Raising kids with a minority language at home is not always easy, and that’s especially true in countries such as the U.S., where society tends to view speaking one language as the norm. As a specialist in bilingual language development and as the mom of a bilingual child myself, I’m always on the lookout for tips to make raising bilingual kids easier!

In past blog posts, I’ve discussed bilingual parenting tips from the perspective of child development, and tips from other parents who are raising bilingual kids.

Today I bring you tips from the unique perspective of adults who were raised bilingual as children. Those who I interviewed were raised in the U.S. with a language besides English at home, and their parents intentionally passed on their heritage language to the next generation.

There are many common themes, thoughts, and tips brought up by many of the people I interviewed. Hopefully, their wisdom and life experience, both from their childhood memories and from their current perspectives as adults, can be helpful to parents today who are making choices about how to approach maintaining a minority language at home with their children.

There are 5 main takeaway points that I gathered from these interviews:

#1: There are a wide variety of benefits to being bilingual that far outweigh the downsides.

Those who were raised with two languages pointed out benefits to being bilingual across all dimensions of their lives.

These bilingual adults described many social benefits to being bilingual, both concrete and intangible. Many people described how speaking more than one language has been very practical and useful when traveling, and not only to countries where they spoke the language! For example, knowing Spanish helps you communicate when traveling to countries where other Romance languages such as Italian or French are spoken, because of the similarities among these languages, in addition to the fact that Spanish is a widely-spoken language around the world, so knowing both English and Spanish greatly increases the total number of people you can communicate with.

Some people describe similar benefits closer to home: you’re more likely to be able to help a lost tourist or communicate with a new neighbor from another country if you speak their language! Everyday benefits of being bilingual include having access to a wider variety of media such as news, books, and films, and the potential broadening of worldview that comes with that. For those who have relatives who speak only the minority language (or who are more dominant in the minority language), being able to speak the same language as that relative helps foster a closer relationship.

In terms of professional benefits, many people noted that they had more job opportunities available to them, and felt that being bilingual helped them in their careers. For instance, doctors, lawyers, social workers, and other professionals pointed out that their bilingual skills mean that they have a wider pool of potential clients. What’s more, they can communicate better with (and thus be more helpful to) their clients who are more comfortable speaking a minority language. Others felt that being bilingual made them stand out in a positive way and gave them an edge during the job application process, regardless of whether ended up using their minority language at work.

#2: Bilingual adults are glad to be bilingual today, but rejection of heritage language at some point in childhood is very common.

All of the survey respondents said that they were glad to be bilingual as adults, yet almost all of them said that at some point during their childhood they disliked having a minority language, or even refused to speak the language at times. The age that these negative feelings came up varied widely, and the reasons given for the dislike ranged from being embarrassed, or viewing English as the more important language. Some children wanted to speak the language that their friends spoke at school, or, after they reached the point where they became dominant in English (as is expected and typical for kids raised in the U.S. to do at some point), they simply wanted to speak in the language that came most naturally to them and in which they could express themselves most clearly. Some who needed to speak the heritage language at home (due to having a relative who only spoke the heritage language, for instance) described going through a period of feeling resentment about speaking a language that was harder for them. The amount of time that this phase lasted also varied widely, but all the interviewees said after they went through the part of their life where they rejected the heritage language, at some point they had a change of perspective and embraced being bilingual and all the benefits that come with it.

Being prepared for the fact that rejection of the heritage language is a very common feature of raising bilingual children in a monolingual culture can help parents anticipate and navigate this phase.

But, what should parents do if children start rejecting the heritage language? Read on…

#3: The most common advice? Persist, even if it’s tough.

Bilingual adults vary in their advice on precisely how to implement teaching a heritage language, but the consensus is that the most important piece of advice is to keep up exposure to the heritage language, even if it gets tough. Some recommended having children answer in the heritage language and making sure they get a formal education in that language (such as after-school programs or other classes), while others emphasized maintaining a balance of exposing children to the heritage language in a natural way by overhearing it, while at the same time avoiding any pressure associated with the heritage language.

The wide variety of advice on how, exactly, to transmit a language speaks to the fact that family situations, environments, children’s learning styles, temperaments, and attitudes towards the heritage language differ widely, and there is no one-size-fits-all prescription for how to transmit a heritage language. The fact is, there is more than one way to effectively raise children to be bilingual, and part of the challenge for parents is to find a method that is effective, realistic to implement, and fits in with their family’s unique culture and parenting style.

#4: The second most common advice: make it fun!

Another common piece of advice from bilinguals is to have a fun approach to language exposure! Doing fun, pressure-free activities in the language (such as games), emphasizing the cool advantages of being bilingual (such as having a “secret code” if it is a less common language), and finding creative opportunities to bring the heritage language into your child’s life all contribute to making learning another language motivating. 

#5: Start early!

Many adult bilinguals credit their ability to speak a second language as adults to being exposed to a heritage language before they can remember, thus laying the foundation for maintaining or strengthening those language skills later in life. Some of the bilinguals who mentioned that they went through periods of time of refusing to speak the heritage language credit their early exposure to the language and the deep-rooted knowledge that it conferred upon them to being able to pick up their heritage language again faster once they went back to it.

As you can see, wisdom from those raised bilingual includes: starting early, making learning a heritage language fun, being consistent with the teaching methods you choose, and persisting through obstacles. This will give you a great start down the path of raising children who grow up to be proudly bilingual adults!

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Families who are trying to raise bilingual/multilingual children may find it helpful to create an individualized Family Language Plan with a supportive bilingual professional. If having a guide to help you navigate the ins and outs of implementing effective and realistic bilingual methods and strategies sounds helpful to your family, contact me for a 60 minute initial consultation via Skype. You can choose between The Basic or the Beyond Bilingual Consultation Package.

 

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