What does it take to raise a bilingual child?
October 17, 2017 12:59 PM   Subscribe

What is the best way for a mostly monolingual parent to learn a second language and raise a bilingual child? Assume lots of motivation and a good amount of experience learning a second language. Anecdotes welcome.

Mr. Circle and I just took a month long vacation to Europe and it was wonderful to hear so many languages and experience different cultures and perspectives besides ours (American). I want to raise a child with exposure to other cultures and ways of life, not just ours.

I think being bilingual has many advantages and I'd like to hear how monolingual parents exposed their kids to a second language. I realize this is not easy, requires a significant amount of time and energy, and.... I would like to do it anyway.

Tell me your stories! Did you successfully teach your child a second language after learning it as an adult?
posted by onecircleaday to Grab Bag (18 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
Do you speak any other language? If you do, then try what my family does. They speak to the kids on Saturdays only in the language they want the kids to learn. The kids have to reply in the same language too. One of my Sisters is married to someone who speaks a third different langauge. Saturday is Language II and Sunday is Language III in their home! When I visit, which is usually weeknds, I have to do the same. I can do Language II well enough, but am not fluent in Language III and the kids appreciate my struggles as much as my Sister and BIL do. :)

Plus on Saturday and Sunday, the TV is turned only to channels that play the Language in question. Total immersion is what they find useful.
posted by indianbadger1 at 1:26 PM on October 17, 2017 [2 favorites]

Many areas have public bilingual schools these days. I know our school district has Spanish, French, German, and Chinese language schools. Of course some kids refuse to learn the language but I think the more motivated ones do graduate with some knowledge.
posted by miyabo at 1:30 PM on October 17, 2017 [1 favorite]

OP here. Not trying to threadsit, just clarify... My question is for individuals who learned a second language as an adult and successfully passed it on to their kids. We do have dual immersion schools where we live, but they are competitive and lottery based. I'd like to know what I could do at home, assuming the schools are too competitive to get into.
posted by onecircleaday at 1:33 PM on October 17, 2017

Just saw your update on bilingual schools, but do you have a kid yet, and if so, will they be in outside childcare?

I studied Spanish for years, but I don't speak it well enough to the point where I could comfortably teach my kid to speak it also. Our daughter started in a Spanish immersion daycare/preschool when she was a year and a half, all of her teachers are native speakers, and now that she's almost four, her accent and pronunciation shocks me with its flawlessness. I would say she's well surpassed me at this point, but it encourages me to stay on top of my own Spanish studies through Duolingo and other means, and we can have simple conversations together at home now.
posted by anderjen at 1:37 PM on October 17, 2017

My son was fully fluent in languages that neither I nor his mother speak at all. That happened via his nanny and his preschool. It didn't take him long (maybe two years) to lose most of it. Kids need immersion and reinforcement in some form. If not at school, then at home. You're saying that immersion schools are an option, but unlikely. Barring that, your family will need to speak the language they're not getting at school at home, fluently and often.

The only families I know that have really done this either did the immersion school thing, or spoke a language at home that was different than the ones their kids were speaking among their friends or at school. It's hard, but I agree that it's worth doing.
posted by NoRelationToLea at 1:48 PM on October 17, 2017 [1 favorite]

I speak four languages, including English (raised outside the United States.) My son was born here (CA) and he's not likely to learn any of the languages I picked up from my parents and grandparents, because I have no one to speak those with. My vocabulary has diminished significantly over time. The one language that I learned in school as a second language I could probably teach him, but it's also weak because there's no one around for me to speak it with (my family doesn't speak that language.) Yes, my son and I will both eventually speak it to some extent, but both of us will need some formal classes or training to be come fully fluent.

All of this is to say that immersion is key to learning a language, but also to retaining it. Either you learn a language fluently, and make sure you speak that language to your child; or your child is consistently - for years - exposed to an immersive environment in whichever language you pick other than English. The former is not ideal, because picking up a language you're not fluent in, and then teaching it to your child is likely to cuase errors in pronunciation and grammar. For the latter, you could find a school, or you could get a tutor.

As an example, my toddler son has picked up a couple Portuguese words from his Brazilian nanny. He understands her, and he understands us - we speak English. It's 100% likely that he will lose the Portuguese when he starts school, because he will no longer need a nanny, and we don't speak it. We're enrolling him in a French immersion school, because it's the only way he'll be fluent in a language other than English.

Unfortunately, there's really no way to reach fluency in a language without consistent immersion, and formal learning to begin with - either for you or your child.
posted by Everydayville at 2:01 PM on October 17, 2017 [2 favorites]

Trying to raise a small human being AND learn a new language AND impart said language onto said human being seems like quite a bit to have going at once, you know? If you are looking to do this at home I think the only feasible way to do it would be to get yourselves fluent in your target language - comfortable working, living, thinking in the language - beforehand (I am assuming you don't yet have children). This would probably involve living abroad for at least some period of time.

