Raising bilingual children

 

I’m a Mom and I brought up two children. So what? No big deal.

bilingual
My daughters ready to enjoy all the fun of the fair! ¡Viva la Feria! 

The big deal was that their father and I raised them bilingually. My daughters are native speakers of both Spanish and English and I feel it’s one of the best gifts we could have given them as parents.

There will be many parents who have done the same thing, with joyous results. There are families who have been able to raise children as native speakers of several languages. Fabulous!

What to speak at home?

As a teacher of both English and Spanish for over 40 years now (!), one of the questions  I have been asked most by many parents was if their child could ‘get confused’ or ‘be negatively affected’ in some way, if they spoke to their children in two languages.

It’s understandable. You want the best for your child; you certainly don’t want to do anything that could jeopardise their progress or achievements in life.

For some parents, who already have different mother-tongues, this issue can become important. They may hold differing views about how best to go around the linguistic diversity in the home.

Language acquisition research

The problem is that there are literally dozens of differing theories concerning language acquisition and it is very difficult to wade through the research.

An example of the diversification of views by expert linguists can be found on           The Linguists List. Just a brief glance at this will make you realise that even eminent linguistic experts differ in opinion about language acquisition and especially on how best to raise bilingual children.

My Experience

So all I want to do here in this article is give you the benefit of my personal experience, as a parent of two bilingual daughters.

  •  I am British-born. Mother tongue: English .  I studied French and Spanish in Secondary school in England. I graduated in Spanish (major) and French (minor)I met my Spanish husband-to-be.
  • He is Spanish-born. Mother tongue:Spanish He had studied French at Secondary school in Spain.

We met and communicated only in Spanish as clearly my skills in Spanish were far greater than his skills in English. The only English he knew was the lyrics to some of the Beatles songs, which he could sing along to, but had no idea what they meant). 

  • Husband-to-be became husband. Country of residence (i.e. majority and community language for child: Spain and Spanish.
  • Children born.

We had a long conversation, over several months while waiting for baby to arrive about how best to deal with our linguistic situation.

So we decided that because they would get plenty of Spanish later on at school and in the community, I would speak to the child/children in English at home. He had no choice but to use Spanish with the children as he was monolingual anyway. So we imagined that I  would address the children ALWAYS in English, even when he was present. This approach is called OPOL (One Parent-One Language)

How wrong were we…then reality kicked in!

Reality

It could have worked, …in theory…

We made a big mistake.

When I was alone with the children, I spoke in English, always, but as soon as Papá arrived, I would have to communicate with him in Spanish. It became so unnatural to be chopping and changing in a family conversation from English to Spanish and back again that I’d get completely mixed up myself. We felt we were on stage thinking constantly about which language I was speaking to which family member. My speech was halted and deliberate to the children. There was nothing natural about the way I was speaking.  I was supposed to speak to him in Spanish but to the children in English, in the same conversation. 

Realisation of mistake

So we decided to do what came most naturally to us, and that was, as a family ,we would both use Spanish to communicate amongst ourselves as we had always done before the children were born and that when alone with the children I would use English.

Bedtime stories were bonus times, when I would read one daughter a story in English, while Papá read to the other in Spanish.

Recommendation….A great website that Bilingual Monkeys will provide any parents interested in raising bilingual children with lots of inside information and interesting activities to promote bilingualism in children.

The key point I was wishing to make is that whichever way you choose, it must be a way which comes natural to your own personal situation. More than anything your relationship and communication with your family has to be warm and comforting, and never like a laboratory for linguistic analysis.

Outcomes

The outcomes of this situation meant that the girls’ Spanish skills became stronger than their English skills for a time, as they were attending the local Spanish state school.

I then was lucky enough to get a teaching post in a small, private school. The girls were able to attend, as my contract stipulated that teachers’ children could attend the school on reduced fees.

During this time, my girls became more exposed to English language although through school subjects, but socially were integrating mainly with other Spanish children attending the school mainly in order to learn English. Of course during “play-time” or “recess”, children will home in on other children who have a similar linguistic background. It’s only natural!

If there was a chart for this, it would show that at different ages, and in different situations, the development of either Spanish and English in my daughters was different during their upbringing. Their language development in Spanish and English  could not ever have been parallel. Life is not parallel. Stuff happens and situations change.

Be natural.

Children learn…that’s their job.

Results

Two bilingual daughters in Spanish and English…

One chose to graduate  in Astronomy and later in Microbiology (in English) in the UK.

The other chose to graduate in Dentistry and then later in Orthodontics (in Spanish) in Madrid.

Mission accomplished somehow. Just by being natural.

 

Are you a parent of bilingual children?

Do you want your child/children to be raised bilingually?

Have you any fears about doing this?

Have you any tips or suggestions to add to this discussion?

 

 

2 comments

  1. This is a really interested topic. I am mixed race and have some Spanish heritage among other things, but as a child only spoke English. Back in the late 70s/early 80s there seemed to be a fear that it might hold a child back speaking another language at home to the outside world. Thankfully how things have changed. Today, I speak to my daughter in Spanish and Romani.

    Like

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