Raising Multilingual Kids

A few mommies out there have asked for support or advice on raising a bilingual child. I am by no means an expert, but I've got three plus years of living with a bilingual kid and watching his development step by step. As an English teacher by day, I am probably a little bit over-aware of grammar and vocabulary, so I watch his every move quite closely. It's not necessary to be a "Grammar Queen" to have success with bilingual kids, just speaking in your chosen language consistently is the key.

There are many schools of thought on raising multilingual children, the two most prevalent being "OPOL", "One parent, one language" and "home versus community". We are using OPOL as it fits our situation perfectly. As the native English speaker in the house, my relationship with Max is strictly in English. This was harder at the beginning than I thought it would be. When we are out in the community, it can be very difficult for me to speak to Max only in English, there is a fear that I am being rude to the Spanish speakers we are with and my own insecurities about being "the gringa" and all that goes with that implication. With the support of other online mommies, I got over it pretty quick and now speak only English, all the time, wherever we are. It does force me to translate for the people we are with sometimes, but that is getting easier too. For example, we were at our local corner store today and Max was telling me that he wanted three candies. Though it wasn't totally necessary for the lovely old woman to know what he was saying, I explained what he said and what my response was. Well, "no" is pretty clear in any language, but you get my meaning. She broke into a huge smile and expressed how great it was that he actually understands English. When we are with other kids and I am speaking to Max, I repeat to them in Spanish what I just said so they don't think I am from Mars and they know that I won't allow him to push or hit them anymore (or vice versa). Other than fears about community perception of speaking English, practicing OPOL is working for us beyond my expectations. This may or may not be more difficult in areas that are very resistant to your native tongue, I realize that certain areas of the world show much more discrimination towards English speakers, or Spanish speakers in the US for example. Stick to your plan and do your best to get over your fears of the community, it is going to be to everyone's benefit in the long run.

The second approach to bilingualism is the "home versus community". This is much easier when both parents speak the minority language fluently. If one parent is not strong in the second language, it can still work and in fact the parent will learn more, but it is a little more difficult. I think this plan may have worked for us, Hubby has excellent English, but we chose to do OPOL in case we ever decided to return to Canada. I didn't want Max to have to switch his relationship language with his father if we ever moved to an English speaking country. I know some families here that are strictly English speaking in the home, Spanish speaking in the community and it works, though I have heard some say that the child will reach an age where they are resistant to speaking English and refuse to do so. I don't personally know of any OPOL child refusing, though I guess time will tell!

Bringing a third or fourth language into the equation is something we are very keen to do and I am still figuring out exactly how we will do that at home. Next year Max will be starting French in school and I want to make it a part of our life to encourage him. (I'll need to brush up, errrr, start over on my own French!) I'm excited about his education as the directors of his school are from Paris and therefore he'll be getting "proper" French from native speakers, how lucky is he? I've read suggestions such as having "French hour" or making dinnertime French time etc., finding a way to communicate in the third language will be a challenge for all of us I am sure. We do ask the cleaning lady to speak in Mayan to Max as well, any kind of exposure is better than none as far as I am concerned and Max does understand a couple of Mayan phrases now.

The DVD is an amazing tool for bilingualism, most DVD's have multiple language options so you can watch "Shrek" once in English, once in Spanish (or whatever your languages are). Sharing books is the best way to connect with your child, Amazon has children's books in many languages. Music, electronic toys and websites add to your arsenal and make the experience joyful for everyone.

While it's great to be able to start your language relationship from birth like we have done, it is not impossible to begin the process at any time. Kids are like little sponges with languages, their brains are capable of making the "calculations" much more rapidly than adult brains. If you have been thinking about introducing another language, go for it, do it now, the benefits are incredible! Bilingualism has been proven to stimulate children's brains and make them better learners in all aspects of their education, particularly maths. In adults, studies show that people who are bilingual have a much lower chance of developing Alzheimer's. Bilingualism gives you an edge in the job market and in life, opportunities for more exploration of the world around you in travel and the chance to meet and share with twice (or three times or four times) as many people. I think it's magical and a gift you can give your kids for life. I get very frustrated when I see bilingual parents raising monolingual kids, why oh why would you not share that joy with your children?

Here are some useful links on bringing multilingualism home to stay.

Multilingual Children's Association
Omniglot
Babyzone
The Bilingual Edge
Babycenter- Multilingual Families Board (this was an essential place of support for me though it seems to have gotten a bit quiet)

I hope this information is helpful and possibly stimulating and inspiring to any parents out there. Raising a bilingual child is one of the joys of my life, I am so eager to see him learn and grow and his development thrills me to no end. I encourage anyone with young kids to make an effort to introduce a second or third language to them, I promise you will not be disappointed. Remember, there is no need for YOU to be bilingual to do this, you can learn a new language with your child as well, a bonding experience for life.

