My Experience Raising a Bilingual Toddler During the Pandemic

My daughter, Lucia-Antonia, is just a little over 3 years old. For nearly half of her life, we have been living during a pandemic. Things are tough for all families right now—and that’s putting it lightly. But one of my biggest concerns is about her language development because we are raising her bilingual. I realize that we’re far from alone in our struggles.

My husband and I live in Italy. My husband is Italian so, of course, he speaks Italian. I’m originally from New York City and speak English. While my husband speaks English and I speak Italian, raising our daughter to speak both languages was always our intention but has proven much more difficult. The first few years are critical when it comes to raising a bilingual child, but unfortunately, the pandemic has made that more of a struggle.

 

The first few years are critical when it comes to raising a bilingual child, but unfortunately, the pandemic has made that more of a struggle.

 

While the pandemic has only been going on for two years, it is still too early to tell the long-term effects it is having on bilingual children.

 

Why Bilingual Children Are Having Difficulties

Lena Suarez-Angelino, a clinical social worker who specializes in teen/young adult development, weighed in on how the pandemic could be affecting bilingual children. “The pandemic can certainly be affecting how bilingual children are being raised due to less social interactions and no in-person learning, resulting in a decreased balance of language immersion,” Suarez-Angelino said. “This is especially difficult if the child(ren) are being raised in a non-English speaking home, as most of their exposure to English is reliant on school and English as a Second Language (ESL) curriculum.”

Children have been less exposed to the outside world. They are not attending school, interacting with teachers, meeting with friends, less exposed to extended family, and at home more. This means that a large part of their “universe” where they would otherwise be exposed to their second language is cut off.

 

Children have been less exposed to the outside world… This means that a large part of their “universe” where they would otherwise be exposed to their second language is cut off.

 

In a recent article in The New York Times, preliminary data suggested children were using their parents’ native language more during the lockdown, especially among younger children.

In my family, I work as a writer and have been at home with my daughter since the beginning of the pandemic. My husband works outside the home, and because of this, my daughter has been exposed to more English through me. While my daughter does fully understand Italian, it is only in the past few months that she has begun speaking more Italian, though she usually mixes it with English.

While I wish she was speaking more Italian, especially since we live in Italy, I can understand why she isn’t. She is at home with me all day, has limited exposure to other people, and does not attend school. Her world is our home and our home, for the most part, is me. She also hears me on meetings and phone calls, which I speak in—you guessed it—English.

 

 

Zohar Bunyard, another parent raising a bilingual child, noticed a challenge when it came to her now 4-year-old son. “My son had a very marked drop in Italian as his second language due to the first (and main) lockdown. He was at an age where his language skills were really beginning to come into their own, and having the complete cutoff from his teachers at nursery school speaking to him daily in Italian saw his learning almost return to zero, especially as he actively refused to do any Italian language repetition or games with us at home. My son certainly favors English, as it is the dominant language in our home, although Italian is the native language where we live.”

 

What Parents Raising Bilingual Children Can Do Right Now

Suarez-Angelino, bilingual herself, offered these words of advice: Purchasing material and resources that are in both English and the family’s native language is a really great, approachable, and fun way to continue to build dual-language skills. Technology is a really great way to maintain exposure, especially to native language.

Consider having your child(ren) watch shows in other languages, video chat with family members in their native language, and play any games that encourage learning another language. As for the adults in a child’s life, whether you are a parent or caregiver, teacher, or other professional, it’s important to be patient and understanding. Allow children ample amount of time to express themselves, especially when asking questions and processing emotions. Asking for help and processing emotions can be challenging at any age and at any language level.

Nikki Taylor, another English-speaking mother raising her children bilingual, said, “My child speaks in both English and Italian, but he speaks more phrases in Italian, as we live in Italy and he has more of an Italian influence because at the school they speak Italian. I would recommend, where possible, speaking with your child in your mother tongue so they do not get confused. I try to speak with my children in English only and their father speaks with them just in Italian.”

Suarez-Angelino, confirmed each parent should ideally speak to their child in their mother tongue. “Personally, I would recommend that each parent only speak to their child in their mother tongue” Suarez-Angelino said. “This allows for the child to grow up with exposure to both languages full time. Relying on school or larger family gatherings where mother tongue is preferred is not enough of an immersive experience to learn and retain the language. The challenge here relies on the consistency of the parents implementing the plan to speak in their own native language to their child(ren).”

 

How We’re Encouraging Our Toddler’s Bilingual Learning

Here are some simple adjustments we’ve adapted in our home to help our daughter along the way.

 

Change Language Settings

During the pandemic, my daughter has had way more TV time than I care to admit. In fact, most parents have admitted that their children’s once-limited TV time has gone up thanks to the pandemic. In a study done by JAMA Pediatrics, it was reported that children are spending double the time that they normally were in front of a screen compared to before the pandemic.

So if my daughter is going to be watching more cartoons while I work, why not make the most of it? When she is watching cartoons or a movie, I make it a point to only let her watch cartoons in Italian, that way she is exposed to the native language of where we live. Luckily, Netflix, Prime, and Disney+ all have different audio and subtitle options to make this possible.

 

 

Speak One Hour a Day Only in Your Native Language

Since my daughter is clearly favoring English and it is our goal for her to be fully bilingual, we have made a point to set aside at least one whole hour a day where we only speak in the native language where we live, in our case Italian. It might not sound like a lot, but one full hour of hearing nothing but Italian is a lot for our 3-year-old daughter.

 

Read Books in Your Native Language

If you’re lucky enough to have a child who loves reading time, make it a point to focus on reading books in the language that your child is behind in. I read to my daughter every night, usually for around half an hour. I now focus on Italian books. While I am reading, I make it a point to let my daughter repeat the sentences to me. After a week of only reading to her in Italian, I can see it making a difference in her vocabulary.

 

Find What Works for You

No two children are the same. Children meet milestones at different parts of life when they are ready. This goes for bilingual children as well. There is a myth that bilingual children usually start speaking later, which is sometimes the case and sometimes not, so don’t feel obliged to follow “standard” procedure when it comes to raising a bilingual child. Do what is comfortable and what you feel works for you and your child.

 

Look for the Positive

Francisca Rojas is raising her children to be trilingual, but she has a positive spin on raising her children to speak multiple languages during the pandemic. “I think it has provided more opportunity for us to talk more to our kids and teach them our language naturally, as we all live together and cannot meet with other people,” she said.

 

Be Patient

Raising a bilingual child during the pandemic is not easy. Be patient and kind. Children are like sponges. Even if your child doesn’t appear to be speaking more than one language, remember that children pick up everything around them. Stick to your goals of speaking two languages in the home and remember that even if they’re not yet speaking both languages, they are always listening.

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