Despite the fact that bilingualism and multilingualism are the norm in many parts of the world, people in modern monolingual cultures often have misunderstandings about the benefits or otherwise of bringing up a child to speak more than one language. Some people fear that if a child is taught a second language from an early age it will cause confusion and hold them back. Nothing could be further from the truth and in fact there are many studies that indicate that bilingualism gives children a great advantage in their intellectual development. With that said, there are some principles that need to be observed for bilingualism to be successful.
An interesting observation I have made is that, as quickly as a small child can pick up a new language, they can lose the language equally as quickly if it isn´t maintained. You may have come across some little person who chatters away in four or five languages without any difficulty at all. This is because at such an early age, a child has no conscious realisation that she is speaking different languages; she simply notices that she must use certain words with certain people to communicate. If Daddy calls something a “door” and Mummy calls it a “puerta” whilst the friend down the road call it a “tür” and other children at the nursery call it “porta” a small child is happy to use these different versions in each context. However, if one of these language sources, a parent, the friend or the nursery, were to disappear, that area of language would also be wiped out extremely quickly.
So, what principles should parents adopt to ensure a solid, long-lasting bilingualism in their children? Firstly, I think it is very important to speak to a child naturally in your own mother tongue and never adopt another language artificially when talking to your child. Secondly, don´t be demanding about what language the child answers you in. If you ask your child what she has learnt at school and she answers you in the language used at school, never demand that she answer you in a different language. You can echo the same information back in your own language so that she hears an alternative, but never give her the impression that she has said something incorrectly. A small child will not understand that you are encouraging her to use a different language; she will just perceive there is something wrong in what she has told you.
Finally, on this complex but interesting subject, the most important thing is not to get over-anxious about bilingualism. Family situations, linguistic contexts and children´s personalities vary, and it is far more important that a child grows up being listened to, whatever they say and however they say it.