I think raising bilingual (or multilingual) children is still not as popular as it should be, and I think it's one of the best gifts we can give our kids. My native language is Spanish and I started learning English when I was 9; I can manage pretty well, but I'm not completely bilingual. I love the fact that I can communicate with people from many different countries and that I can read books or watch movies that are only available in English, so I realize everyday how important it is to speak more than one language. This made me and my husband decide to raise our kids bilingual from birth.
The sensitive period for language goes from birth to 6 years; so when you learn a language during the first 6 years of your life, you learn it naturally and your brain stores it as a native language, but after that sensitive period every new language that you learn will be stored in a different part of the brain, so you won't learn it naturally but though more or less effort (more effort the older you get) and you won't be able to master it at the same level.
This makes you think "If I wait until my kids go to preschool to get them started in a second language they will have already lost 3 precious years out of those 6!" So what can you do? Provide them a bilingual environment from as soon as you can and for the most part of the time as you can.
If you or someone who takes care of the child can speak another language, all you have to do is make sure the child is exposed to the second language as well as to the native language. Easy peasy, right? If you don't have that choice, you can still try to find ways to expose your kids to another language: find a play group where there are kids who speak another language, hire a nanny or a teacher to spend some time talking to the kids in the second language...)
Every situation is different, and you have to get the best out of what you have. Let me tell you how we are doing it and how it's working for us:
- We were thinking about the "One Person One Language" strategy, which works very well when each parent has a different native language, but we thought it wouldn't work for us as we both wanted to communicate with our kids in Spanish (our native language) and we both also wanted to be able to practice English with them. So we decided to use the "Minority Language at Home" strategy; we speak English when we are home and Spanish outside.
- We buy children books in English that we read aloud at home, we listen to and sing songs and nursery rhymes in English, and although we like TV time to be limited, we try to fill that TV time with cartoons or TV shows in English.
- Also, we're lucky enough to live in an area where there is an important community of expats, mainly from Britain, and they organize leisure activities and clubs where we can get to know families with children who speak both English and Spanish (and sometimes other languages as French, Dutch....)
- At the moment Alejandro is attending a preschool where the teacher and the caregivers speak native English. The first time I went there and heard some 4 year-old children speaking perfect English to the teacher and then speaking perfect Spanish between themselves I was delighted.
- We also want to expose our kids to French, but we don't speak it well enough to use it in a daily basis, so we will probably hire a teacher not long from now, and for the moment we try to introduce it with easy books that we are able to read aloud.
So these are mainly the things we do to create a bilingual/multilingual environment for our kids. It works pretty well together with a Montessori approach, because it's basically based in the same concepts: the "sensitive periods" as I mentioned before, the "absorbent mind", the "prepared environment"... And when children begin to notice that knowing more than one language is really useful, they feel encouraged to learn more languages; you won't need to convince them that learning languages is good for them, they will be self-motivated to do it!