Although I didn’t grow up bilingually I had friends who did. I always felt a twinge of jealousy when I heard them speak Spanish, Laotian or Tagalog so I decided that if I learned to speak another language I would raise my children to be bilingual. After getting married I devoured about four books on the subject, the best one being Australian linguist George Saunders’ book Bilingual Children: Guidance for the Family.
Teaching Your Children Your Second Language
Dr. Saunders did not grow up speaking German but decided that he wanted his children to. This was partly to see if a non-native speaker could teach his children to speak the second language in a society where that language was not common at all. Dr. Saunders was successful. He even taught in Hamburg for a semester, took his family with him and enrolled his two boys in regular German schools. Their grades dropped a little bit but that also could have been due to the move and living in a very different environment. They made friends with their classmates, wrote essays, learned new math concepts and even gave class presentations about Australia, all in German. The documentation of his children growing up speaking German, as well as his many references to other case studies, has given me lots of food for thought for when I have my own children.
Don’t Embarrass Them
One of the first mistakes parents make when they raise their children to be bilingual is that they show them off to their friends. Occasionally you come across an outgoing kid who likes the attention but most kids hate it. I once read a case about a British/French family showing off their bilingual kid to some British neighbors. When they asked the child to say something in French he responded, Non. The way the child perceives the language is very important so don’t make it seem like something embarrassing or uncommon. These children should be shocked when they find out that everyone isn’t raised with both languages just like they might be shocked that not all children are tucked into bed in the same way that their own mothers tuck them into bed.
Strike a Balance
I read about two minority groups in Australia that were unsuccessful at passing their language onto their children. One was an aboriginal group that was overbearing. They corrected their children’s and grandchildren’s native language so much that the kids ended up not wanting to speak the native language at all.
The next group consisted of Japanese immigrants. Many of the kids in the study said that they would have liked to have learned better Japanese but their parents didn’t really do anything other than speak to them in the language. Since the kids had no instruction and were not encouraged much to respond in Japanese they were embarrassed to use the little they knew with new immigrants or other Japanese speakers.
The trick is to encourage the kids to speak in the target language without being overbearing. Dr. Saunders did this by playing with his children in German and then, when they went to school, he gave them very short homework assignments in German that were appropriate for their age. He would also watch German movies with them. There were a couple of times when the kids got frustrated trying to express something that happened to them in school in German so he told them that it would be alright to tell him in English and then switch back into German. If this happens to your children a lot then don’t correct them on the spot. Wait a while and then think up a fun activity to do that will teach them the expressions that they are lacking in a natural and entertaining way.
The case studies with the most success were those that included children who would regularly go places where the second language was the norm. This usually included vacations abroad. Especially as the kids get older, they are going to need to see a reason to use the language other than to talk to their family. If going abroad isn’t an option (at least not a regular one) what you need to do is take your kids to festivals, religious services, stores or neighborhoods where they only hear the target language. Do it as often as possible. If knowing the target language well means making friends, getting a girlfriend or boyfriend, being able to buy cool things, participating in a fun dance festival, etc. then the kids will make sure they can still speak the target language even into their preteen and teenage years.
One Parent, One Language
This seems to be the most effective way to do it. If you mix the languages when speaking to the child then the child will most likely lose the minority language on the first day of school. It is amazing how fast kids learn languages but what studies show is that they forget them just as quickly. In mixed families each parent should speak his or her native language. In families like Dr. Saunders’, one parent should speak the majority language and the other should speak the minority language. Period. If you are inconsistent the children will always revert to the majority language and at best become receptive bilinguals (understanding two languages but being able to speak only one).
Relax and Have Fun
I believe that the greatest key to Dr. Saunders’ success was that he made German a fun bond that the children had with their father. The movies, the bedtime stories and games were all enjoyable. Even Dr. Saunders admits that their English is much stronger than their German but his observation is that that was okay. If his kids ever wanted to live in Germany, get a job in Germany, do business with Germans, get married to a German or read a book in German then they could do so in spite of the fact that they grew up in an English speaking country and neither one of their parents was a native German speaker. The fact that their command of the language was about 75% as good as that of their peers in Germany was almost beside the point. The point was that being a competent bilingual, as opposed to a perfect bilingual, was much better than being a simple monolingual.
Do you and your spouse speak a foreign language? Are you starting a family? Give your children the gift of bilingualism! Even if the two of you aren’t fabulous at both languages, give it a try! As with most important family matters, your family will find it difficult to do and maintain but you will all be extremely glad that you did it when your children are adults.