Amig@s, happy Monday! I hope the weekend has left you rejuvenated to face a new week.
Today, I’m eager to address the fifth – and final (at least for a while) – myth surrounding bilingualism. If you’re interested in reading about the other four, you can check them out here, here, here, and here.
On those days when I find bilingual parenting difficult, I often catch myself wishing today’s myth were true, as it would make life raising my daughter in my second language so much easier:
It’s true that children are like sponges in that they absorb their surroundings and imitate the adults in their lives, but mere exposure to a language will only result in a passive proficiency of the language.
Passive proficiency? Take, for example, my grandfather. His first language was Czech; in fact, for the first five years of his life it was the only language he heard and spoke with his parents. But, once he entered grade school in English and began to make friends outside the home, he no longer had the need for Czech. To this day, he can understand a lot, but can only speak a little.
Now, you might be wondering, “So, all those movies and educational DVDs that I play for my child in X language aren’t doing any good?”
No! Those are wonderful tools for learning a language. However, if your goal is that your child become an active – instead of a passive – bilingual, then you must provide him with more than just exposure.
How can we help our children become active bilinguals?
1. Create a need –
This is huge! Are we purposefully placing our children in situations – both real and artificial – in which they NEED to use the language in question? By real I mean, for example, having E. spend time with Spanish monolinguals, like her grandparents or other family friends in Spain. By artificial I mean, for example, only speaking and responding to E. in Spanish at home, even though I speak and understand English.
Here I also think of my OWN language proficiency. Every year, D. and I make a trip back to Spain to visit friends and family. Although I’m fluent in Spanish, I generally allow D. to do the ordering in restaurants and asking for directions. Why? Because I know that his presence means I don’t NEED to use my Spanish. But, two summers ago, I left D. behind and spent six weeks alone in Madrid, taking some classes at one of the universities. With no D. by my side, I had to do all the talking. I had a real NEED to use my Spanish. And, guess what? My Spanish improved!
2. Multiple opportunities for a variety of input –
I find this principle to be freeing in that, although I’m E.’s mother and primary source of language input, I’m not her ONLY source of input in Spanish. That’s why I make weekly play dates with my friend from Madrid and the two babies she cares for. That’s why E. and I daily Facetime with her tía in México, and why D. reads to her each evening before bed. That’s why I constantly play music en español each time we get in the car. If E. is to grow up to be bilingual, she needs to receive a variety of input.
3. Four language domains: reading, writing, speaking, listening –
For the first five years of his life my grandfather listened to and spoke Czech, but never learned to read and write it. That, together with a decline in his using it over the years, led to his passive bilingualism. So, if becoming an active and proficient bilingual is the goal for our children, then as parents we need to find ways for them to read, write, speak, and listen to the language. This is why D. and I have decided to start saving money now for E. to attend a local bilingual school a few years down the road.
4. Consistency (and love!) –
Above all else, we must be committed to consistency. I actually learned the importance of this during my time as a high school teacher. My students took my classroom rules and procedures seriously because I consistently followed through. In fact, I showed my students that I cared for them by being consistent. It’s the same with our children and their language development. So, even though there are days (I confess!) I find myself wishing, “It would be so much easier to speak to her in English!”, I remind myself of how important it is to remain consistent. That means Spanish all the time!
I know I’ve just begun this crazy adventure called bilingual parenting. E. and I have a lot ahead of us. There are many uncertainties. But, what I do know for sure is that I love her and that I have committed from the day she was born to give her the gift of two languages.