Good News for Those of Us in Bilingual Families

Luckily, it seems that babies taught two languages are helped, not delayed.


It wasn’t so very long ago that parents were warned that trying to teach tiny babies a foreign language would delay their speech. But as a mom in a bilingual family, I found that hard to believe. When my daughter was tiny, she had no problem understanding my husband’s Russian or my English. Her speech wasn’t delayed at all. And she had many friends in preschool who spoke their native language at home with their parents, and English at school, and managed both with ease.

But we weren’t perfect bilingual parents, alas. When Anna started talking, my husband and I slacked off on the Russian and started speaking English to her. Now when Baba and Deda come to visit, Anna asks me to translate–even though she still understands a great deal of Russian, especially essential words like morozhnaya–ice cream.

So I’ve made a hobby of gathering information proving that growing up bilingual really is good for kids. I was not that lucky, but I can still remember my third-grade ALM French lessons—“Où est la bibliothèque? C’est là-bas”—while I struggle to retain Spanish and Russian, which I started learning as a grownup. The latest news in defense of bilingual babies comes from researchers in Trieste, Italy, a delightfully multilingual city in northern Italy. To the scientists’ surprise, the bilingual babies weren’t delayed, although they had to learn twice as much language as their monolingual peers. What’s more, they were able to learn two different language structures simultaneously, switching from one to the other.

How does this work? The brains of people who master a difficult skill–say, chess–become faster at memorizing and processing. So it may be that bilingual babies might be ahead of the game because their tiny brains have been practicing switching between languages since they first heard Daddy coo.

It’s enough to make me try to revive our Russian-only Sundays plan. Other strategies that bilingual families follow include:

  • One parent/one language. Good for families where each spouse has a different native language.
  • Minority language at home. The way to go for expats or immigrant families who would like their children to retain at least some of their native language.
  • I just came across, which features a fun quiz asking how one parent/one language works for your family. Or follow Clo’s efforts to raise quadrilingual (!) kids in Paris, at her multitongue kids blog. After learning about her family’s efforts to include Italian, French, Dutch, and English, I’ll no longer complain that it’s a pain to use two languages.