Berkeley Parents Network recently ran letters by two parents asking for help in raising bilingual and even trilingual kids. Read on:
Single parent wanting to raise a bilingual child
I am a single mom (sole custody) and would like my baby to grow up bilingual, as I did, in my heritage language. In two-parent households, it is typical, I think, for one parent to primarily speak each language. But how does it work when there is just one parent? (I do not have local family, and my heritage language is not one of the more common ones in the Bay Area.) So far I primarily speak the heritage language to my daughter, and her caregiver speaks to her in English. But there are challenges, including the fact that English is my primary language, and the language that is more intuitive to me. Part of me would like to speak English to my daughter some of the time, but I don’t want to do that at the expense of the other language.
I would love to hear from any other single parents out there who figure out a way to do this. Has anyone done something where you speak English and another language on alternating days, or some other arrangement? How has it worked?
I will stop right there. I do think that if the mother is serious about her daughter becoming bilingual, she is doing a good job in speaking to her in her heritage language. Her daughter is already receiving a lot of exposure in English, including from a caregiver.
From my experience having grown up in a largely Spanish and Creole-speaking neighborhood in Miami, and both my husband and I speaking Spanish to our kids as well as our caregiver who spoke no English, and sending them to a Spanish-language day school, it is still difficult to maintain our heritage language. Yes, my children are bilingual, but it’s been a commitment on the part of DH and I to keep them answering in Spanish.
English is the dominant language in this country. Period. Even if you are in a barrio in Miami where you don’t think you ever hear English, chances are if you are a kid, you are being educated in English and watching some English programming. For a kid wanting to fit in this country, there is no way for him not to learn English. If exposure to English won’t do it, then peer pressure will.
I know this is probably not what this mom wants to hear, but if I were her I would continue to speak to her daughter in her heritage language. I would pull out the English-foreign language dictionary and translate her daughter’s books into that language, and make it a point to have her watch some programming in that language from the Internet.
Yes, Ari prefers to read in Spanish because it is easier, but he is only 7 and it is astounding he can read at all. But based on DH and my childhood experiences, we have no doubt that he will not only master the English language but may even surpass his English-only peers as research has shown. (Scroll down to the section below, “Research Evidence on the Effectiveness of Bilingual Education”.)
Not to sound haughty, but I have encountered so much misinformation about bilingualism even in schools where kindergarten Spanish-first learners are automatically transported into ESL classrooms to learn English. During my tours at the Berkeley Unified School District, I made it a point to principals and/or tour guides that I did not want my son in ESL or special education as he would learn English at his own pace.
Okay, I will get off my haughty high horse now. Here’s the letter by the mom interested in raising a trilingual child:
Sorry for the long message in advance.
I sent a post many months ago when I initially launched the trilingual journey with my 9-month-old son. The advice I received was helpful, but I am still struggling with the practice of it and in need of answers. Situation: I am first-generation Portuguese and speak it pretty well and my husband speaks Spanish. I have explored my values regarding trilingualish and more specifically the Portuguese piece, and initially decided it was very important for Baby to speak it (mostly for the cultural exposure). I have been questioning this though since day one but have kept up with consistently speaking Portuguese. I am realizing how challenging this is to put into practice. So as it currently stands, I speak Portuguese to Baby, my husband and caregiver speak Spanish and my husband and I speak English to each other. Several other challenges have also arisen:
- I occasionally struggle with finding the right words in Portuguese.
- I have been discouraged by my own parents re speaking Port, as their thoughts are, he will likely drop the Port. and speak English since that is what my husband and I speak.
- And have been discouraged by my husband and in-laws in speaking Porg. I was not expecting this to be as challening and am now left wondering…
- Should I continue speaking Portuguese to Baby or just expose to English and Spanish?
- Does anyone have experience with three languages, and if so, how did you go about it and what were the outcomes?
- Does anyone specialize or know of anyone who specializes in linguistics?
- How should I go about exposing English(ex: read books in English)?
Thank you for taking the time to read this. I appreciate any feedback offered.
Again, I would not worry about teaching Baby English as he will grow up and make lots of English-speaking friends, not to mention hear it from teachers, mom and dad. And yes, trilingualism is completely possible — barring any central auditory processing disorders — and actually easier now that Baby is a Baby. I have cousins who speak English, Spanish and Tagalog (the language from the Philippines). We know a lot of trilingual speakers right here in Berkeley. Here are some examples: a kindergartner who speaks Russian, Spanish and English; a 2nd grader who speaks Spanish, English and German; a 4th grader who speaks Vietnamese, Spanish and English. Usually, one parent speaks to the child in one language, the other parent speaks to the child in another language, and the kid picks up English in school. Yes, even in a Spanish-speaking school like ours, English is spoken on the playground!
I am also saddened that this mom’s family is discouraging her from maintaining their language and heritage. In my experience, bilingualism — and I would love for my kids to be trilingual! — is also a gift because it allows for the child to maintain ties to his or her grandparents or other extended family who may not speak English. I was a little sad when we visited Greece and DH and I could not communicate with a lot of his family members, including the aunt we stayed with.
I can’t imagine my kids visiting their grandmother in El Salvador or their great grandfather in Puerto Rico — which we plan to do in April — and not be able to speak to them in their language. It would completely cut them off from having a relationship with them, hearing their stories, not to mention people of another culture in general.
What say you to any of this? Are your children bilingual or trilingual? What other tips do you have for these moms?