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Adoption Blog: Familia Means Family
Raising Bilingual Children: When Two (or More) Languages Are More Fun Than One!
When people in our small town hear my children, adopted domestically as infants, speaking Spanish to me, we invariably get some interesting questions and comments. The most common comment and my personal favorite is: "They are so smart!"
Why, yes, I agree! But it’s not just because they are bilingual that I think they're intelligent. From my personal experience, and from the families I've come in contact with, given the right teaching and communication strategies in the home (I'll go over what I've found to work below), children don’t have to be super smart to learn more than one language at a time. I know families where one parent speaks one language to the child, the other parent speaks a second language, and when they are all together, they speak a third one—which means these children are growing up learning three languages all at once!
For us, the goal of raising our children to be bilingual is not to improve their creativity and encourage diverging thinking, which studies have indicated develop better in children who speak two or more languages. It's not about increasing their ACT and SAT scores, which has been cited as a benefit of being bilingual. Or about one day giving them an advantage when looking for a job, although this is happening more and more in our society. We are raising our children bilingual as a survival strategy (more on this in a minute) and because as a multicultural family, it just makes sense to us.
My native language is Spanish. I was raised speaking it, and while I started learning French at the age of 3, I did not learn English until I was 16. So it is simply natural and instinctual for me to speak to my children in Spanish. They learn English from their father, from their friends, and through their natural interactions with people in an English-speaking country. Why would I speak my thickly accented English to them when I’m most comfortable speaking to them in my native language?
There are also times when we go to Ecuador to visit my family. Since the great majority of people in the world begin to learn a second language in elementary school, most of my family members speak English. But their English is business-like, not the cuddly, sweet, friendly language you would want to use with little kids. Like me, my family members are most comfortable speaking their native tongue. Since we want our children to fully experience being part of their Ecuadorian family, freely communicating with their cousins, aunts, uncles, and extended family, it is important for us that they are comfortable speaking the language.
I realize it is easier for us to accomplish this because I am a native speaker and a former Spanish teacher, but I don’t feel I teach my children Spanish. We simply live it. Now that I have begun to teach them French as a third language, at ages 3 and 5, I understand how difficult it must be for a non-native family to make the effort to become bilingual, even though I have been speaking French non-natively for most of my life.
With the benefits I mentioned above becoming more publicized, more and more people have expressed their interest in becoming a bilingual family and have asked us for advice (even members of this site—if you were among them, keep reading for your answers). The most common question people ask is: "How do you do it?"
For starters, we use the OPOL (One Parent, One Language) method, in which my husband, Matt, speaks one language and only one language, English, and I speak another language, Spanish, and only that language. We also have done three additional things to help our kids easily adapt to speaking several languages:
1. We started from the time the kids were infants.
2. We have been consistent. I don’t allow the kids to speak to me in English, and I don’t respond in English. I’m very good at pretending to be deaf!
3. We stuck with it even when times were tough and the kids didn't seem to understand what we were saying or didn’t want to even try to speak one or the other language.
Bilingual kids often go through a period early in their language development when parents may think they are delayed in their language or they are not speaking as clearly as their peers. This is normal because they are processing double the amount of vocabulary a monolingual child processes. When our daughter, Isabel, was 3, we noticed her speech was not as sophisticated as our neighbor’s daughter of the same age. While this little friend would speak in complete sentences, even using the past tense correctly, our daughter was still forming simpler sentences. For example, during a playdate our neighbor’s daughter heard a train passing by and exclaimed, “I think I heard a train passing by.” Isabel simply said, “Daddy, a twain go, a twain go.”
So we took her to a speech pathologist because I panicked thinking she was not learning English at the same rate as her peers. I even second-guessed all the research I had done, hoping we were not doing our kids a disservice by expecting them to learn two languages at once. The pathologist reassured us that young bilingual children can seem to be delayed in speech compared to peers of the same age but that this is a temporary phenomenon and that she would eventually catch up. The pathologist did give us some booklets to work with her on creating complete sentences like “The girl is running” instead of Isabel’s “The girl run.” Isabel did catch up and how! She talks nonstop now. The best part is to watch her tell her dad and I the same story, switching easily between the two languages as she answers questions and tells us details. I am very glad we didn’t give up then!
The second most common question people ask is:"Don't they get confused?"
When people say this, I think, We must not think very highly of our children in the United States. Most children of the world grow up speaking two languages and learn three or four by the time they finish their education. American children are just as capable. Why not give them the opportunity? Yes, they get confused at times. No, it does not last forever. It is not always easy for the child or the parents, but the benefits, as I've pointed out, far outweigh the challenges.
Learning a second language is difficult. I have been learning English for 17 years now and every now and then I still get prepositions mixed up and make mistakes that amuse my husband and friends. One of my favorites is when I told my boss after a vacation that I was back and ready for the “bump and grind” instead of the “daily grind.” Being confused is part of learning just about anything!
And finally, another question we get asked often, which is a real pet peeve of mine, is:"Why must children learn any other language? They live in America, after all."
This is the question that, as a former high school Spanish teacher, can make smoke come out of my ears. When we learn a second language, we also learn about a culture, people, and a different way of thinking, of doing, of eating, and of living in general. The more we know of the world around us, the more our minds expand, the more we can grow, the more we understand our own environment, and the more well-rounded we become. For all of these reasons, I hope by raising our children to be a part of a bilingual (and a trilingual-in-progress) family, we're raising our kids to be world citizens.
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