Comments

wayne said…
I so admire what you and Jorge are doing with Max. Wouldn't we all give our eye teeth to have been raised in a bilingual environment. I agree with you about bilingual parents raising monolingual kids. What a waste. I think it has something to do with not wanting their kids to be discriminated against because they are "different". In Minnesota, the Vietnamese language is fast disappearing among youth who refuse to speak it and be different from their peers. So sad. Keep up the good work. You are raising one incredible child.
Our 3 are all bi-lingual Cole (5) being 100% bilingual as he learned both languages simultaneously. Rob and I speak Engish to him at home as none of his teachers or friends speak any English. I tend to speak more Spanish to Birdie (6) as she seems to gravitate more to English speakers. Her Spanish just isn't as natural as Cole's. We don't follow any program per se and with the exception of a few Spanish grammer rules that creep into Cole's English sentence structure, they go back and forth between the 2 languages fluently. Birdie has asked to start French next year and I have found a teacher to spend time with her. Time for me to brush up as well. Connor at 15 is completely unintelligible to me in either language. LOL.

One thing I noticed last summer was that after about 2 days of being in the United States, my kids didn't and WOULDN'T play in Spanish anymore. I don't know if they got teased by local kids but whatever it was NO Spanish was spoken for the rest of the 5 week vacation. No matter how hard I tried, they just woud not speak in Spanish. Sad really.
Jackie said…
Canuck,
You are raising Max to grow into what will be a surely be a highly intelligent but well rounded young man. You are doing a fantastic job of teaching Max how to maneuver around in what otherwise could be a confusing world of mixed languages and cultures. I know a couple whose son was speaking fluent Spanish, English and French at about age 3. It is amazing to me that I have difficulty even with my goal of learning three new Spanish words every trip I make to Isla 3 or 4 times a year. I tried taking private Spanish lessons a few years ago and after three terms said enough with the conjugating verbs. I just want to learn easy conversational Spanish so I don’t come across as an ignorant gringa when in Mexico.
The other thing that amazes me is that I have two friends who are coordinators for foreign exchange students. Most of the teenagers that they have hosted or placed are European and speak no less than four languages. Speaking as American I have to say that we in general do not put enough emphasize on teaching our children that there are other languages and cultures that we should learn about and we need to stop being so arrogant to think that everyone should speak English no matter what country we are in.
Julia said…
Cancun Canuck, the multilingual families board is alive and well and misses you!

This is a great post. I really enjoy reading your blog (a while after you stopped posting on the BBC board I dug through some old posts of yours until I found the link) and although I mostly only lurk I feel like I'm keeping in touch with you and Max (I am so impressed with his progress, what a wonderful kid, so skillful in English! great job Kelly)

I completely support your views on raising bilingual children and it also saddens/frustrates/irks me to see people not passing down their native language to their little ones. In Paris where I live (We do OPOL) I have many examples of other OPOL or home Vs community families with fabulous results. But also of families where the minority language does not get passed down, because one of the parents (OK I'll be honest it's usually the dad) just doesn't feel up to the task of sticking to it non stop. Feels like too much work, or too big of a commitment perhaps.
Or their own desire to assimilate overrides the need to maintain a link with their origins. Sigh.
Of course it's work (childrearing is!) and of course it's a commitment (again, with the childrearing concept?). And although I can relate only on a certain level persoanlly to the assimilation thing (you don't get too many dirty looks speaking English in the park to your kids here I'll admit, although that depends actually) it still upsets me to see this.

By the way I do know of one (freak?) example of an OPOL kid (american mom, french dad, here in Paris, and she is as hard core about speaking English to her kids as I am) who refuses to speak English his mom, and always has. His English is good, thanks in part to regular trips to the US and keeping it up in his daily life with his mom's friends and playmates (like me and my daughters). He only refuses it inside the relationship with his mom, which is very freaky to me because communicating in English together is a crucial, wonderful and very defining aspect of my relationship with my girls. I can't imagine it otherwise. Even if there is a rejection phase later at some point, I know (hope!) it will always be our thing together, that they'll come back around to it.

Julia
CancunCanuck said…
Wayne- I would give a limb to be able to go back in time and be raised bilingually! I think people losing their native language when moving to the states is sad, but I get it, the drive to assimilate and not be thought of as the foreigner. It's sad, but understandable. I think I get most frustrated when I see bilingual Mexicans not sharing their English with their kids, then expecting them to attend a special school when they are teenagers (and resistant to everything!). If you've got the skills, share the gift! (I work with several teachers who are TEACHING ESL but don't teach their kids English, I just don't get it, KWIM?)

