Among all the important conversations you will have about bilingualism, the on-going conversation with your children is one of the most important. In many families, parents wait until the kids are “older” to start the discussion, but in fact this discussion should be started from very early on.
One important factor in encouraging successful bilingualism is promoting the status and usefulness of the languages in question. In most bilingual situations, there will be a language with a higher status or more usefulness, and a language with a lower status or less usefulness. Children need to be aware from very early on about the why of bilingualism, not just the how., to help them understand why both (or all) the languages they have in their lives are important, regardless of status or immediate (daily) usefulness.
In the very early years, the family discussion about bilingualism will be framed in terms a young child can understand” “Mummy says…” and “Daddy says…” or whatever the language roles are in the situation. By the age of 2-3 years old, most (bilingual) children have enough awareness of different languages to give them the correct name, but each family can choose the language that suits them.
As the language conversation evolves, it should encompass issues of heritage, family ties, travel, schooling, local integration, or any other factor that impacts the family language situation. Whichever factors are emphasized, the critical issue is to transmit to the children the reasons for which they are being asked to learn each language, and to find ways to help them see each language as a living, useful, dynamic way of communicating. For families with limited exposure to one of the languages, this can mean finding means of promoting the language through monolingual tools, and building ties with speakers of that language, either locally or via multimedia sources.
So if you are a bilingual family, and you have yet to start the discussion with your children, please, go start your conversation today!