I can vividly remember the night we found out I was pregnant. The excitement, the overload of hugs and kisses, the happy tears, which were then followed by an overwhelming feeling of anxiety. I began to wonder how on Earth I would be able to bring a child into this world and ensure he/she had the very best.
As parents, we all want what’s best for our children but ‘what’s best’ in it self may differ from parent to parent or may even be unclear for some. We (my husband and I) knew, however, that there weren’t any manuals or cookie cutter books to teach us how to be the best parents we could be but we for sure knew that I wanted our children to learn our culture, traditions and language. For us, being bilingual is invaluable.
So where does all this passion for bilingual parenting stem from? Well, it all dates back to when my folks immigrated from México, became U.S. citizens and spoke their native language exclusively at home throughout my childhood. In fact, my father, still to this day, speaks only Spanish at home. I cherish the time and effort my parents put into teaching me Spanish as my first language. Yes, you read that correctly! Spanish was my first language. It wasn’t until 2nd grade that I learned to read and write English. I was fortunate to be in a school district that provided a kindergarten through 1st grade Spanish program with a complete transition to the English language during 2nd grade. In retrospect, I now realize this paved the way for my journey as a bilingual in the workforce.
Now, as a bilingual mother, along with my bilingual husband, we’re raising our three-year old daughter in both Spanish and English. Not because it was expected but rather as a way to pass down our culture and traditions to our offspring. More importantly, we want to raise a bilingual child in this increasingly globalized world. We want our daughter to appreciate, communicate and be able to interact with people across cultures, generations and countries. And I’m beginning to realize that we are not the only parents in this school of thought.
According to an NBC Latino article, Bilingual mania: Parents are taking a second look at raising bilingual children, written by Monica Olivera, “Despite the English-only rhetoric in some sectors of the country, a growing number of Latino and non-Latino families alike see the value in raising bilingual children and are seeking out resources to help them teach a second language at home.”
Being that there is a growing number of families teaching a second language at home, I wanted to share some bilingual benefits and misconceptions. I also invited three mamás to join me in sharing their journey as bilingual (and even multilingual) parents. They share great tips on how to keep a second or even third language present in a household along with some sweet words of encouragement.
According to the Beverly Hills Lingual Institute (BHLI), “The brain benefits immensely from speaking two or more languages from improved cognitive skills, to developing denser grey matter, to improved decision making skills, and even delaying the onset of dementia. Bilingualism improves children’s test scores and critical thinking abilities, as well as concentration and multi-tasking abilities. Speaking two languages also means a better salary in the workforce across a wide array of professions.”
There is also 20+ years worth of research that show the benefits of knowing two or more languages, especially when learned at an early age.
Per Ellen Bialystok, distinguished research professor of psychology at York University confirmed during an audio recording of The Latest Research On Bilingualism And The Brain on The Diane Rehm Show, that “Bilinguals have a huge level of cognitive and neural control. From the first year of life, a child in their crib hearing their parents speak a foreign language develop their brain as a function of the environment in which they live in and everything is shaped by those experiences.” She also goes on to say that “infants are wired to be interested in language and so if an infant from its earliest days, is in a language; is in an environment where there are two languages, that right away is shaping brain development.”
- Children will get confused and not learn either language correctly
- Impairs their speech
- Hinders academic and intellectual development
Not trying to be one-sided here but there is absolutely zero evidence that the above is true. In fact, research proves the exact opposite.
According to the Cornell Language Aquisition Lab (CLAL), “Although some parents and educators may have concerns about the potential for confusion, bilingual children do not suffer language confusion, language delay, or cognitive deficit (Werker & Byes-Heinlein, 2008; Petitto & Holowka, 2002; Yang & Lust, 2004; Yang, 2007). The mystery of first language acquisition is intensified when we realize that a child can and does naturally acquire more than a single language at once.”
CLAL also confirms that, “children learning a second language in an immersion setting show an overall success rate of grammatical knowledge similar to English monolinguals. Initial deficit in vocabulary (word learning) was followed by a fast pace of development, ultimately reaching the monolingual mean.”
Bios & Tips From Other Bilingual/Multilingual Parents
My name is Audrey Kratovil (pronounced: KRÁ-to-vil), or as my madrileño husband, D., has always called me: españolita because of my love for all things Spain. I grew up in the Washington, DC area in a monolingual English-speaking home. I started studying Spanish as a second language in school at the age of 12, and from day one I fell in love with it. I eventually earned a B.A. in Spanish from Georgetown University, during which time I spent a year studying in Madrid, where I met my husband. I later earned an M.A. in Linguistics, with a focus on second language acquisition, also from Georgetown. I’m a Nationally Board Certified English teacher and spent nearly eight years teaching English as a Second Language and later English literature at a large urban high school in Virginia. I left my job last June to stay home with my now one-year old daughter, E., with whom I speak exclusively in Spanish. I now blog at Españolita…¡Sobre la Marcha! about my adventures in bilingual parenting.
