Bringing Up Children Bilingually

Delana H Stewart

Recently, Dr. John Landon presented a workshop on Bilingualism and Multilingualism at an AERC family education conference. Dr. AsiaLandon was Head of the Department of Educational Studies at the University of Edinburgh until his retirement in 2005. He is an international expert on bilingualism and bilingual education, having worked in many European countries, North America, Australia, Japan, Egypt, and South Africa. He has also acted as a consultant to multilingual schools in many parts of the world on the teaching of English as an additional language and the implementation of bilingual programs. Three of his seven grandchildren attend Welsh-English bilingual schools.  During this workshop he presented some valuable insights that I would like to share with you.

Defining Bilingual


A bilingual can be an individual learning two or more languages simultaneously beginning between birth and age three.


A successive bilingual would be three or four years old to six or seven.


And then there are bilinguals who develop additional languages after that point; they are late bilinguals. In the journey to becoming bilingual Dr. Landon quotes Jim Cummins as he mentions two stages that a bilingual reaches.



The first stage is Basic Interpersonal Communication skills (BICS) and the second is Cognitive Academic Language Proficiency (CALP). In a successive bilingual a seemingly fluid language socially (BICS) can be acquired in the first 18-24 months; however, it takes much longer to acquire the ability to think, reason, and speculate in that language. CALP often takes 5-7 years to develop if CALP has already been reached in the mother tongue. If CALP was not yet reached in the mother tongue, then it can take 8-9 years (e.g. in the individual working on two languages simultaneously, beginning before age 3). For successive and late language learners, if CALP is not reached in the mother tongue prior to beginning the learning of academics in a second language, CALP may not be reached in either language. CALP occurs on a continuum, but you can tell if CALP is occurring if the child can 1) read, 2) comprehend, and 3) read between the lines (or make inferences about what he is reading).

Benefits of Bilingualism

  • Enhances problem-solving ability and creative skills
  • Enhances awareness of how languages operate and the development of literacy skills
  • Increases understanding of underlying meaning and critical thinking
  • Increases linguistic creativity, expression and thinking
  • Often able to outperform other children cognitively and academically
  • Strengthens academics and extends career and college choices
  • Expands worldview and perception
  • Increases sense of individual, family, and cultural identity

If knowing one language is compared to seeing in red, and knowing a second language is compared to seeing in yellow, then the bilingual not only sees in red and yellow but also sees in orange.

Issues/Struggles on road to Bilingualism causing benefits not to develop

  • First language fails to develop sufficiently because it is not challenged cognitively and consistently.
  • First language does not have a strong cognitive foundation to support additional language, leading to underdeveloped thinking skills in first and second language.

Developing CALP in two or more languages simultaneously

This can be done if both languages are given equal input time during the birth to 3 time period. One parent speaks one language and the other parent (or nanny) the second language. One reads to the child in one language and the other reads in the second language. Even if/when a child shows preference to speaking in one of the languages over the other, both languages should continue to be spoken and read to the child.

Bilingualism and Learning to Read

For simultaneous bilinguals, learning to read and write in one language at a time can be helpful. Once a child learns to decode and read for comprehension in one of the languages, he will probably learn to read the other language on his own (with just the new script being taught). For successive and late bilinguals, it is best for them to develop CALP in the mother tongue first (learning to read, write, and reason in that language) before learning to read and write in a second language.

Other Tips and Issues

  • If your child is a simultaneous bilingual, teach your child to read first in whichever language she is strongest.
  • A child with cognitive or linguistic processing difficulties in one language will likely have those same difficulties in other languages.
  • For successive and late bilinguals, start with one subject in the second spoken language. Then gradually introduce less cognitive classes in that language (e.g. PE, Art, Science) moving to ½ the teaching in the mother tongue and ½ in the second language.

Some resources recommended by Dr. John Landon


See also:

Places to Research Children Learning Second Languages

Raising Multilingual Children


A WordPress blogger writes on language learning:


7 thoughts on “Bringing Up Children Bilingually

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