Michele- No matter how you've done it, you've done it and kudos to you! I think some bilingual families just "are" that way, though I am grateful to have found some structured approaches to it, I know they are not necessary. Helpful, but not needed if you just commit to making it happen. Go Team Kinnon!

Jackie- Isn't it amazing how different things are in Europe? It's common to be multilingual and I am so envious! As you say, it is much much harder to acquire a new language later in life, we struggle and get frustrated and just can't seem to break past certain plateaus. ERrr, maybe I am just projecting my own problems with language learning, haha, but I think it's pretty true of most "normal" adults. I think it's great that you make any effort at all, congrats!

Julia- Hellooooooo, bonjour y hola! Great to see you here, glad you found me. I had to pull myself away from a lot of forums and boards, they were taking over my life, KWIM? I honestly do feel that the multilingual families board was the most useful to me, what a great group of intelligent and insightful mommies. Maybe I'll pop over and say hi today. I know there are families out there who have kids that are resistant or rebellious, I think I am just "lucky" enough to know families for whom it's working. Or maybe it's just that I know families with such young kids, maybe it will all change when they reach seven (seems to be the age they want to stop speaking English from what others have told me here).
Adrians Mama said…
Love this post and I will totally be taking some pointers from it! You rock Kelly!
mexpat said…
One of the reasons I wanted to move to Mexico was to solidify my grasp on the Spanish language so I could pass it on to our not-yet-conceived children. Now I find myself feeling like I'll never catch up enough to understand puns or slang, but I'm getting there and I figure within the next couple years I should be much better at fitting in seamlessly (minus the blond hair- lol).

I think it's great that you are raising Max bilingual. I wish that one of us was a native speaker of anything but English so we could easily pass it on. I'll be passing along my grammatical errors and non-native accent, but hopefully our kid can learn from the community, too.

Hubby's dad is German but chose not to pass German on to his kids because he's "American now and Americans speak English." Plus he felt that his German wasn't very good despite the fact that Germans tell his his grammar and whatnot is actually perfect. *sigh*

I wish more people viewed language fluency as the gift that it is! Even hubby thinks I'm weird for wanting to teach our kid Spanish- he thinks it's not as valuable as "being American." Whatever.... I'm still going to do it because it's important to me.
CancunCanuck said…
Adrian's Mama- Thanks and Hola! The links are really useful, lots of inspiration there for sure.

Mexpat- I think it's totally possible for you guys to have a bilingual kid, you'll learn more Spanish right along with him! Heck, you could introduce German too, bring it back to the family. It would be harder, but not impossible. Show your hubby the studies on the benefits of multilingualism and you might swing him your way. We live in an ever shrinking world, having another language can only be a good thing!
Heather said…
I do a combo and try to speak to them in the minority language depending on our environment. in brasil i spoke english to them, in the states i speak spanish to them when we are out in the community and in montreal i spoke english as everyone else spoke french. i have to be better at it though as i see us being in the states for awhile now.

great post though!!

-h
Ale said…
what a wonderful post!!!! Thanks so much for sharing your experience and points of view, it really makes me feel confident that I can teach my baby boy ;) I guess the OPOL might work just fine for us as well. I agree, teaching your kids another language is one of the most beautiful gifts ever. I'm sure I'll check all those websites :). heh I am so excited that I even showed your blog to my hubby and he agrees, we are going to do it!
Thank you SO much again!!!!
CancunCanuck said…
Heather- However you do it, you are doing it and that's great! Does Ze speak only Portugese to the kids or does he speak English with them too? Just curious, lucky kids growing up with not two, but three languages, how cool!

Ale- I am so glad you read this and felt inspired! I am happy to hear that your hubby is on board with the idea, lucky little Daniel! Good luck, and you can always email me for help or to vent, haha.
Erica said…
Alberto and I both speak mostly Spanish to Sofia with little bits of English here and there and with english on tv i know she gets equal of both languages....i jus hope she doesnt develop a preference for english because i really want her to learn spanish first.

I get frustrated to with the assimilation....when my family came from panama they chose not to pass spanish to my mom and her brothers and sisters....even though they spoke it at home they made there kids speak english. my mom speaks almost no spanish ......but i was able to pick it up as a baby living with my grandparents.....i made a vow never to do that to my kids......so i really try to instill spanish in sofia. Im glad Max is doing a great job in both .....he is such a cutie and sooooo intelligent....Im eager to hear how the french will go !!!!!
Heather said…
Ze speaks all languages, lol! he is still learning english so he uses spanish usually but right now we have our best friend who is brasilian so they speak portuguese most the time. even to the kids. its confusing but i hope one day it works, lol!

-h

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