I suppose in a way this is what happened to me (and a lot of North American-raised children of immigrants), though probably not in the way you are looking for - neither of my parents are native speakers of English, but I was as fluent as any other five-year-old when I started school, because of a) English-speaking daycare and b) English children's TV. Seconding everyone recommending looking into immersive childcare environments, if the getting-fluent-first path isn't feasible for you.
posted by btfreek at 2:12 PM on October 17, 2017 [1 favorite]

Your kid is going to pick up a second language way faster than you will - thats just the nature of the growing child brain. If you really want your kid to learn a second language, I'd look into having qualified people teach him/her - perhaps an immersion school or lessons or something else that would get them into situations where they can absorb the nuances of a language from fluent speakers.

Then have your increasingly-fluent kid teach you. Or learn as your kid does, but accept the fact they will zip right past you in no time flat. Don't wait until you've reached a fluency level where you feel comfortable teaching - start together!
posted by cgg at 2:26 PM on October 17, 2017

One more thought I had after hitting post: IME for kids, there is some degree of necessity (real or artificial) required in order to learn and retain a language - the idea of "let's learn to speak this language because being bilingual is neat and useful" is abstract and hard to grasp, whereas "I literally cannot communicate with my parents/teacher/babysitter/etc unless I speak this language" is a much more concrete motivation to learn a language. Unless you are committed to replicating that sort of environment at home, it's an uphill battle. This is why everyone is recommending immersion, because they will provide that environment for a good amount of your child's waking time.
posted by btfreek at 2:43 PM on October 17, 2017 [7 favorites]

I was very fortunate to find a free public school with Dual Immersion as a monolingual parent, and it is great. I see that's not an option but there is a reason why everyone is recommending it. That said, even with the advantage of simultaneous dual immersion, it is a struggle. The teachers, especially when the kids are pre-fluent, have to work so hard, especially the first six - ten weeks of class. I sat in briefly and there was so much high energy pantomime to keep the kids engaged in the target language it made me tired just watching. The teachers absolutely don't let on that they even know the other language for weeks, unless there is a safety issue. (I realize that's impossible for you but it shows the lengths they go to.) The classroom is entirely outfitted in the target language: books, posters, alphabets, etc. Once the kids are used to the immersion concept it can be relaxed a bit, but there still is quite a bit of "En espaA+-ol, por favor" going on.

It is a real challenge, though. Reading is always going to be easier in one's native language, so you have to make sure the books in the target language are even more enticing and that you're reading them every single day. My kid complains when I buy him books in Spanish, but later will reveal that he's read them over and over. Supply is an issue; if you can get books in country because often I just can't find them, even searching on several Amazon and other ecommerce sites. We put his tablet into the target language, and any videos he wants to watch in that language don't count against screen time limits. I put on talk radio so we can listen to the discussions and news. Bilingual writer Clotilde Dusolier said that her parents used English as their "secret" language to keep things from the kids. Basically you need to do as much as you can to keep them engaged.

The other thing the DI school told us was that they ask for a four-year committment: K-3rd grade in the U.S., so ages 5-8. Even in that program it takes that long to gain real comfort and fluency. We certainly found that when we visited Puerto Rico at age 6. It was like pulling teeth to get him to speak the language. Two years later, it was a completely different story, we couldn't shut him up. I mention this just so you don't get discouraged despite your enthusiastic efforts; it really is a long process with a satisfying payoff.
posted by wnissen at 3:41 PM on October 17, 2017

So as a diplomat, I actually know plenty of families that have done this. As you noted, it takes a lot of effort and structural changes to your life. I'm assuming the end goal is an 18-year-old that can function at a near-native level in the target language.

First step would be for the parents to achieve good proficiency in the target language (this is generally considered a 3/3 ILR score.) Plan for about 600 hours of study to reach that level in a common European language. After that, it going to be the usual advice of immersing the child at home plus enrolling them in a school that uses the target language. The school is key because otherwise they will end up knowing limited spoken language (mostly just conversation about home life) with very limited ability to read or write it. There tend to be parallel French, German, and Japanese "international" schools in major world cities, so diplomat families will essentially keep their kids in the foreign international school system (instead of American) while rotating from country to country.

The hardcore families will keep their kids in the foreign schools even when back in the U.S. (such as my colleague who pays $20k a year to put her kid in the D.C. German School so he don't lose his German). If you are serious about this, you may want to look at private schools if you cannot get a spot in an immersion program.

Long story short, my brother and his wife learned French as adults and have been successfully raising their son to speak French. He's in a French-speaking school, has a French-speaking nanny, and so far, so good.
posted by whitewall at 4:41 PM on October 17, 2017 [1 favorite]

Immersion, for many years.

I'm Doing It Wrong, in that I learned Mandarin in college and studied abroad in China (approximately 8 million years ago) and now my son has started kindergarten at a Mandarin-emphasis school (it is not immersion, it's just a regular school where they get a Chinese class every day but everything else is English). I speak a little Chinese at home with him and he uses the phrases he's learning at school. He'll also have the opportunity to continue Chinese through middle and high school. What I expect at the end of all that is a conversational rather than fluent level. Which for things like travel or cultural enrichment and exchange is fine, I think. But I'm not fluent enough to immerse him at home, and his school doesn't immerse him there.
posted by soren_lorensen at 5:48 PM on October 17, 2017

I became functionally bilingual via an immersion school (in Toronto, but a first wave immersion school -- the current program is very watered down) and my parents are monolingual. They sent me to French sleepsway camp in the summers and I studied in university. I have since lost a lot of ground although I can argue with a francophone tech team over website features so there's that.

