How to Raise a Bilingual Child

Parenting Question: I have a five month-old baby. I want him to grow up bilingual. My husband and I speak to him in Chinese and English. Will he get confused if we speak different languages to him at the same time? We have a maid who speaks to him in Bahasa Indonesia.

Worried parent of a baby


Answer: Babies learn to differentiate the sounds from the language they hear during the first year of life. They store up these sounds to be used later when they start talking. When your baby hears different languages, he hears different sounds being stressed. You can talk to your baby in English or Chinese. The size of a child’s vocabulary is strongly linked to how much his parent talks to him. You can talk about anything such as clothes he is wearing, what you are doing, what the food tastes like, etc. The more words your baby hears, the more he learns.

When you speak to your child in a particular language, provide him with a good command of the language. In other words, speak in a language that you are good at. If you are speaking in Chinese, use only Chinese words and not mix your sentences up with various languages. This may confuse him, and he may also mix words from several languages when he starts talking later.

You can create a rich language environment in your home. Start a bedtime ritual of story reading. When your baby is awake and interested to play, sing nursery rhymes for him to enjoy. Go on short walkabouts and label the objects you see along the way. The more language activities you do with your child in a fun way, the better he will learn. Learning languages is all about experience and practice.

Ruth Liew is an expert in early childhood education, child development, parenting, and child care. She is an author and a columnist.