Monday, April 09, 2012

Speaking in Tongues: Raising Bilingual Children

Hi Meltingpot Readers,

I hope everyone who had a holiday to celebrate this past weekend had a wonderful one. We did, but there was so much celebrating going on, I almost forgot it was Easter. We were celebrating my parents' retirement, my younger son's first Little League baseball game and my sister's birthday. And somewhere within all of that revelry, el esposo and I were hosting old friends whom we haven't seen for over five years. And that's what I want to talk about.

Imagine this scene, dear readers. Our friends who came to visit are both ethnically Chinese. The wife was born in Hong Kong and came to the United States with her family as a young girl. We met in New York City when we worked at the same magazine. Her husband, also Chinese, was born in France, but his mother is Spanish and his father is French. So the husband's first language is French, but he also speaks Spanish and Mandarin Chinese. They have two kids.

Because I love an excuse to entertain, we also invited another family over to eat with us. In this family, the father is German and Spanish, but raised in Madrid. Mom is Malaysian. They have two kids.

So, here you have a gathering of six kids, six adults and babygirl. One parent speaks to his children in French. One parent speaks to her kids in Cantonese. Two parents speak to the kids in Spanish. And two parents speak to their kids in English. And the kids, bless their multilingual hearts, respond in the proper language to the proper person. It was truly amazing to witness. And it was loud!

Us parents, we were having a great time discussing our own trials and tribulations trying to raise our children bilingually, or in some cases, tri-lingually. Every family had their own system but it all seemed to work. Our Chinese friends only allow their kids to watch TV in either Chinese or French. And both kids attend a French immersion school. El esposo has never spoken a word of English to our kids. Ever. Our German/Spanish friend initially spoke Spanish to his son on one day and then the next he would switch to German. That got old fast, so he quickly decided on Spanish and has been consistent every since. At the end of the day, everyone decided that consistency in whatever method one chooses, is the most important element of successfully raising bilingual kids.

What do you think? What's your secret to teaching your kids a second/third language?

I'm so listening. And in the meantime, here are some links to websites that might have some more answers.

Spanglish Baby
Growing Up Global
InCulture Parent



Tatiana said...

WOW! I'm super impressed! We're still figuring it out. My hubby is German and we moved to Germany last year, when the kid had just turned two. My in-laws only speak German with him, and I've set half of his designated iPad apps to German. Ready to immerse him via daycare, though!

Anonymous said...

I only allow my daughter to watch TV in Spanish. It has been wonderful.
I am in academia (linguistics, second language acquisition) During a conference with a highly regraded researcher, I urged this as a way of reinforcing the minority language at home. She scuffed it off saying, the kids could just turn the channel. I wanted to be mouthy and say "as as their mother I COULD JUST TURN OFF THE TELEVISION". But I didn't. People who grant me funds were in that room and I took it to personal to be civil.
Tatiana's idea about iPad apps is great. My daughter has an iPod. She uses for music as well as a way to watch LazyTown. Episodes in Spanish are available via iTunes. We have Dish Latino to provide variety when it comes to watching TV.

I love your story of your lunch. Reminds me of when I was visiting a friend in Switzerland. She speaks German and English. We traveled to the French speaking part to spend the night with her friend a dairy farm. The owners spoke French. My friend from Italy came to visit us as well. During lunch we had German, Spanish, French, Italian and English bouncing back and forth across the table. I love it!

Amy said...

Omg that sounds like multilingual paradise! I don't have kids yet, but one of my dreams is to raise multilingual kids :)

Christel, The French Homemaker said...

My sister speaks French with her children, her husband only speaks spanish with them and they watch TV in english. So far it's been working well!!
Family reunions are really fun!

My dad is Austrian and my mom is French, but French was the only language spoken at home, unfortunetly! We don't have kids yet but we've decided to have them watch TV only in english.

PS: I love your story!!!!!

LT said...

Good luck in Germany. I think your son will easily become fluent in both German and English.

I totally agree and have been only allowing my kids to watch videos in Spanish. Sadly the only Spanish channel we get at home shows telenovelas almost 24/7 grrr...

If you can dream it, you can do it :)

Thank you! I have quite a few friends who came to this country as young children and seriously learned all their English from TV.

Olivia said...

We had to switch tactics when we moved back to Belgium (Flanders) and my 3-year-old spoke not a word of Flemish since we had been raising him in English and French. He picked it up so quickly in school, but in the process did lose a lot of French. Since my husband and I speak English together it wasn't until his sister was born that he started actually speaking more French since I only speak French to her. She's getting the three from the start, English from her dad, French from me (and her grandparents) and Flemish in daycare. She seems to be just fine... so we'll see.

Here's some more food for thought

Anonymous said...

Lori, I just wanted to thank you for such a refreshing reflection of a multilingual/mixed culture family.

I come from an big and relatively close-knit East African family in which there is only one person who married a non-African. Although I am yet undecided on my vision for my future family, I have dated and been attracted mostly non-Africans, simply by virtue of my circumstances. But my parents would prefer I marry someone of the same culture. More so my father, who tries to influence my opinion by telling me about the mixed marriages of his friends' children that failed...Let me just say he makes his opinion know in many ways. And that's frustrating for me not even because I personally aspire to a mixed family or am in a serious relationship but just on the principle of the matter. I think a successful marriage/family is less about whether the parents come from the same cultural background or whether the kids feel split between two worlds. If the parents are on the same page about child-rearing, the kind of home environment they want, their values, etc...all the other stuff can be handled. Well I'm young and green but at least theoretically, this is what I believe!

Additionally, having a monolithic cultural heritage is not necessarily easy in itself. I have my own issues as the child of African immigrants in the US.

This went longer than I expected but my main message was thank you!