What advice do you have for raising a bilingual child?
February 2, 2004 10:22 AM   Subscribe

Raising a bilingual child. I'd be grateful to hear advice, experiences or recommended resources for raising a child in a dual-language home. [more inside]

I often hear the "Don't worry about it, kids are sponges, they'll learn anything" line, but I'm not totally convinced, and would love to hear more about things to watch out for, common mistakes, good tips, etc...

A few details: My wife is Slovene, I'm American and we're currently living in Slovenia. Right now we're thinking about both speaking English at home. Luckily, English is widely spoken here, and almost all radio songs and television shows are in English. I'm guessing this will help a lot.

In our extended family, however, there are a variety of languages spoken (Serbian, German, Mandarin Chinese) which we're not quite sure what to do with. Is it possible to overload a child with languages? Is it good for, say, one grandfather to speak to her in Serbian and another in German? Or will this do more damage than good?

(She's only 3 months right now, so there's no urgency.)

Any info at all would be greatly appreciated!
posted by Ljubljana to Education (16 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
I am not bilingual, nor is my family, but several of the bilingual families I know have reported success with the simple trick of assigning one language to each parent exclusively. Mom speaks entirely one language when addressing the child, dad speaks the other, and they can speak to each other with whatever's comfortable or convenient. This lets the kid compartmentalize the languages and avoid confusion between them. She'll grow up thinking naturally in mama-language and papa-language.

As far as additional languages go, unless she has very frequent contact with the other relatives, she'll wind up not understanding much of the languages she isn't heavily exposed to, but probably not "overloaded."
posted by majick at 10:39 AM on February 2, 2004

Don't take my word for it, but from what I recall of my psychology and linguistics lectures, children have a superhuman ability to learn and distinguish different languages, even if there is no effort made on the part of the family to 'separate' the languages. I have not heard of children growing up in bilingual or multilingual families having any language difficulties, and speaking personally, I grew up in a bilingual family that spoke both English and Cantonese and have no problem now.
posted by adrianhon at 10:57 AM on February 2, 2004

What Majick said. My French teacher in high school tried this trick, (ironically, with him speaking english, and his wife speaknig french) and it seems to work flawlessly.
posted by Space Coyote at 11:13 AM on February 2, 2004

"I have not heard of children growing up in bilingual... families having any language difficulties..."

I grew up in California just as bilingual education in public schools became all the rage, both for "newcomers" as well as kids who grew up in bilingual households. Having interacted (as a native monolingual English speaking kid) with a fair number of kids both in bilingual classes or simply from bilingual families, I can attest to the fact that there were plenty of times where we would have difficulty in conversation because they would fall back on Spanish or Cantonese to express something. This certainly won't be the case with every bilingual child, and it ought to be all sorted out by adolescence, it could very well be a factor in the younger years.
posted by majick at 11:17 AM on February 2, 2004

My family moved to the US when I was 4. My parents spoke Spanish at home, my brother and I spoke English at school.
We're both fully bilingual and none the worse for the wear.
posted by signal at 11:39 AM on February 2, 2004

Oh, and re: the falling back on another tongue, I also do this when I know I'll be understood. And if the other person is also fully bilingual, you just use whatever words best express what you want to say, regardless of language. It's not a hindrance, but rather added expressiveness.
posted by signal at 11:42 AM on February 2, 2004

Ok, I have some first-hand and second-hand experience to share. I just recently had an extended stay with a friends family in Paris and this subject came up. The mother is American. The father is German. She speaks to their two kids exclusively in English. He speaks to them often in German but also falls back on English (English is how the two parents communicate.) They were left to fend on their own with French. The older girl is in her early teens. The younger boy is about seven. What are the results?

Both kids, not surprisingly, speak and write French better than their parents. The two children talk to each other in French. The girl speaks and reads and writes English almost flawlessly. Her German is very weak though and she can only carry on a limited conversation.

The boy, on the other hand, speaks English with a thick german accent and is still struggling to express himself in English though he understands it rather well. It seems he grew up closer to dad and thus speaks better German than his sister.

