Conversation with Dr. Kendall King, linguistics professor, researcher, and co-author of “The Bilingual Edge”

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Kendall King and her two children


¡Hola, amig@s! If you’ve been following the blog you may have read my recent review of the bilingual parenting book “The Bilingual Edge.” Not only has it been an invaluable resource to me and my family, but it was co-authored by one of my graduate school professors at Georgetown University, Kendall King. Dr. King is now a professor of second languages and culture at the University of Minnesota.

Today, I have the privilege to share with you a recent conversation I had with her in which we discuss her 2007 book, her current research, and her own bilingual family.

Be encouraged, friends.

Could you give my readers an overview of your background and research expertise?

I’ve studied linguistics, anthropology, and education, and did a Ph.D. program at the University of Pennsylvania that combined all three. I’ve long been interested in how minority languages are maintained, how children become bilingual and multilingual, and what schools and families can do to support this process. I’ve been lucky to be able to research these issues in lots of contexts: for instance, in highland Indigenous areas of Ecuador; among Chilean-Swedes in Stockholm; and most recently with Latino, Somali and Indigenous youth in Minneapolis, Minnesota (USA).

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Your book, The Bilingual Edge, co-authored with Alison Mackey, is an invaluable resource for parents who are considering raising their children in more than one language. (It was the first bilingual parenting book I read and I love it and have recommended it to many others.) What inspired you to write a book on bilingual parenting?

Thanks! That’s really nice of you. Alison and I sometimes joke that we knew everything about raising bilingual children when our kids were tiny. It’s become more complicated, and more interesting as they age!

Well one of the things that inspired me to write the book was that so many of the bilingual Latino mothers who were participants in the studies I was running told me, in the course of chit-chat before or after data collection, that they had been told by their doctors/kids’ teachers/nurse/some other professional not to speak Spanish to their own children. These mothers felt conflicted and sometimes a little confused: they wanted their kids to be bilingual; it felt right to speak Spanish at home; but they also of course wanted to do what they were told was best for their kids. This just drove me nuts because I knew it was bad advice, and not based on any scientific evidence. Alison and I wanted to write a book that brought together the science of bilingualism and second language acquisition and present it in a fun and accessible way for parents.

The irony is that the book has been published into many different languages, including Korean and Vietnamese, but not Spanish. We are still hoping and waiting for a Spanish language press to pick it up!

It was published almost eight years ago (2007). Have you and Dr. Mackey considered writing a follow-up book? Any information or research you might add to complement the book?

I think the foundation of the research of the book is solid. There have been a few interesting new findings that if I were to write a new version I would be sure to include. For instance, Annick De Houwer did a huge survey of about 1,900 families and found that the ““one parent–one language” strategy did not provide a necessary nor sufficient input condition. We suggest this might be the case in the book, but it is important to have strong evidence like this to help parents make the best choices. (Link here to the study)

Can you share with us some of your current research projects in the field of second language acquisition? Additionally, any other new and exciting research in the field that my readers should be aware of?

I’m encouraged that some of my work in Minneapolis is being put into practice. My colleague Martha Bigelow have been doing research on the importance of taking seriously students’ first languages in school, and the state recently recognized, in new legislation, the importance of bilingualism. For instance, the state now has a ‘bilingual seal’ that recognizes high levels of proficiency in a language other than English on students’ high school diplomas. I’m hopeful this national trend will continue and deepen.

I also think the work by Ofelia García and her colleagues on translanguaging is really important and interesting. It demands that we rethink older notions about separation of codes, and how realistic that is in increasingly multilingual America.

(And, here is a great new book for adoptee parents of older kids.)

Bilingualism has received a lot of buzz in the media lately, with many popular articles touting its many cognitive and social benefits. However, a recent article in The New Yorker questioned the extent to which bilingualism is advantageous to children, citing the research of Dutch researcher Angela de Bruin. “ ‘Our overview,’ de Bruin concluded, ‘shows that there is a distorted image of the actual study outcomes on bilingualism, with researchers (and media) believing that the positive effect of bilingualism on nonlinguistic cognitive processes is strong and unchallenged.’ ”

I don’t think this argument carries much weight in part because conference abstracts are not really good proxies for submissions to journals. Also the method of calculating positive and negative findings here is flawed as others have pointed out. It’s hardly surprising that journals prefer to publish significant results over not significant results, but, as my colleagues have noted elsewhere, there is no evidence that there is a preference for these results to be either positive or negative. More broadly, I worry that this little piece could undo a lot of progress that we’ve made in terms of popular understanding of bilingualism being on balance GOOD for kids and communities.

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You yourself are raising your children bilingually. What are some of the resources you and your family have found most useful, both for parents and for children?

I’m not a huge technology fan when it comes to language learning. My best resources have been investing in relationships with friends, colleagues, neighbors, babysitters, etc. that bring language into our life, and keep Spanish fun, communicative and useful.

Any other advice, suggestions, tips, or resources for bilingual parents and their families?

Well, 11 years in I would say that language learning is a lifelong journey and parenting is a marathon not a sprint.

Thank you so much, Kendall, for stopping by the blog and sharing some of your expertise in the areas of bilingualism and second language acquisition. You’ve given us much to think about!

6 thoughts on “Conversation with Dr. Kendall King, linguistics professor, researcher, and co-author of “The Bilingual Edge”

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