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Trying to raise bilingual kids? How to stay on track when English is easiest

Surrounding yourself (and your child) with books in your native language can help
Surrounding yourself (and your child) with books in your native language can help
Photo by Nada_que_decir/Flickr (Creative Commons)

Parents who are trying to raise bilingual children might be familiar with SpanglishBaby, a website dedicated to that goal.

And let's face it, for those of us who have lived in the United States all or most of our lives, it can seem like an elusive goal at times. As fluent as we may be in the language of our parents, it's easiest to fall back on English. More so if our partner is a monolingual English speaker, or someone who grew up speaking a language different from ours.

At the same time, research has shown how much a child can gain from speaking a second language. Aside from the obvious - communicating with grandparents, future job prospects - being bilingual can boost brain development and provide benefits for life.

What to do? Roxana Soto, co-founder and editorial director of SpanglishBaby, is here to help with a few tips for overcoming the temptation to give up. More tips from SpanglishBaby will be included in a forthcoming book due out in fall 2012.

M-A: If you’re second-generation or 1.5, it's likely that you speak English at home, even if you are bilingual. You want to speak Spanish/Mandarin/Tagalog/etc. around your child, but it's easy to slip into English. How to overcome this temptation – or perhaps, this laziness factor – in order to teach your child your native language?

Soto: This is definitely a common issue among those trying to raise bilingual children and probably the most popular reason why many of them eventually give up. Regardless of what languages we speak, the reality is that we are surrounded by English everywhere we go. My suggestions are to start speaking to your child in your native tongue in utero, that way it comes much natural when she is born. However, it is never too late to start. Just be prepared to face some resistance depending on your child’s age.

Surround yourself (as opposed to just your children) with your native tongue. So, if Spanish is your native language, listen to music, watch movies and read books, magazines, blogs in Spanish. Along the same lines, try to hang out with native speakers or join a meetup for those who speak your native language, so you are forced to practice it on a regular basis.

M-A: Are there ways you can train yourself not to slip into what’s easiest for you, i.e. English?

Soto: If you do not feel comfortable speaking your native language because you do not use it a lot, then English will probably come out easiest. Following some of the tips above should help you avoid this issue.

You could also make a pact with your partner – regardless of whether he/she is monolingual or multilingual – to remind each other to only use your native language when the kids are around. In addition, whenever it feels like English would be easiest, think about how easy it actually is for you to pass along the wonderful and powerful gift of bilingualism to your children. Think about how you are doing them a huge favor and how much you might regret not making the effort now, especially if they are still little sponges.

Also, think about the grief they might give you when they get older and find out you speak more than one language but never passed it along!

M-A: If your partner speaks only English, what to do?

Soto: I have nothing but utmost respect for those families using the OPOL (One Parent One Language) method. I am blown away by their commitment to raise bilingual children despite the obvious difficulties in speaking to them in a language the other parent does not comprehend. Having said that though, it should be noted that it is not only doable, but it is done all over the world, as this is the most popular method of raising children with more than one language.

First of all, you are going to need the support of your monolingual partner. (While not impossible, lacking that support will only make things much more complicated.) You are also going to need to stay committed to speaking in your native language and have your children act as interpreters for the monolingual parent, which apparently happens quite naturally. In the end, your monolingual partner will end up learning at least the basics of your native tongue after listening to it all the time. A win-win situation for all.

A while ago we dedicated a whole week to the topic of raising bilingual kids using the OPOL method, which has been one of the most popular since we launched our blog two and a half years ago. The one thing I learned then was that having a monolingual parent should not be an excuse not to raise bilingual children. While lots will say it is really difficult – and I tend to agree – I know for a fact that it works because I have witnessed how a friend of mine has been doing just that with her two children and her monolingual husband with much success.

M-A: When I was a child, my parents would refuse to speak English at home, forcing me to speak Spanish. But then they were Spanish-dependent, which made it easier for them to keep going in Spanish when I refused to cooperate. What if your child refuses to cooperate when you speak to them in a different language?

Soto: I would say you need to do the same thing your own parents did. Just the other day, my mother – who is also bilingual – was telling me how she had to do that with my little brother (who was 10 years old when we moved to the States) when he started answering in English a few months after we arrived here.

In other words, it seems like the oldest trick in the bag, but it works – especially if you lay down the law from the very beginning. If you’re really committed to raising bilingual children, then you have to be kind of militant about it. Try not to get discouraged or frustrated if they refuse to use the minority language. Just continue using it yourself.

Keep in mind, however, that the last thing you want to do is “force” them to speak a language they might eventually end up resenting. No one knows your children better than you, so just figure out how much your willing to push the issue before it turns into something negative. Above all, remember to praise your children whenever they do speak the minority language – even if they make mistakes.

M-A: Is there a magic age window during which to do this? What to do if your child is older, say already older than five?

Soto: I know it sounds trite, but it is NEVER too late. It’s just easier (when they are younger). Many experts agree that the optimal time seems to be from birth to 3 years – which is when a child is learning his first language, and his mind is still open and flexible.

The next best time for learning a second language is apparently when kids are between ages 4 and before puberty, because they can still process multiple languages on parallel paths. In other words, they build a second language system alongside the first and learn to speak both languages like a native. After puberty, studies show, new languages are stored in a separate area of the brain, so children have to translate or go through their native language as a path to the new language.

So if you did not get started with the minority language when they were born and now your child is already in school, do not despair. You may be faced with resistance, but if you make sure the way you are exposing your child to the minority language is fun – via music, movies, books, apps, games – you will have more than half the battle won.

M-A: Are there outside solutions that work, like immersion programs at school? What else?

Soto: There are tons of outside solutions that work. SpanglishBaby is a big supporter of playgroups. We have written extensively about the benefits of playgroups and my children and I have belonged to a Spanish-speaking playgroup for the last three years. Besides being super fun, playgroups allow children to bond with others who are just like them: bilingual.

SpanglishBaby is also a huge fan of dual language immersion programs. I know for a fact that they work because I am a product of such a program, which means I was already bilingual by the time I moved to this country as a teenager. I can only hope that they become more popular so more children can take advantage of such privileged education.

Other options include heritage language schools, which usually take place once a month on the weekends. Basically they are language schools that attract parents who want their children to maintain their culture and heritage by exposing them to more than just their native tongue. They are extremely popular and we highly recommend them.

Finally, there is always the private tutor. Although it can get expensive, one way to offset the cost is to get together a small group of children around the same age whose parents are also interested in raising them bilingual.