Take that for what its worth. I was raised speaking only Spanish and didn't encounter English until I was 3-4. I have no accent (most people are surprised that Spanish is my native language) I never codeswitch and never have (i.e. I never mix words from one language into the other.) My brother, raised in the same environment, codeswitches all the time. So I suspect that may be more related to how each of us learns languages.
posted by vacapinta at 11:44 AM on February 2, 2004 [1 favorite]

Living in Hungary, have a bilingual 10 year old son. Basically, if you speak english with your child all the time the child will learn English but you have to be patient. A child will usually speak the language his mother speaks to him first. Generally around 4 years old a kid will discover bilingual speech. Mine didn't want to speak English until he was on a visit to the US, and suddenly he was chattering away.
posted by zaelic at 3:39 PM on February 2, 2004

Ljubljana: good for you! I'm bilingual in Portuguese and English, as are my brother and sister, and the method followed was to always speak English at home and let the surrounding country (Portugal) do its magic.

Though we did have a Portuguese nanny, a Portuguese governess and Portuguese maids and, when we got back from English school at five o'clock, while other children were out playing, we had two hours tuition with a Portuguese tutor.

Until we were 11 we went through both educational systems (double the number of exams) and, after that, did the Portuguese system till we were sent to British universities.

It may sound tiring - but it wasn't - it was fun and it worked.
posted by MiguelCardoso at 4:27 PM on February 2, 2004

Books. Lots of books.
Also lots of interaction, when she starts talking, in whatever languages you'd like her to learn. My parents spoke mostly Mandarin with me and Taiwanese to each other, which is probably why I am fluent in Mandarin but can only listen to Taiwanese.
It seems growing up bilingual would be much easier outside the U.S....
posted by casarkos at 4:38 PM on February 2, 2004

The human ability to learn languages rapidly falls off somewhere in the early-to-mid teen years. Kids can learn languages naturally, whereas adults struggle for years just to become competent.

While I was rasied in New York City, my parents sent me back to Tokyo at least once a year as a child (summer vacation, winter break, etc.) to visit family and to learn the language. While I am not totally fluent in Japanese (I'm struggling with reading and writing) I have no perceivable accent.

So one thought is to send the kids back to your family in the US for summer break, etc. and they will lose their Slovenian-English accents. This is really valuable down the road.
posted by gen at 5:28 PM on February 2, 2004 [1 favorite]

i'm bilingual, and the way my parents did it was speak their (minority) first language at home and letting the majority language come from outside the home. what happened was that i entered the playground not understanding a word of what the other children said and even being teased for it, or (and this, i believe, is key) so i'm told. i have no recollection of being picked on or not understanding.

my concern with this method wouldn't be the playground as much as school. by the time i went to school my parents had been fluent in the majority language for many years, but if that hadn't been the case i might have ended up half-lingual or at least weaker in my parents' language since they wouldn't have been able to help me with homework, interact with my friends, know what was going on in my world outside home, etc.

i like majick's suggestion. i used to know a family like this, and when their daughters were small they'd switch languages mid-sentence regardless of who they talked to, but they grew out of that rather quickly. just make sure your daughter is strong in whatever language(s) you choose - grandpa speaking a second/third language sounds like an added bonus to me.
posted by hannala at 11:25 PM on February 2, 2004

Response by poster: Heartfelt thanks to everyone, this has been tremendously helpful!
posted by Ljubljana at 12:43 AM on February 3, 2004

The latest language aquisition research that has been done tends to indicate (despite a common belief to the contrary in times past) that children who grow up in a bilingual household do in fact tend to have better language skills in general than children who grow up in monolingual environments. I'm sorry I don't have supporting links, but some googling may well get you some research papers...
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 3:19 AM on February 3, 2004

Sorry, I should add that that goes for multi- as well as bilingual environments, too, apparently.
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 3:21 AM on February 3, 2004

I spent my first few years in Japan and was bilingual by the time we left for the States. I forgot Japanese pretty much immediately but had an easy time learning languages later (and no difficulty with English).

Vladimir Nabokov grew up trilingual (in fact, he learned to read and write English before Russian) and, uh, he seems to have had no problems expressing himself.

Go for it!
posted by languagehat at 7:59 AM on February 3, 2004

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