Should I raise my baby to be bilingual even if I'm not?

Ask most people and they will tell you probably 1 of 3 things about me:

  1. I am supremely competitive when it comes to quizzes

  2. I am a ridiculously big Disney fan

  3. I am an absolute language and grammar geek

This last point is probably one of the things that has shaped me most. After all, for as long as I can remember I've had a serious love affair with languages.

For me it was (and is) really important to ignite this interest and curiosity in my two girls. I was very lucky in the sense that whilst my parents didn’t speak a foreign language themselves, they still exposed my sister and I to foreign languages, either by enrolling us in after-school French clubs or our annual trip to Holland where we would make friends with other kids from all over Europe. I’m sure those two things combined have had a huge part to play in my absolute fascination with languages.

However, even as a self-confessed language lover, it is really scary and hard to try and raise a bilingual child. For a lot of new parents a fear of completely confusing your child is right up there. It certainly was for me, and this fear was only made worse when my eldest decided that she didn’t really like talking for quite a while. I genuinely thought that by introducing another language to her (in my case French), I had completely confused her and therefore she wouldn’t be able to speak until much later than her peers. Thankfully that isn’t the case, and as I have now learned, that isn’t even possible. Yes you heard me, you cannot confuse your baby by speaking to them in another language.

Cate (Founder and Director of Babel Babies)

This is just one of the many incredible facts that I learned from Cate Hamilton when I attended her talk (Should I raise my baby to be bilingual even if I’m not?) at the Cotswold Baby and Toddler Show recently. Alongside running Babel Babies, Cate has a clear passion for empowering parents to teach their children a foreign language in any way possible.

Here are the top things that I learned from Cate’s talk:

1. Learning a language starts even before your baby is born!

Babies are extremely clever little things, and even before they make their appearance into the world, they are listening to you and everything around you from the womb. They pick up the rhythm and music of a language from around 20 weeks pregnant, so go ahead, dust off your Enrique Iglesias CD and get it on.

   2. Multi-lingual is normal!

Now living in the UK, you may not believe it but actually 60% of families around the world consider themselves to be a multi-lingual household. That’s over half of families who speak more than just their native language. Granted, a lot of those will speak English as their second language but if they’re trying, why shouldn’t we!? After all, learning a language has been proven to delay symptoms of dementia as well as making you an all-round more intelligent person, so really the question is why aren’t you learning a foreign language!?

3. Babies are the best linguists

Babies are making 2 billion new brain connections every second. That in itself is incredible. What makes it even more incredible is the fact that babies are able to create new parts of their brains for each language that they hear. As a baby can hear any and all language sounds, that is potentially a lot of brain connections being made. If a baby experiences it, they will learn it. With new research showing that there could be a critical window for learning a language (under the age of 10), it really is a case of the younger the better if you want your child to enjoy the wonders of speaking a foreign language.

Clearly there are lots of benefits to speaking a foreign language with your baby, toddler or even older child but how best to go about it? Well Cate had a few helpful tips.

Firstly, don’t worry too much about how much you’re doing. Any language is better than no language. So even if it is just the case of attempting to read a foreign book (she has a great selection of the ‘That’s Not My…’ books in foreign languages), or dropping some pigeon-French into conversation, you will still be benefitting your child.

Talk to them about the world around them. Get a map, show them other countries. Even if you can’t get them to a different country for a holiday, just the fact that you are talking to them about the world from an early age will encourage them to be curious and seek out the adventures that the world has to offer.

Sing with them. Music is one of the best ways to learn any language. There’s a reason most people know the words to the Fresh Prince rap, or in my case the whole Disney back-catalogue and that is that language has its own rhythm and is pretty musical if you give it a listen. If you’re short of songs to sing, check out Cate’s Babel Babies CDs or playlists on Spotify.

Ultimately, interaction is really important so whilst getting your toddler to watch Peppa Pig in French may have a little benefit of practising vocabulary, actually its the human interaction in a language that will give them the best start at being a linguist. That, and it will also give you the opportunity to polish your own French accent.

If you’re still stuck, or you fancy joining in with Cate’s language revolution then check out the classes that are available in Cheltenham or Bristol by heading to their Facebook page or website. I can guarantee you won’t regret it. If you want to read up on my experience of taking my girls to Babel Babies classes, then just click here.

And finally, remember, we are all linguists at heart….after all, we have all learned English.