaney said.
    Other parents who are set on raising their children to be bilingual might encounter some resistance from the child. Such is the case for the Dennis family. The parents speak Spanish to their three children in Cumming, Georgia. When Elizabeth Dennis spoke to her 11-year-old daughter, Mariana, in Spanish in front of her friends, she was taken aback by her daughter's response. "Don't speak to me in Spanish," Mariana said. Elizabeth recognizes that her daughter probably felt embarrassed, but that didn't stop Elizabeth. She responded, "I will speak to you in Spanish," letting her daughter know this was not up for discussion.
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    For other families the issue may not be the children, but the parents. "The biggest challenge for some parents is remembering to speak to their children in the second language," Namy said. "For some parents it takes some real cognitive effort to remember to do so consistently," she added.
    Parents who are sold on the benefits of bilingualism and want to raise their children to be bilingual, but are monolingual themselves, might also find it difficult to do so. One option is to hire a bilingual nanny and ask that the nanny only speak to the child in a particular language. Another option is to hire a tutor or search for a local "mommy and me" language class. This could be an opportunity for the parents to learn a new language along with their child. For parents who can't afford a nanny or a tutor, they might consider enrolling their child in a charter multilingual school.
    A word of advice from Namy to all parents attempting to raise bilingual children is to "stick to it and don't worry." Their children may one day say "thank you" -- and "gracias" -- for raising them to be bilingual.