Raising a bilingual child in London with monolingual parents -- how?
April 26, 2015 4:56 AM   Subscribe

We live in London and have a toddler! We both speak (woefully) only English, and have struggled as adults to learn another language. We have to find childcare for our daughter anyway, and would love for her to be exposed to another language. But how?

I don't expect my daughter to become a fluent speaker of another language just through childcare. But I would ideally like her to have a comfort level with it, and we have the flexibility to spend some time in an immersive experience. (i.e., if we found a Spanish speaking nanny, we could probably spend good chunks of time here and there in a Spanish speaking country.) This isn't a intensive parenting thing -- I don't care if it ever turns up on a resume or college application! I just want to save her some trouble, and have a useful skill she could absorb easily.

But how to do this? We'd love to find a bilingual nursery or state school, but these seem few and far between (we live in East London.) Do we just hire a nanny? A solo nanny would be really expensive for us. Is there a place to find a nanny share with another family where she could learn the same language as that family? Should we learn the same language? (We are eager and willing to try!)

And which language? I'm thinking Spanish or Chinese. We both love French, but basically, that just seems pretentious these days.

Would love any thoughts, recommendations, suggestions, ideas! (Obviously, any general advice about this, even if not London focused, would be very welcome.)

(We've also thought of an au pair, but doubt we'd have the space for one, and I'm nervous about sharing my home. But would love thoughts on this as an idea as well!)
posted by caoimhe to Human Relations (12 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Try the website of the council near where you are planning to live. They will have a list of childminders and some will be bilingual and offer language lessons. It won't cost you nearly as much as a nanny will. Spanish will probably be easiest to find.
posted by Laura_J at 5:14 AM on April 26, 2015

One thing to bear in mind is that you may have to keep this up, with reasonable intensity, for many years. A friend of mine growing up had a French childminder and learned/spoke French with her until she was... not sure, maybe eight years old.

But by the time she was taking GCSE French she reckoned she was back to the same level as her peers (though I guess it's quite possible she was talking her abilities down, or was unaware how much easier school French was for her than her peers).
posted by penguin pie at 5:29 AM on April 26, 2015 [3 favorites]

I think you might have a much easier time learning alongside your small child, because yes, they're acquiring language very quickly, but--I think, if you're like me anyway, part of the trouble of learning as an adult is that you want to be able to use it, but where do you use beginner Spanish in the adult world? You start and you figure out you're not going to be watching television or reading novels in the language in the next few months and it's frustrating. If you only have to keep up with a small child and your use is just however you use language with your small child, you've got, like, a decade before you have to be conversing about anything close to adult concepts. There's a lot of vocabulary to cover, but grammar and subject matter will stay pretty simple for awhile. "Look, a bird! Do you see the bird? What color is the bird? Yes, it's blue!" A lot easier than starting a novel and realizing that right off the bat, Cien años de soledad is going on about a "pelotón de fusilamiento" and that wasn't in Rosetta Stone.
posted by Sequence at 5:43 AM on April 26, 2015 [2 favorites]

I don't think speaking French is pretentious but it's not as useful as Spanish or Chinese. Languages acquired in childhood aren't always retained into adulthood. Having said that, I will say that the ability to learn another language is very useful. My kids learned Spanish from our nanny, and my son speaks four languages today, including Spanish which is his weakest language. (I don't speak anything but English, and my husband speaks several.) I'd say look for a Spanish-speaking nanny or maybe see if you can find a playgroup/daycare that caters to Spanish speaking families.
posted by Ideefixe at 9:20 AM on April 26, 2015

Raising a child as bilingual requires a significant amount of time (20+ hours a week) where the only language used is the foreign language, and that language is used (near) exclusively both by peers and authority figures. I would think about whether you have the resources or a plan to deliver and sustain this.

There would be nothing wrong with just providing your daughter with language lessons or classes for a lesser amount of time a few hours a week and this would be much cheaper and provide a more structured path for future tuition as she grows and develops her preferences.
posted by Another Fine Product From The Nonsense Factory at 11:02 AM on April 26, 2015

It may help you in formulating a plan to learn that it is simply early exposure to 2nd languages that makes later acquisition easier. So if you employed, for example, a French-speaking childminder who speaks to her in French, your child will benefit even though a) neither of you speak French; b) she will likely loose any French she has within one year if it isn't reinforced. The benefit is in early brain development that makes it easier to learn languages later, not necessarily in early learning of the 2nd language itself.
posted by DarlingBri at 11:56 AM on April 26, 2015

I agree with everything that Another Fine Product says. My wife and I are raising our children bilingual but we are only able to do it because we are both bilingual in the same languages ourselves. Despite this, it takes a lot of conscious effort on our part in the form of extra homework, reading, and so on. It is not enough to just speak L2 at home.

