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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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8 Comments

We are also raising our children bilingually—with the help of an au pair.

Our children were adopt domestically from the United States, but it was while we were living in Switzerland. Our son was old enough to be at a nursery school and was learning German. We decided after we moved back to the US than it was important to us that they continue to be raised bilingually, even though neither my husband nor I are native-German speakers. (I speak intermediate German and my husband speaks basic German.) So we arranged for a German au pair to come live with us. She speaks only German to the children.

Our son, who will be 3 in September, obviously understands everything she says and will frequently respond in German to her. But he only speaks English with my husband and I. Thus far he has not gotten confused and knows which language to use with each adult. Our daughter is 21 months. About half of what she says in English and half German. Again, she generally knows which language to use with each person.

I know some other parents who have adopted internationally who have arranged for an au pair who is a native speaker is whatever language is the primary language of their child’s country of origin.

I also have to say that au pairs are an extremely economical way to go. As long as you have an extra bedroom in your home, an au pair is generally less expensive than full-time child care.

By Global Librarian on Tuesday, July 26, 2011 at 5:05 pm.

Global Librarian, we have a couple of friends who are doing what you do (their au pair is from Panama) and they love it as well. There are many different ways to raise bilingual children. In bigger cities you also have the possibility of an immersion school (even some public schools that are immersion schools) which is another great way to get your children to be bilingual. We don’t have that option in my small town, though.

Thank you for stopping by to add your personal experience. Maybe someone else will give the au pair idea some thought!

By Gaby on Tuesday, July 26, 2011 at 5:16 pm.

I’m an English-speaker married to a German in Germany and I agree with Gaby: you simply can’t raise children (especially babies) in any language other than your primary one! I don’t know the songs, rhymes, pet names, I can’t correct grammar or pronunciation… People frequently say how “great” it is that our daughter is bilingual, but it just couldn’t be any other way.
I also have to wonder if I’d get that reaction if her “bonus” language weren’t as prestigious - what if I spoke Tegalug, or Farsi? My suspicion is that most people are envious of the heads-start that bilingual kids have over the children who learn second languages at school, but that only applies if they speak a language you “have” to learn later.
The developmental benefits don’t occur to the average person on the street, and most (even those who you’d think would know better) are quite convinced that OPOL is damaging or unfair to the child, and ready to give unfounded advice about how to “do” language with kids. Advice on sleep and feeding is annoying but there’s a reasonable chance the person has some experience to speak from. The blatant ignorance behind most comments on language is staggering, and really hard (for me!) to deflect graciously.
My pet peeve is the platitudes about their grammar “mistakes” and how I shouldn’t worry because “all bilingual kids have delayed/flawed language aquisition” - excuse me, but my 2-year-old is applying rules from one language in another and that’s GREAT! It means that she, unlike a unilingual child, knows that grammar exists and she’s trying to hack it. Language is not “instinctual”, it’s a skill and she’s practicing it.
I’m with Gaby on this: give our kids some credit. They’re smarter than we admit, and at early ages have capacities we can’t hope to match.
Where I do get wobbly on OPOL is in direct conversation with a monolingual adult; I tend to switch to German so they are not excluded from my comments to my child, but it’s a slippery slope - I certainly can’t now pretend to not understand German from her. Any ideas?

By LaurenM on Friday, August 05, 2011 at 10:22 pm.

Lauren, I understand what you mean. Because we live in the United States, when there is someone else present, I tend to speak to my children in English out of respect for the person present (unless I’m scolding them, in which case it is very handy that the other person can’t understand! LOL). I don’t think it hurts my children’s language acquisition a bit and it teaches them it is important to respect others around us. The funny thing is my daughter will not answer me in English, ever. She just can’t do it. I have to remind her, please speak in English, because Mrs. Whatever wants to understand you as well. My son does.
There are books, for example, that should not be translated (like poetry), so I read to them in English. We are flexible and make concessions based on situations, but when they are alone with me, we only speak Spanish.
I hope that helps!

By Gaby on Saturday, August 06, 2011 at 2:59 am.

