Raising children bilingually is not as self-evident in our urban Western world as it was traditionally in South America or Africa or even Switzerland — where a few languages at once are still common.
The transference of language is emotionally loaded. It holds the images, myths, jokes and tone that convey to a child into what group he has been born. Language can be a great gift that allows movement between worldviews. Language can also be a touch point to alienation that cuts off the parent’s ability to translate the surrounding social world for their child. This sets the stage for misunderstandings and conflict as the children grow up.
Bilingualism research that reaches a wider audience, such as two recent articles in the New York Times and Huffington Post UK, usually focusses on neurological and brain development. They often list some fascinating new findings that have taken place in the laboratory. And then advise readers to raise their children bilingually so they will grow up smart and successful. Hmm. They seem to be implying that by showing the brains of bilingual children are different, this will necessarily mean bilingual children will be more successful and more profitable for the economy than all those poor mono-lingual children. It is refreshing to read articles proclaiming the benefits of bilingualism rather than the burdens,
Five facts about Bilingualism
by Delia Lloyd
1. Bilingualism affects brain development from infancy. 2. When learning a foreign language, it’s best to start early. 3. But you can still learn a foreign language as an adult. 4. Bilingual people do better academically. 5. Bilingual people also do better in other areas of cognitive functioning. go to the Huffington Post UK
but such claims of bilingualism equating career success are simplistic. And most importantly, they neglect to mention the emotional importance of the parent-child connection in transferring language. For example, Ms. Lloyd first states her scepticism that an American couple could hire a French nanny to successfully raise their children bilingually. She mentions running into the mother a few years later and lo-and-behold, apparently the children were bilingual. Lloyd wistfully mentions that her children, taking French as a foreign language the old-fashioned way in school, are not bilingual and probably never will be. It sounds as though she is saying, ‘Shoot, if only I had hired a full-time French nanny to mother my children.’ The article does not provide details on the fact that the nanny must have been with the children most of the time in order to facilitate such language acquisition, that the nanny appears to have remained in the family over years, and that the mother seems to support it by spending money buying books for her children on Amazon France and encouraging French television. Rather, the focus of the article is on the positive economic effects of bilingualism, such as the headings ‘Bilingualism affects brain development from infancy’, ‘When learning a foreign language, it’s best to start early’, ‘Bilingual people do better academically’, and ‘Bilingual people also do better in other areas of cognitive functioning’.
The New York Times article describes discoveries about prenatal language recognition.
Hearing Bilingual: how babies tell language apart
by Perri Klass
“Researchers have found ways to analyze infant behavior — where babies turn their gazes, how long they pay attention — to help figure out infant perceptions of sounds and words and languages, of what is familiar and what is unfamiliar to them. …
Recently, researchers at the University of Washington used measures of electrical brain responses to compare so-called monolingual infants, from homes in which one language was spoken, to bilingual infants exposed to two languages. … The researchers found that at 6 months, the monolingual infants could discriminate between phonetic sounds, whether they were uttered in the language they were used to hearing or in another language not spoken in their homes. By 10 to 12 months, however, monolingual babies were no longer detecting sounds in the second language, only in the language they usually heard.” go to the New York Times
Such research does give international families support to try more languages. Yes, bilingualism is a good thing in this view. But, there are some vital points to remember: One, it is not a given that younger children who are bilingual will continue to develop their languages. Two, unless there is an emotional connection to each language, chances are the children will stop speaking one of them. Three, bilingualism in the globalized world now includes the ability to read and write in both languages, which requires either specially-oriented schools offering bilingual support as the children mature to teenagers or extra courses and tutoring organized by the family.
How to encourage bilingualism:
When mother and father each speak a different language with the children, both mother and father should encourage their children’s two languages. It helps and might almost be a prerequisite, unless there are grandparents and extended family members to provide the ongoing language background, that the parents each also speak the other’s language to some degree. That way conversation will flow smoothly. As the children interact with the father, the mother can follow the conversation, and then continue in her own language speaking to the children on the same subject.
When there is one distinct home language and another outside language, the parents should likewise encourage their children in both languages. This becomes especially vital when school begins. Parents might not recognize the work their child brings home – the songs, the artwork, the way of learning – yet being able to help them (or learn with them) is an enormous support to school success, and later, in setting up their child’s capacity to meld the two languages and cultural identities. This is tricky. One, if parents are not literate themselves, they won’t be able to help their children learn to read and write. Two, if parents resent being in the foreign country and hate the language their children are learning, they will find themselves alienated by teachers and school programs. If this happens, the parents may completely block the outside language. This may set up an emotional environment in which the child fears he needs to choose between one or the other. And if the child – through the gradual steps of friendships and activities – chooses the ‘outside’ school language, the parent suffers and feels rejected. This is exactly the opposite of what that parent might be trying desperately to foster. This is often especially prevalent in immigrant families with less education. A solution to this dilemma lies in encouraging the parents to be honest with their children about their alienation from the main language or culture. The child needs to be helped to understand what it is that the parent misses, or rejects. That way, the child has a chance to intertwine the impressions of both cultures and remain in emotional connection with the parent.
Even when the parents are literate, seeing a child bring home completely foreign songs and stories can be very alienating. It is natural to feel left out. Those feelings need to be acknowledged and permitted. Extremely helpful in that situation is to teach the child your own language, your own stories, songs, and jokes. This revives a feeling of emotional balance.
It is the emotional connection with both of the languages that provides the gateway to balance. I know families in which a parent has chosen not to speak his or her birth language with the children in the new country. The rationale appears to be an emotional rejection of something in their birth family or culture. Not choosing to pass on your language to your child means, however, not passing on your songs and your ditties and your sense of humour and your memories of childhood. It is a decision that shouldn’t be taken lightly. For it means your children will never really know you. They won’t be able to speak to your family on visits, they won’t be able to watch TV with their cousins and laugh at the same things. They won’t finally have that moment when they understand what you meant all those years when they visit your homeland and experience the different atmosphere or manners. Even if that child later learns the language as an adult, his or her childhood time of absorbing will not have been saturated by those symbols and signs. It is a missed gift.
BUT, says the dissenter, perhaps choosing the majority language ‘only’ means choosing stability for the children, one concrete identity they can absorb and grow into instead of confusing them with two languages and cultures. Ah, but, seeing as the one parent is NOT from the majority culture, the child already, by definition, has something different. Does one incorporate the difference, absorb it and become friends with it, or reject it and ignore it and hope it goes away.
A distinction will eventually be made between speaking and writing both languages. Unless the children attend a school that teaches competently in both languages, to be bilingual in written form in two languages requires extra scholarly effort. It isn’t as easy as it might first appear. And it depends on the goal: to write SMSs and Twitters in the other language, or emails, or a proper business letter, or a scientific paper, or a novel.