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Ask Dr. Sears: Raising a Bilingual Child

Q. My husband is American, and I'm Bolivian. We're planning to have a baby and would like to raise her fluent in both English and Spanish. What's the best way to do this?

A.
You will be doing your child a great favor by raising her bilingual. Being fluent in Spanish is a valuable asset in our multicultural society  -- and speaking the language will keep your child connected to her rich roots. The key to bilingualism? Expose your child to both languages from birth, rather than later on. The language pathways for speech development grow most rapidly in the first few years of life. During this sensitive period, the brain is like a giant file cabinet, able to store a large library, known as a phonetic inventory, of knowledge. The sounds your child hears become permanently imprinted on her brain. In my experience, children who grow up in bilingual households are sometimes initially delayed in fluent speech, but eventually bounce from one language to another with ease. These tips should help:

Each parent should stick to his or her native language. It's easier for your child's brain to sort out both languages if each of you consistently speak your own native tongue. This is called the OPOL approach  -- one parent, one language. A child learns a language not only by the sounds she hears, but by the facial gestures and body language that accompany these sounds. OPOL allows her to associate the sounds and gestures of each language with the parent who speaks it.

Try the minority language at home. Your child will likely become fluent in both languages between the ages of 3 and 4. At this point, speak the minority language (in your case, Spanish) at home and the community language outside the home. This way your child will be continually exposed to both. If you live in a community where English is the primary language and you find it easier to speak only English at home, don't worry: Those language pathways for Spanish will be so imprinted in your child's brain that she'll easily recall them later on.

Give your child a bilingual environment. Expose your little language learner to friends and relatives of both cultures. Sing songs and visit places in your community that help your child learn the richness of your Bolivian culture, and not just to the words. Dining out at restaurants in which Spanish is spoken is a fun way to keep the language alive in your child. Also, encourage her to watch television programs in which the characters speak both English and Spanish.

Let your child talk like a child. Finally, remember the basic rule of speech development: Your child must learn to speak comfortably before speaking "correctly." Speech development should be a natural and enjoyable milestone. Let your child speak like a child, with all the fumbles and stumbles that entails. Don't make her feel self-conscious when she makes mistakes. Correct adult speech will eventually happen on its own.

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