Keila graduated with a B.S. and worked in the medical field (on & off) for close to 7 years. As a post-graduate she conducted and presented research in Applied Linguistics titled “Effectiveness of English to Spanish Translation of Emergency Room Discharge Instructions” in order to determine ways to improve the interpretation and discharge process for non-native English speakers. She began graduate school to continue on with her research; however, she postponed it to stay home with her two boys. “I am so thankful I am able to stay home with them and teach them as many skills as I am able! And Spanish is my very favorite!” says Keila.
Based in Los Angeles, California, Melissa is mommy to two precious girls, Amelie, 2 1/2, and Elise, 6 months. She earned her BA in Advertising from California State University, Fullerton and has been in the advertising industry for more than a decade working on a wide range of clients — from Honda to First 5 California. Since becoming a mommy, Melissa balances a part-time position in an ad agency with writing and being a stay-at-home mom. When she isn’t working on flowcharts, playing with legos or doing tummy time, you can find Melissa taking a nap. ☺
What made you decide to teach your child a second language or multiple languages?
Audrey: We have chosen to raise our daughter, E., bilingually and bi-culturally because it is a reflection of her mom and dad. Each language is a part of our individual cultures and backgrounds, which we want her to have. Just as our parents and grandparents pass down precious heirlooms, my husband D. and I view our languages and cultures as treasures to pass on to E. Second, the number of Spanish-speakers in the United States is on the rise: by the year 2020, some 43 million people will speak it. So, by the time E. is an adult, knowing both English and Spanish will serve her well when looking for work. Finally, our world is no longer just confined to our neighborhoods, cities, and countries. Our world is global (not to sound redundant!). The majority of people around the world are multilingual, so we want to equip E. with the same skill set so that she can communicate and relate to people beyond her immediate city and country.
Keila: As a bilingual person I wanted to teach our children a second language from day one. I know how beneficial it has been for me both personally and professionally and I wanted to share that with our children. It has been a huge benefit for me to speak more than one language especially in our growing globalized work-force. Not only are they being challenged intellectually by learning another language but they are adding another skill set under their belts. I can only imagine how much more diversified the work force will be once they can be out on their own. I just hope it doesn’t come by too fast!
Melissa: Language and culture have always been a big part of my life. My father is Armenian and my mother was French Canadian, so I was automatically born into a trilingual household – Armenian, French and English. As a tiny tot, I learned all three, with Armenian and English being my two more dominant languages.
Fast-forward to today, I’m a proud mother of my own two little girls who are also learning different languages. When I was pregnant, my husband and I agreed to teach – or at least expose – our girls to as much Armenian, French and Spanish as possible, with a special focus on Armenian since it’s the hardest to learn. It sounded great on paper, and it seemed easy to accomplish. But I will admit that we’ve had several challenges in our way, mostly dealing with the fact that my Armenian and French “networks” are quite small (all of my relatives live in Montreal, thousands of miles away, and neither language is considered common here), giving my kids little community exposure to the languages overall.
Do you think teaching your child more than one language has confused them or possibly caused speech delays?
Audrey: Since E. is only twelve months old, she hasn’t yet begun to speak (she IS babbling up a storm!). However, from a linguistics perspective (my background), I’d like to clarify the misconception that a child learning more than one language will delay his/her language acquisition. Research in language acquisition has shown that, although there is some variability of the rate that bilingual children acquire both languages, all major linguistic milestones are met at around the same time as their monolingual peers (Grosjean 2012; King and Mackey 2007). Just as there is variability in language development among monolingual children, so too is each bilingual child different, acquiring both languages at different rates. I wrote a more detailed blog post here if you’re interested in learning more about this valid concern.
Keila: Not at all, our first son Gabriel who is now 21 months is able to speak both English and Spanish without any confusion. Eventually they will both learn to “borrow” from both English and Spanish but I know they will have a solid base to be fluent in both. And hopefully a third once they are enrolled in a language emersion school!
Melissa: Based on the reading I’ve done over the past couple of years, delays happen occasionally, but they are very mild and short-lived. I think a tiny delay is so worth it if it means having a bilingual child as the end result. That said, however, my 2 ½ year old has not experienced issues with understanding, processing and using two languages. In fact, she’s even helping her daddy learn Armenian. He dropped her off at preschool the other day and the teacher told her in Armenian that they were going to have “havgeet for nakhajash” (eggs for breakfast). My husband didn’t understand what she said, but Amelie turned to him and translated, “Daddy, that means we’re having eggs today!”
Does your significant other also speak more than one language at home? If so, do you feel it has helped your child in learning another language?
