Myth #4: You have to be a native speaker to raise your child bilingually

bilingualism

Friends, how was the weekend? D., E., and I took a car ride up to Pennsylvania to visit family (upcoming post…stay tuned!). Great time had by all, but boy, am I glad to be back in my own bed!

Today, it’s another installment of Myth Mondays here on the blog. If you’re just joining us today (welcome!), I feel I should explain that by no means is this blog meant to be the end-all be-all of bilingualism. The goal of this blog is to record my experience in this crazy fun adventure of bilingual parenting, which at times includes addressing related issues – including common misconceptions of bilingualism.

With that said, today I’d like to address the following myth:

Myth #4: You have to be a native speaker of a language to raise your child bilingually.

Fact: Even monolingual parents can raise bilingual children (Seriously!).

I was first challenged to reevaluate my thinking on bilingual parenting during my time in graduate school. Two of my professors, Kendall King and Allison Mackey, both researchers into second language acquisition, are raising their children in languages different from their own. In fact, they wrote a book on this very subject. I can’t recommend it enough: The Bilingual Edge. Hop on over to the resources page on the blog to get more information.

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I couldn’t resist a little nostalgia…me on graduation day (my hair!).

So, you’re probably wondering how in the world it’s possible for two monolinguals to raise a child to become fluent in a different language.

Well, the saying “It takes a village” to raise a child comes to mind. I think all parents would agree that we cannot parent alone; we need our greater family and community.

Indeed, this is exactly where we turn to demystify today’s misconception: our community.

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As we discuss each resource, please keep in mind that there are different types and levels of bilingual (check out my post on myth #1), and that it’s not always necessary for an individual to begin learning two languages from birth in order to reap the benefits of bilingualism.

Monolingual parents can raise their children bilingually with the help of:

  1. Bilingual Schools

This is often the first plan of action that families take in order to raise their children bilingually. Although Spanish/English bilingual schools are the most popular in cities throughout the United States, each year there are more and more bilingual schools popping up in other languages. Like I mentioned last week, we just moved to our current city over the summer, and out of curiosity, I typed “bilingual schools” in Google and got a list of several in my area. (When in doubt, Google is always a great place to start!)

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  1. Nannies and Babysitters

Just the other day, while E. and I sat on a blanket at the park, a young Chinese woman approached us, baby in arms. It turns out she was hired by an English-speaking American family to care for and speak to their four-month baby in Mandarin. She informed me that the parents don’t speak any Mandarin, but that they want their daughter to have as much exposure as possible. I can think of countless other examples of monolingual parents hiring au paires or babysitters to care for their children in another language. What a great way for a young child to begin learning another language in a natural way!

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  1. Foreign exchange students

Maybe you have older children in middle or high school who are studying a foreign language who might benefit from contact with a native speaker of that language. Why not consider opening up your home to exchange students from that country for a summer, a semester, or even a year? Not only would your child have the opportunity to practice speaking the language, but he/she would also have a chance develop empathy for and interest in another’s culture. (I first heard of this option from a GREAT blog, Intentional Mama. Check it out!)

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  1. Your local library

I’m constantly amazed at how quickly local libraries are filling their shelves with books, CDs, and movies in languages other than English. There are even libraries that offer story time for children in Spanish, Mandarin, or Arabic. It was through our attending a story time in Spanish last summer that E. and I met our now good friend N. from Spain. We hang out with N. now at least once a week!

What if your local library doesn’t offer a story time in the language you’re interested in? Why not start one yourself? Most librarians are more than happy to help you. Why not consider contacting a local college or high school to see if there might be any native speakers of the language who might be interested in reading stories to young children? Most high school students need community service hours before they can graduate.

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  1. Foreign language summer camps

Every kid loves summer: warm weather, swimming, games, and best of all no school! So, why not combine the fun of summer with the fun of learning a language? A foreign language summer camp is a great option for parents interested in immersing their son or daughter in a language, without breaking the bank buying a plane ticket across the ocean. Not sure where to look? Check with your child’s school counselor. Another good place to look might also be the local university in their language department.

These are just a few of the many ways you can facilitate your child’s learning a second (or third!) language without you or your partner necessarily being a native speaker. If you’re interested in digging deeper into the facts behind today’s myth, I would highly recommend the following book (I’m reading it now): Seven Steps to Raising a Bilingual Child by Naomi Steiner, M.D.

Again, I can’t reiterate enough how important it is that, BEFORE you seek out the above resources, you and your family sit down and talk about your goals for language learning. Are you seeking complete fluency in the language? Or, do you simply want to foster a love and appreciation for other cultures? Or, maybe something in between? By having a clear goal in mind, you will not only avoid unnecessary frustrations, but you will then also know which of the above steps you can take to facilitate your child’s language learning.

I look forward to “introducing you” to some monolingual families on the blog (Family Fridays) who are raising their children in a different language. So, stay tuned!

And, as always, if you’d like to share YOUR story of bilingual parenting, or if you’d just like to share your thoughts, please drop me a line. I’d love to hear from you.

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14 thoughts on “Myth #4: You have to be a native speaker to raise your child bilingually

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  6. Hi españolita,
    I think TV is a great resource too, at least it worked and works at our home.
    People say TV is not that good, but there are great quality shows in the British TV, like Cbeebies, or old sesame street shows (we are Spanish, teaching/learning English as minority language). Now with the internet and the SmartTVs is really easy to be able to access them from almost anywhere in the world.
    Unfortunately there aren’t many good shows in the Spanish TV at this moment, but as I said, I’m pretty sure you can find interesting things in youtube and others.
    Take care and keep it up!
    GD

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    • YES! TV and other technological resources are invaluable. I totally agree with you. Without Facetime and Youtube and Facebook, I wouldn’t be able to do more than half of the language-rich activities I do with my daughter. Thanks so much for stopping by again and for commenting. Un saludo! Audrey

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  12. Interesting reading.
    I grew up simultaneously bilingual (Finnish and Swedish) later learning 3 other languages as well. We communicate in English with my husband, his native tongue. We both thought the more language our kids get “for free”, the better for them. But how many could we expose them to and still give them at least one strong language? I agree with you, one doesn’t Have to be equally and fully competent in all but in our case ability to communicate with relatives was important. Having grown up among many bilinguals I also met many who didn’t have a mother tongue but two semi – good languages. To me that is sad, I think it is important to have at least one language you express everything in and that may also mean you feel included in some society /reference group. So I had my doubts but seems like we at least at the moment are able to expose our children enough to three languages, with two of them being very strong: I speak Finnish to them (mostly, I help out with Swedish vocabulary), my husband English and with my family and in the daycare they speak Swedish.

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    • Thanks so much for sharing a bit about your own experience with multilingualism, as well as that of your family. There have been several trilingual/polyglot families featured here on the blog. I encourage you to read their stories (click on the link FAMILIES on the homepage). With the little that you’ve shared with me about your own family, it sounds like you and your husband are being intentional about your language use with your children. I’d also encourage you to read two previous blog posts, also under the FAMILIES category, about when/why/how to CHANGE your family’s language policy. You might find that interesting. To my knowledge, semi-language/no mother tongue is rare. An expert (also interviewed here on the blog, under INTERVIEWS) on the topic of bilingualism is Dr. François Grosjean. I wrote a review of his wonderful book. Check out the link on the top of the blog RESOURCES.

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