The idea of a critical period for second language acquisition is not supported by the research,* so do not fear that you will "miss an opportunity" if your daughter doesn't start learning a language right now. People spend so much time learning about when learning should happen that how it should happen becomes an afterthought. "How" is far more important than "when". So, I cannot imagine a way that two monolinguals will raise a bilingual who speaks the L2 as a quasi-native. The only way I could see that happening would be, for example, if you lived in Spain so that your daughter spoke English at home and Spanish out of the home.

I really recommend against teaching a child whatever language you might decide to learn. There is no reason for a child to learn a language from a novice non-native. It's ok if your daughter does not acquire a second language as a child. She can learn a foreign language if and when she decides to.

* it seems to be that earlier acquisition is better for accent/pronunciation, but having an accent is not a problem unless the accent prevents you from being understood
posted by Tanizaki at 12:02 PM on April 26, 2015

Thanks everyone -- great ideas! Tanizaki, very helpful -- I definitely don't expect her to learn like a quasi-native, but I'm just looking for anything that would make it easier to pick it up again in the future (when we already have to get childcare anyway). Full-time childcare with a native speaker of another language would do at least that, I presume!
posted by caoimhe at 12:07 PM on April 26, 2015

I've met people who've gone to bilingual or immersion elementary schools and continued taking language classes in high school and possibly college. They started the second language at 4 or 5, and were fluent adults.
posted by jrobin276 at 1:48 PM on April 26, 2015

The world is full of kids who learn second languages in childcare. I was one of them. My mom spoke primarily Spanish at home and my first babysitter was unilingual English and spoke to me only in English. Until I started kindergarten my primary exposure to English was from my babysitter. Obviously I've had the chance to keep it up, which is a little different, so the long term is a little different than your situation. Still, I was fully bilingual when I started Kindergarten, so this is definitely possible.

My second babysitter (ages 7-9) was Portuguese and I could fully understand Portuguese at that time. I never had occasion to speak but I'm sure I could have made myself understood if I ever needed to. In addition to the babysitter herself that was reinforced by A) Living in a Portuguese neighbourhood, so the language was always around and B) Sitting in on Portuguese class every day from grades 1-5. Since we were in a portuguese neighbourhood, my school had Portuguese as a heritage language option. Those of us who weren't taking heritage langugage (maybe 5 of us) would just sit in the class with the other kids during their Portuguese class and work on other things. So basically I listened to the teacher teaching in Portuguese about how to read and also about Portuguese cultural things. These days I can more or less read Portuguese and can mostly understand if someone is speaking slowly, but I couldn't speak.

The other heritage language at my school was Italian. Though I'm not Italian I took Italian heritage language from grades 3-5. I found that much more difficult because my exposure to Italian was less outside of class. But I ended up moving to a predominantly Italian neighbourhood where I was more exposed and went to predominantly Italian schools until I graduated. I can understand some Italian speakers very well and some not at all. I assume it's a dialect issue. When I was in Italy I could make myself understood, but the Italians did laugh at me. So obviously far from perfect.

So the point is,
A) It is possible to learn a language in childcare (millions of children of immigrants do it).
B) Remaining fluent requires ongoing exposure and use.
B) Non-perfect exposure at a young age has benefits and at least some of those benefits (including greater facility of language learning) can remain in the long term. Lifelong fluency isn't the only thing to be gained.
posted by If only I had a penguin... at 6:06 AM on April 27, 2015

Short exposure... Well, helps doing it early, but I'm not sure *THAT* early. I'm a bit of polyglot (English, Chinese, Cantonese, Spanish) and have a tongue for accents, but I basically started learning English at about 10-12 yrs old.

IMHO, you're thinking about this way too early, but then, I'm no child development expert. I'd say get the girl to primary school first. AFTER she has a solid foundation in her primary language, THEN get her started on Spanish, which is grammatically similar enough to English. Chinese, IMHO, is fundamentally too different to be learned that early as second language.
posted by kschang at 10:22 AM on April 28, 2015

IMHO, you're thinking about this way too early

Current research: "the earlier the better."
posted by DarlingBri at 3:29 PM on April 28, 2015 [1 favorite]

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