The only way it worked for me was to be immersed in a no-English environment. At school I was not allowed to speak English or read English books except during English class. Also, at that time teachers had to be francophone to teach French and so we avoided the "franglais" that characterizes French immersion in the public schools here now. I suspect if you are trying to teach another language that you aren't fluent in this is what will happen - you'll impart an anglicized version with weird idiomatic quirks.

That said, I think language learning and exposure can be helpful in developing a working knowledge of other languages and also positioning a child so that if they pursue it later they do well.
posted by warriorqueen at 5:52 PM on October 17, 2017 [1 favorite]

My kid is in a bilingual school that shares a language with some family members (married in) and our neighbours at one point. I am monolingual but my husband is working on learning the language too, through the school and immersing himself with kid + friends when we have the chance.

My aunt who immersed in the language as an adult still retains a lot of it, due to prioritising it when they moved back to our monolingual country, and by continuing to practice it with her kids + ex, and now my kid + my husband.

We apply as much of the cultural stuff as possible at home too - mostly around eating/bedtime/rituals like that. We regularly watch media in the language (and subtitled in English if my husband and I are watching).

Thus far she is picking it all up extremely well, as is my husband.

(I'm doing a Phd, so no I am not gonna add another language to my brain right now).
posted by geek anachronism at 9:29 PM on October 17, 2017

A cautionary tale from me which echoes some of the comments above:

I grew up speaking Spanish and English. I got Spanish from my parents who were recent immigrants to the US and ONLY spoke Spanish. English of course from my environment and friends and school.

Now, I have cousins who cannot speak Spanish, despite growing up with bilingual parents. The reason for this is that in their cases their parents had already picked up some English. So the kids - and I presume laziness is the reason as well as English being 'cooler' to them - as soon as they figured out they could use the same English language at home basically dropped the Spanish and the parents complied. All this despite the fact that the parents usually spoke Spanish to each other.

Of course everyone regrets this now but the point being, as others have said, is that it wasn't enough for the parents to know another language (Spanish) but also to have the will to enforce it at home continuously, for years and years. Otherwise everyone just wants to communicate and uses the path of least resistance.
posted by vacapinta at 3:36 AM on October 18, 2017

I think two things are key.

1. Immersion in a group of speakers. My parents have a non-English first language, and it was effortless to learn it from them. However, I didn't have any other examples.

2. Social support for speaking. Unfortunately, I was embarrassed about the second language, and rebelled against practicing even with my parents. So they would speak to me in one language, and I would respond in English. My six year old has already expressed discomfort with not speaking English, because he thinks it's "not normal". I have heard this from Spanish speaking parents trying to pass on the language to their kids, too. This is a big barrier.

These days, I can easily understand my parents without any kind of noticeable effort at translating. However, I can't really understand anyone else as well. And, I cannot think of words when I try to speak.
posted by pizzazz at 11:59 AM on October 18, 2017

My mother did it by keeping me mostly at home when I was small and speaking to me only in German. She also made me copy texts from German language books, though the research now shows that this isn't a particularly effective method to learn a language. Nothing anyone said could have convinced her of that, however.

What really moved me from kind of understanding towards fluency, though, was being plunked into a German school for a year. I did terribly in school - the classes were more advanced than their American counterparts - but speaking the language every day made the difference. I was about twelve.

My written grammar and spelling are awful but I can have a fluent conversation without an accent with German speakers, most of whom are surprised I speak it as well as I do. I have to work to maintain it - reading articles, listening to the news online, and so on - but on the whole I know it quite well given that I was raised nowhere near a German speaking country. My brother, who was always in conflict with my mother, never learned to speak it at all. He understands, but can't form a sentence. So harmony between the speaker and the person learning to speak is an absolute must.

My father also spoke it, though not with much enthusiasm. Reasons. My mother was the driving force behind my learning it.
posted by Crystal Fox at 12:10 PM on October 18, 2017

Late to this ask, but yeah, immersion is key. I moved to the States at age five, and consider English my "first language" but I am fluent in conversational Russian (reading/writing is another story). I think if you want to do this you would have to have buy in from both parents and, this sounds weird, but only have one kid? My reasons for this are a) I have a peer who shares my history and he cannot speak Russian as I do and I believe this is because he only spoke Russian with his mom and she may have been more lenient about him speaking English b) my brother and sister who were born here, but grew up with both my parents as I did, would speak English to each other. Negating any fluency they might be picking up by not using it to communicate between themselves.

And yeah, seconding what everyone else said about practice. When I went abroad to Moscow for a semester I came back and was correcting my mom about certain nouns since I couldn't just switch to English while I was there and had to actually learn the Russian words for them.

Also, obviously my parents were native speakers, so I'm not really sure how it would work with learning the language yourself first.
posted by theRussian at 3:25 PM on October 29, 2017

« Older Give me your sadness   |   Is my car eavesdropping? Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.