Raising a Bilingual Child
The days when immigrant families would refuse to teach their children their native language are fading fast, as the stigma of bilingualism turns into a cachet. Even English-only speaking parents are clamoring for language immersion programs, which they believe will give their children an edge in an increasingly global world.
“Parents want to put their children in programs that will enable them to learn more than one language,” says Kathryn Lindholm-Leary, professor emeritus of child and adolescent development at San Jose State University, who has been studying bilingualism and bilingual education for 30 years.
In 1987, she says, there were 37 language immersion programs in public schools in the United States. Today, there are as many as 1,000, at least 200 of them in California.
The number continues to grow with the demand. A new Mandarin immersion charter school, opening this fall in Oakland, received more than 200 applicants for 100 slots.
Add to that the number of private language schools in the Bay Area – in languages as diverse as Spanish, Chinese, French, German and Scandinavian – plus language enrichment programs. It’s clear that learning a second or third language is hot.
“I definitely see the benefit. The more languages you speak, the better,” says Sakiko Takeda of Cupertino, who is raising her 2½-year-old son, Aidan Lim, to speak her native language of Japanese, as well as English and Mandarin, which her husband speaks.
In addition to the benefits of raising children with multicultural awareness and the ability to speak another language, Lindholm-Leary says bilingual children have cognitive advantages, including better memory, reading comprehension and “executive control” processes that allow them to fine-tune their attention and filter out distraction. Bilingual children also achieve at higher levels in reading and math than their monolingual peers.
“Being bilingual, there’s more cognitive stimulation,” she says. “You need to learn to think in different ways, and it helps you problem-solve and learn information in ways monolinguals don’t.”
But, that doesn’t mean raising bilingual children is easy, especially in homes where only one parent speaks the second language. English is clearly our country’s dominant language, and it doesn’t take long for children to figure that out and want to default to it, regardless of their first language.
Parents and experts offer the following tips for raising bilingual or multilingual children:
“The earlier the better,” says Lindholm-Leary. “Some research seems to suggest children are attuned to the sounds of a particular language as early as eight weeks after birth. Younger children are far more effective at producing sounds and learning accents and are more likely to practice another language.”
VanDana Ghandi of Sunnyvale and her husband, both of whom were born in India, had been speaking primarily in English to each other before their son, Rohan, was born two years ago. But since his birth, they have made a consistent effort to speak to him and around him in Hindi.
“I want him to learn the language so he feels some bonding with where his parents are from,” she says. But “it’s hard. I have to make a conscious effort.” She is seeing that effort pay off, though, as Rohan clearly understands both Hindi and English and is saying words in both languages.
Even with an early start, Lindholm-Leary says it takes five to seven years, or more, for students to fully develop proficiency in a second language, whether they are learning English or a foreign language.
“Children don’t have the cognitive development to be fully developed language learners until they are older,” she says. That is one reason why it’s never too late to start, though proficiency is hindered without enough exposure to the second language.
Lindholm-Leary says it is a fallacy that language development is delayed if a baby or young child is learning more than one language.
If the number of words is measured just in one language, it may appear that the child is behind monolingual peers. But bilingual children’s vocabularies tend to be much larger if both languages are counted.
Lindholm-Leary and other experts recommend parents speak to their children as much as possible in their home language. It is especially important to encourage children to respond in that language.
That can be especially tricky when both parents don’t speak the second language.
“As soon as children develop English skills and begin to recognize other children speak English and that English is the most powerful language in the U.S. and in their community, they tend to want to speak that,” says Lindholm-Leary. “If they become more proficient in English, they want to use English because it’s easier.”
That’s one of the reasons she recommends language immersion schools.
Laure Carnahan of Alameda is French and her husband is an English-speaking American. She says she tries to speak French as much as possible to her children, but sometimes worries about being seen as rude in public by English-speakers.
If there is a non-French speaker present, she will sometimes speak French and then translate into English. Long family conversations are done in English since her husband does not speak French.
And, despite her best efforts, her children speak English to each other.
“Even though they are bilingual, they do have a language of preference, and it’s English,” she says.
Carnahan started off teaching her older son French, using a curriculum provided by the French government. But as Victor got older, she found it increasingly difficult to fit in enough French instruction after school hours.
In addition, she says, “it is a lot of work for the parent to homeschool.” So in second grade, she switched her son to a private French immersion school.
Victor, 10, can now speak, read and write in French, but Carnahan says there have been trade-offs. The school is expensive, and commuting to school in another town has made it difficult to form friendships and community around the school, she says.
She is now starting formal French lessons with her 4-year-old daughter at home, but will supplement them with outside language classes several times a week.
Takeda has decided she will be her son’s primary teacher of Japanese, but is sending him to a Mandarin bilingual preschool. Her husband already speaks to him in Mandarin.
“Because he is American and was born here, my main goal is for him to be proficient in English,” says Takeda, who learned English when she came to the United States for college. “But I’d rather him excel in English and Mandarin than Japanese.”
Seek Out Media
An increasing number of websites support parents raising bilingual children and provide resources for other languages. (See sidebar.)
Lindholm-Leary also recommends reading to and with your child in the other language, as well as buying or borrowing music, movies and television shows in that language.
“Singing is a great way for young children to maintain their accent,” she says.
Many Bay Area libraries offer bilingual or foreign language storytimes or sing-alongs.
While it can be challenging, teaching your child another language does not have to be all work.
Joining a playgroup with children and parents who speak the same language provides a social outlet as well as language and cultural support. If you can’t find one in your area, correspond or video-chat with relatives or friends in other countries or find a pen pal or Skype pal.
In the culturally diverse Bay Area, you may be able to visit neighborhoods, restaurants and shops in which your children can hear their second language being spoken by someone other than family.
In addition, if you are fortunate enough to travel, an extended stay in a foreign country where the language is spoken is an amazing language and cultural immersion for children.
Janine DeFao is an associate editor at Bay Area Parent.
- haomama.us: Bay Area-based resource website for parents raising children bilingual in Chinese.
- Incultureparent.com: Online magazine for parents raising multicultural or multilingual children.
- Lindholm-leary.com: Prof. Lindholm-Leary’s research on dual-language and immersion programs and links to bilingual education organizations.
- Multilingualchildren.org: Bay Area resource and forum for parents raising multilingual or bilingual children.
- Multilingualliving.com: Website and digital magazine for families raising multilingual children.
Do you know a Bay Area resource for raising bilingual children? We want to spread the word about playgroups, classes, library storytimes, etc. Let us know. Send the information to firstname.lastname@example.org.