Fostering Multilingualism at Home

Dec 22nd, 2016 | By | Category: News
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Regula Schmid

Regula Schmid


—“Multilingualism is the natural potential available to every normal human being (Paradowsky, 2010).” Every child is born with the ability to acquire more than one language just as well as he or she is able to acquire one language. All that is needed is input, that is, hearing the language. To build multiliteracy, speaking, reading, and writing, in addition to listening, have to be incorporated. Not only is every person capable of becoming multilingual and multiliterate, but doing so brings along a myriad of benefits.

The most obvious advantage that a multilingual person has over a monolingual counterpart is that she or he can talk with people from other cultures who do not speak the monolingual’s language. But the advantages are not restricted to linguistic knowledge. Having command over more than one language helps students develop global literacy (Livaccari, 2016). As language cannot be translated directly, understanding it requires knowledge of the culture and its history. This, in turn, leads to increased perspective. Multilingual people can see any narrative from the inside as well as from the outside (Kennedy, 1994), which increases empathy and decreases racism, xenophobia, intolerance, and hate (Carpenter & Torney, 1974). On the other side of the spectrum, monolingualism isolates (Geisler, 2016).

In addition to increased global literacy, multilingualsm improves overall language perception and skill of all languages in one’s command. Multilingualism helps in detection of how language works. Multilingual people have a keen awareness of how language functions (Cummins, 1981). These skills lead to better language learning in all languages as one language supports the other and the skills transfer from language to language (Curtain & Dahlberg, 2004). Because of this transfer, multilingual people also more easily acquire additional languages than monolinguals, because they are practiced in figuring out how language works, possess transferrable skills, and have a schema onto which to attach the new language (Cummins, 1981).

The benefits exceed the content of language acquisition. Multilinguals have better listening, verbal, and memorization skills as well as spatial abilities (Diaz, 1985; Lapkin, Swain, & Shapson, 1990; Paradowski, 2016; Ratte, 1968). The increased spatial abilities more than likely stem from the fact that different languages categorize meaning in a different way because of the historical and cultural influence on language. This also leads to a greater cognitive flexibility, higher-order thinking skills, (Hakuta, 1986), and more flexible minds (UNESCO, 1995, p. 179). This is illustrated in a study conducted in Brussels in which multilingual children outperformed their monolingual classmates in math (Van de Craen, Lochtman, Mondt, & Ceuleers, 2006).

Knowing this, our question then becomes how to foster multilingualism in our children or in ourselves, for that matter, at home. Here are some concrete tips:

  • If one or more of the caregivers speaks another language that is not commonly spoken in the community, speak that language with the children exclusively. This is called the “target language.” The only time the adult should speak a language that is not the target language to the child is when she or he reads aloud a book that is written in another language. Conversation about the book or the pictures in the book, however, should take place in the target language.
  • If no caregiver speaks another language, a person who does should be recruited. This can be an adult or older child who comes over at least once a week, if not daily, to read and play with the children using the target language exclusively. Many high schools require students to complete community service. This form of tutoring can count as their community hours.
  • To build literacy in all target languages, it is crucial that students engage in reading and writing in addition to listening and speaking in all languages on a multitude of topics and in every content area. This way, children gain competence in each content area in every language versus just possessing conversational skills.
  • To incorporate reading and writing in all languages and across all content areas, reading in the target languages is just as important as it is in the first language. It is also crucial to practice being a historian, mathematician, and scientist in the target languages. Support to achieve this goal can be found in apps. Many educational apps are created in different languages. With some, it is as simple as going to the settings button and changing the language. The app series “Connie,” for example, comes in English, German, and French. The reading program “Razkids” has books in multiple languages. The “Appolino” apps cover reading and math and come in a multitude of languages. Educational video-streaming sites, such as and, allow the user to specify the language of the video in the search boxes. Furthermore, search engines can be used with the extension of the country that speaks the target language. For example, adding “de” for Germany or “cn” for China will yield results in German and Chinese respectively. Organizations whose purpose it is to promote a particular culture, such as The Confucius Institute, for example, have been proven to be more than willing to provide schools and individuals with curricular materials in the target language—it being Mandarin in the case of The Confucius Institute.
  • Other ways to incorporate the target languages are by watching educational videos in the languages of choice. For example, The Magic School Bus DVDs have a menu button that allows the user to select different languages. The viewers then learn about the content of science in the target language. Many DVDs have this settings button that offers a variety of languages. DVDs that contain different languages are readily available at the public library.
  • Writing is a crucial aspect of literacy. Written language production should always have an audience. If the parent does not read in the target language, but understands it when spoken, the children can read the written piece to him or her. If the caregiver does not understand the language at all, the author can publish his or her writing on a social media site, create a presentation of it and publish it on YouTube, or share it with the person who visits to read and play with the children in the target language.
  • Acquiring an additional language takes enormous effort and dedication. The rewards are tremendous and include possessing a flexible mind and having the door to the world wide open.

Dr. Regula Schmid is an adjunct professor at the University of San Diego, where she teaches education and leadership courses and supervises student teachers.  She and her husband, Ed Lim, raise and teach their children to be multilingual and multiliterate in English, Chinese, Swiss, German, and Spanish.


Carpenter, J. A., & Torney, J. V. (1974). Beyond the melting pot. In P. M. Markun (Ed.), Childhood and intercultural education: Overview and research (pp. 14-24). Washington, DC: Association for Childhood Education International.

Cummins, J. P. (1981). The role of primary language development in promoting educational success for language minority students. In F. C. Leyba (Ed.), Schooling and language minority students: A theoretical framework (pp. 3-49). Los Angeles, CA: Evaluation, Dissemination, and Assessment Center, California State University.

Curtain, H., & Dahlberg, C. A. (2004). Languages and children: Making the match: New languages for young learners, grades K-8 (3rd ed.). New York, NY: Longman.

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Ratte, E. H. (1968). Foreign language and the elementary school language arts program. French Review, 42(1), 80-85.

UNESCO. (1995). Our creative diversity: Report of the World Commission on Culture and Development. Paris, France: UNESCO.

Van de Craen, P., Lochtman, K., Mondt, K., & Ceuleers, E. (2006, February). The contributions of multilingual language pedagogy to linguistic theory. Paper presented at the conference on Multilingualism and Applied Comparative Linguistics, Vrije Universiteit Brussel, Brussels, Belgium.


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