Audrey: I was born and raised in the Washington, DC area in a monolingual English-speaking home. D. grew up in Madrid, his native language Castilian (Spanish). Since we met in Spain, we’ve always spoken to each other – and still do – only in Spanish. As my husband is fond to say, “el castellano es el idioma oficial de nuestra relación” (Spanish is the official language of our relationship.). For this reason, and because we live in the United States where the majority language is English, we have chosen to both speak to E. in Spanish (the minority language). While some bilingual families follow the “One Parent-One Language” approach, we chose the “Minority Language-Home” approach because we believe the increased amount of Spanish input our daughter receives (from both parents) will better help her to achieve what we hope will be a balanced bilingualism.
Keila: My husband learned Spanish in college; however, he was not fluent at the beginning of our marriage. We knew that we wanted to both speak to our children in Spanish and I was not only teaching our son but also teaching by husband more of the language. I believe it has definitely helped us teach our son Spanish because we both speak it in the home. Although it is challenging at times to find the right words in Spanish that we only know in English.
Melissa: My dear husband has taken a few Armenian courses, but is only fluent in English. Yep, it’s on me. And I’ll admit, sometimes it’s a little tough. It’s too easy to just speak English when we’re all together at home, because it’s what my husband understands and it’s the fastest way to communicate as a family. Even though I’m multilingual, I’ve always been English-dominant, so my first response tends to be in English, adding to the list of challenges. But, no excuses. This is too important. Sticking to our goal, I had to think of other ways to integrate languages into our household to give my babies the gift of multilingualism.
What are a couple tips you can give parents that are currently trying to teach their children more than one language but are finding it to be difficult?
Audrey: I would keep in mind the big picture, but take it one day at a time. The big picture? By raising our children to speak more than one language, we are providing them with invaluable tools that will serve them a lifetime. Bilingualism not only benefits the brain, but it facilitates the learning of a third language; it opens the door to many more job opportunities; and, I believe it helps children grow up to be caring and empathetic humans, able to listen to and learn from points of view different from their own.
I would also strongly encourage parents to find a network of support through neighbors, friends, family, the community, and blogs and other on-line groups. I blog about my family’s adventures in bilingual parenting on Españolita…¡Sobre la Marcha! The blog has a list of resources for bilingual families. We can’t do this alone!
Keila: There are a ton of resources online! I love www.spanglishbaby.com it is great to get any family started in the process. It has tips not only for teaching Spanish but any language. I also encourage parents to make it a point to only speak that language (that you want to teach your children) at all times. I know this can be a difficult one when a family is out of the home; however, it has been a crucial point for us to create consistency for our son. They will learn English from everyone else! Also, finding a local group that speaks the language can help.
We share our bilingual journey on our blog. ☺www.mommyinmilwaukee.com
Melissa: Here are some ideas that have helped us out a lot:
- Total immersion pre-school. My two-and-a-half year old started a total immersion Armenian pre-school this past summer. Even though some may think two is too young for school (I did), I took into consideration the fact that 82% of a child’s brain is developed by age 3.
- Books. Pointing out pictures and introducing new words is a great way to learn a language, and books truly help make it easier. Through Amazon, I was even able to find books that mixed Armenian with English, making it easier for me to read and for my daughter to understand.
- Conversations anytime. I try to have as many conversations – about anything and at anytime – in Armenian mostly when it’s just me and my daughters. If it’s a concept that my toddler doesn’t seem to understand, I repeat it in both Armenian and English, but then switch back to Armenian. I read a stat recently that a child needs exposure to a second language at least 20 hours a week for it to ‘set in,’ so these dialogues are critical.
- Music & Videos. When my first daughter was born, I bought a CD of Armenian children’s songs. That disc has literally not left my car’s CD player since then – and it’s been more than two-and-a-half years. She can recite all the words, sing along and even knows the Armenian alphabet. We also watch a huge variety of videos, ranging from Peppa Pig in Spanish (she absolutely loves it and asks me for “Peppa in Espanol, Mama!”) and Armenian music videos to French cooking lessons. I’m not sure how much of it she’s understanding, but just hearing the different sounds, intonations, etc. is valuable.
Teaching your children multiple languages is absolutely awesome. And while it hasn’t been 100% easy for us, I do believe that it’s totally doable with a little extra work. The end result will be so worth it – and it’s a gift that will last your kids a lifetime.
A big thank you to Audrey, Keila and Melissa for sharing their bilingual parenting journey! Be sure to check out Audrey’s blog Españolita…¡Sobre la Marcha! and Keila’s blog Mommy in Milwaukee as well as find out about Melissa’s latest multilingual adventures on her Instagram MelissaMillergram.
Cheers to bilingualism and multilingualism! — Gladys