Hi Gaby,

It was neat for me to read your post about speaking Spanish/English to your children and the things that you shared.  smile  We are a similiar family to yours, with a little different twist!  My husband is Latino/white, and I was raised in an Armenian cultural family and spoke in Armenian when I was a young child… regretably now I can only understand some Armenian and speak it just a little bit, as I didn’t continue to speak in Armenian while I was growing up)

In school/college I learned to speak Spanish and was a bilingual elementary teacher for over 10 years.  Now I am a stay-at-home mommy to our two little daughters that God has blessed us with, but still speak Spanish fairly fluently.  My husband does not speak Spanish, so I’m the one who has been speaking to our children in Spanish at home… he is supportive of me doing that, and I’m hoping that he will also learn some Spanish along the way.  I started out doing some Spanish with our oldest daughter (she’s 2 1/2 now) and am now doing more, but am not exclusively speaking to them in Spanish yet.  (The little one is 16 months) Your post is inspiring me to try to speak in Spanish to them all day until Daddy comes home, as I feel like I need to do more Spanish with them.

For us, there are different reasons why I would like our children to speak both English/Spanish… for our daughters, they are Latina and I want them to speak/understand the language of their cultural background; for me I want to continue to use and practice the Spanish I worked hard to learn; for their sweet birthmother who chose a part-Latino family for her children, I think it will make her feel happy and also make her family happpy; for my husband, it will help him to learn some Spanish and be more bonded to his cultural background.  I also hope learning Spanish and about the Latino culture will help bond our daughters to their cultural background and their daddy’s Latino side of the family, and feel a part of their cultural background in our family, as well as that learning two languages will be beneficial to them in the ways that you have shared about.

I hope to get to know you better and the other moms who are also helping their children to become bilingual.. it will be neat if we can share our progress/questions with one another and be a resource to each other. 

Hugs,
Kris

By twicethelove on Monday, August 08, 2011 at 5:57 am.

What an interesting family dynamics you have when it comes to languages! I commend you for trying to keep your girls’ language alive in their lives. Where is your husband’s family from? Is there family still in his ancestors’ country? If so, we have found that visiting our family in Ecuador gives my kids a boost of language that lasts them in between trips. They come back speaking Spanish at a whole different level just by spending a few weeks in Ecuador. Do you have that possibility?

I encourage you to speak Spanish all the time with the girls! It’s odd when it’s not your native language but totally worth it.

I look forward to getting to know you better!

By Gaby on Monday, August 08, 2011 at 2:34 pm.

Hi Gaby,

Thanks for writing back.  smile  When I wrote yesterday, I said that our families were similar, and I think I meant that in both of our families, the mom was the one speaking Spanish and the Dad English, and we also both had familes with a Latino and Anglo parent (although I don’t think of myself as “white” because I’m from an Armenian family, and am also half Greek).  I hadn’t seen your profile yet when I wrote you and looked at it afterwards to see your children - they are cuties!  I didn’t realize that they were from African-American heritage… you definitely have a more multi-cultural family than ours which is neat, as I think cultural backgrounds make our families more interesting and richer.  I also didn’t realize that your children were biological siblings as ours are, and they are actually about the same age difference apart as ours, too,  Do you have an open adoption with their birthmother?  (We do with ours)

My husband’s father was an immigrant from El Salvador, and they still have family back there.  It might be possible to go there someday when other family members go back to visit, but I think it won’t be for awhile.  (We were thinking of the possibly of adopting a child from there, when God blessed us with the opportunity to adopt our daughter’s baby sister)

Thank you for your encouragement in teaching our daughters Spanish   smile  I think it will be a special blessing to them to know the language of the cultural background.  For your children it will be wonderful to know two languages, and might encourage them to learn another language or more when they grow up, as I think speaking my families’ language as a young child helped me with learning Spanish.

Hugs to you,
Kris

By twicethelove on Tuesday, August 09, 2011 at 1:31 pm.

Yes, my family is crazy diverse smile Learning a second language definitely helps with any other ones!

Thank you for stopping by!

By Gaby on Tuesday, August 09, 2011 at 7:20 pm.

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Gaby

Gaby

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