Bringing Up Bilingual Toddlers

The myths related to bilingualism range from the most curious to the most extreme. It has been commonly questioned whether attempts to encourage bilingualism in toddlers can lead to language mixing and confusion; if bilingual children perform worse academically or even if it may cause speech delays. According to outrageous and unsupported claims used in support of teaching only one language at school, bilingualism can be a threat that closes doors in the wider world.

Some studies suggest that learning more than one language doesn’t slow the development of early vocabulary. However, it’s fairly well established that bilingualism can lead to some delays in reaching expressive language milestones, albeit delays which typically disappear by three years of age.

Recent studies suggest that children acquire a sense of the different languages surrounding them from a very early age. Babies start a cognitive process related to the acquisition of language in the womb. By the moment babies are born, they can recognize not only the voice of their mother, and familiar melodies, but also many of the sounds related to their parents´ native languages. This knowledge becomes the basis for their ‘perceptual maps for speech’. These will allow them to filter information and eventually help to make complex structures in a specific language.

Bilingualism in children has been highly debated and many theories support different methods. However there’s some fairly established advice as to how to raise bilingual children.

  • The need for consistency in language use is normally emphasized. Experts commonly recommend the ‘one parent one language’ (OPOL) rule. If one of the parents sticks to the rule of speaking in only one language from the very beginning, it helps the child to recognise the need to switch between languages and to talk to each parent using a different code. Consistency can also help the parent.
  • Interactivity and making the most of games and environment in language learning are all great assets for assisting the process of developing expressive language and active vocabulary in the child.
  • It’s best to speak in simple sentences and not use single words, to speak clearly and try to avoid imitation of ‘baby language’.
  • TV programmes and videos can be tools for acquiring another language but they’re limited due to their passivity. Reading books, singing songs and involving children in social activities such as playgroups with other peers who speak the minority language (the language that is normally not spoken in the country or area where the child is living) are highly recommended. Joining bilingual parenting clubs is normally spoken of by bilingual families as a very positive activity.
  • If books in the minority language are not easily available it can be useful to “read” picture books, or depending on the language skills of the parent, written text can be translated as it’s read. If done from an early age, this will help to gradually improve the translating skills of the parent.
  • Exposure to a language is also a very important factor. There’s not a general agreement on how much exposure children should have to a language, but it ranges from 30% to 60% of total language exposure time in order to become successfully bilingual.

Persistence and hard work from the early months are crucial. This should not discourage parents from teaching a third language to a child at any age since this will not disrupt their learning of the first two languages.

Finally, it’s important to acknowledge the benefits of a bilingual brain which have been discussed in many academic papers. Bilingual children have been shown in studies to possess better memory, attention span, problem solving and decision making abilities, listening and multi-tasking skills and an easier adjustment to environmental changes from the age of seven months onwards.

The benefits continue throughout life – and as older adults, bilingual speakers show lesser cognitive decline in old age.


Pearson, B., Fernández, S., & Oller, D. (1993). Lexical Development in Bilingual Infants and Toddlers: Comparison to Monolingual Norms Language Learning, 43 (1), 93-120 DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-1770.1993.tb00174.x

Kuhl, P., (1998) Language, culture and intersubjectivity: the creation of shared perception. In S. Braten. (Ed.) Intersubjective Communication in Early Ontogeny, 297–315. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Image via Creativa Images / Shutterstock.

Lorena Nessi, PhD, MA

Lorena Nessi PhD is an award winning journalist, researcher, and cultural sociologist. Her Bachelor's was in International Relations, Master’s degree in Globalization, Identity and Technology, and PhD in Communication, Sociology and Digital Cultures. She received the Avina scholarship for investigative journalism while working for the BBC. Her fields of interest include digital cultures, sociology, social media, technology and capitalism.
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