How do kids learn to be bilingual?
There is no simple answer to this question, and there is certainly many definitions of what it means to be bilingual. Is it simply knowing how to talk to family about every-day things, ordering food at a restaurant, and describing what you like and don’t like? Or is being bilingual actually knowing how to read and write in another language? Or is it also being so fluent that you can study and write a thesis in that language or communicate effectively at work with specialized vocabulary? In my opinion, bilingualism can take many shapes, and my main message is that anything is more than nothing! Teaching your child that some people say “jeden, dwa, trzy” instead of “one, two, three” will at the very least make your child a little more curious.
For children who learn two languages at once, the world takes on a different meaning. Parallel language learning makes a child double his or her vocabulary; for every object, a child learns that there are two words for it. For example “chair” is also “chaise”, “computer” is also “ordinateur”, “car” is also “voiture”. The child does not know that she has now learned two languages: for her, the object just has two names. This is how bilingual children see, hear, and learn about the world from birth till about 2.5-3years of age (on average) when they begin to understand that the two systems (languages) that they have been learning actually form what we adults call a language. It is an incredible discovery for this little toddler! This is where they figure out that there is a method to this madness, and they continue to build their vocabulary while progressively getting better at sorting the words into the right language system. “Chaise” goes into the French drawer, “chair” goes into English. Like a big pile of laundry, the words keep amassing in their brain and through more and more exposure (ie hearing the language from their parent/teacher) they get better at building a beautiful wardrobe in each language.