A bilingual child learns a second language from a young age. The majority come from multi-lingual families where the parents have different mother-tongues or, the family is monolingual but living in a foreign country and the child is therefore exposed to second or third language that way.
This traditional bilingual upbringing aside, more and more parents are recognising the value of languages and decide to expose their children to foreign languages from an early age - whether there is an overriding need for the language or not.
If the second language is a natural part of the child’s life, i.e., Dad always uses it or it’s the language they use at school or outside of the family home, then it is usually easier. The child will naturally absorb the second language as part of their normal language development along with their dominant language.
If however the language is not an active part of the child’s life, i.e., not regularly spoken, used, listened to, then it is more difficult to grasp - but certainly not impossible.
Multilingual families come in many varieties:
A monolingual family that decides to expose their children to another language
Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie are examples of this. Each of their children is exposed to their native tongue through a native speaking nanny with whom they learn to speak their native language. They are also being schooled in France to gain exposure to the French language.
A monolingual family that moves to a foreign country.
This is now very prevalent with the expansion of the European Union where, for example, a Polish family might move to England or, internationally, a Japanese family migrates to Australia to find better opportunities.
A bilingual family that lives in an environment that uses one parent’s language
An american mother with an italian father living in American. One speaks american fluently while they other “gets by” but both parties use their own native language in the home to expose children to both.
A multilingual family living in an environment with a totally different language
Here, you may have an Arab father and a Russian mother who live in France. Their children would be exposed to the Arab and Russian languages of their parents in the family home but then French outside the home.
Whatever the situation, the important thing is to use every advantage that your situation offers and have a plan from the start. The more consistent you are with who speaks what and the more exposure your child has to the secondary language, the easier it will be for them to learn.
Some parents become frustrated because their child refuses to respond in their particular language or there is a pronounced difference in ability between the primary and secondary language. But be patient. You cannot control what your child decides to use to communicate. You can only expose them to the opportunity to learn and wait for them to decide themselves how they want to use it. Just be sure to make it fun with children’s programmes such as Dora the Explorer, dual language computer games, audio books or dual language books on their book shelf.
Your efforts will pay off as soon as your child recognises the benefits and begins babbling away in multiply languages.