By Corey Heller
Article first appeared in Multilingual Living Magazine.
Emma is French and lives in France with her Russian husband and two children. “My husband and I both speak Russian to our daughters even though it isn’t my native language,” she says. “Sometimes I wonder if it is the right thing to do because I feel my Russian language skills aren’t always good enough. But my husband and I agree that it is our only way to keep Russian an integral part of our family. Sometimes I feel bad when I can’t remember a word in Russian, so I tell my kids that I am not sure what the word is and I say it in French. Later we ask their father what it is in Russian or we look it up together.”
Emma is one of many parents around the world who has taken the pluge to raise children in a non-native language. As in her case, it most often stems from a strong desire to pass on a spouse’s (minority) language and culture to children, in order to ensure a continued connection with family abroad.
Some parents are taking this language plunge even though they and their spouses have no direct cultural connection to their non-native languages. Bruce, an American who lives in the US with his American wife and young daughter, says, “I studied Spanish in school and spent a year abroad in Ecuador. It just seemed like a waste not to share this language with my children. My wife doesn’t know much Spanish, but she is very supportive and enjoys learning the language along with our daughter. It is actually bringing us closer together as a family!”
Raising children in a non-native language can feel like a leap of faith at times – like cutting a path through uncharted territory with no map to guide us. How should we go about it? Are we doing it well enough? Are our children even benefiting from what we are doing? Could we be holding our children back linguistically by doing this?
Unfortunately, there are no easy answers. The good news is that it IS possible and IS definitely worth it! The following tips can help to alleviate concerns that your children will end up the proverbial “scape-goats” of your attempts (which is the worry of every parent raising a child in a non-native language)!
- Start by asking yourself what motivates you to raise your child in a non-native language. Your motivations may not be what you think they are (read The Multilingual Life of a Non-Native Speaker to learn more about this author’s motivations). There are no right and wrong answers here. This is about you understanding fully WHY you are doing what you are doing!
- Have a plan of action in place. Have you and your spouse sat down together to discuss your reasons for raising your children in your non-native language? Is this your spouse’s language, or is it a language which your spouse does not understand? It is important for your nuclear family to be on the same page as you because YOU need all of the support and encouragement you can get!
- Find personal accounts from other parents who are raising children in a non-native language (see tips later in this article). These will help to boost your confidence. And read up on the benefits of raising children multilingually – another way to help solidify your confidence. However, remember that raising a child in a second language is no guarantee for later academic success, so if this is one of your motivations, make sure you understand the research.
- It is important that we are honest about our language skills, especially if we are the only one in our household who speaks our non-native language. Be realistic about your abilities to keep up with your children’s language needs and be painfully honest about your non-native language strengths and weaknesses.
- Get support for areas where you need it. You don’t need to do this completely on your own! Join a language playgroup, find other parents who are raising their children in the same language, start your own parent support group or join an online forum for families raising bilingual and multilingual children. Take your children for a visit to a country where the language is spoken and let them be immersed in it.
- Everything is on a continuum. What you do today will most likely change down the road – and this is to be expected. For example, as your children get older, you may start to use your native language more in order to discuss areas in which you feel limited by your non-native language. Let your children know this. Tell them that you’d like to discuss the inner workings of the dishwasher in Spanish (rather than Chinese) because you have more vocabulary about such things in Spanish. In fact, this shows your children that languages ARE fluid and that you are a bilingual/multilingual who uses different languages in different situations.
- Providing a rich language environment is the key to raising a child in a non-native language. Make sure you read to your child every day. Sing songs, recite poems, and discuss topics in which your child is interested. Make sure to keep up with your child’s language level so that you are continually stimulating her interests and helping to build her vocabulary.
- It is to be expected that your child will most likely correct YOUR grammar or pronunciation at some point, especially after spending time with native speakers. Don’t worry and try not to feel embarrassed! In fact, this indicates that your child is picking up the nuances of the language and is feeling a personal association (and boldness) with it.
- Have fun! You are raising your child in a second language because it is a wonderfully inspiring thing to do! Cover your bases and then sit back and have a delightful time in what you are helping to establish! Don’t ignore the possible issues but don’t let them hold you back from giving it your all.
Raising children in a non-native language takes courage and commitment. It can also be one of the most rewarding experience of a lifetime. Your children may never thank you for the effort you are putting out right now, but the reward will come each time you hear them conversing comfortably with other speakers of your non-native language! Try to laugh a lot through this process. Highlight the successes along the way rather than dwelling on the setbacks.
Tips and Strategies:
Not all multilinguals are created equal!
Are you raising your children in your non-native language in the hopes that they will be smarter, better in school, and more able to grasp complex concepts? If so, don’t assume this will happen by default. Although earlier research, which indicated that bilinguals lagged behind monolinguals, has been disproved, this does not mean we can assume that our bi- and multilingual children will benefit without an effort on our part! For our children to reap cognitive benefits from their additional language(s), it is important that we provide them with “linguistic-rich environments.” This means we need to expose our children to diverse language stimuli: singing songs together, reading out loud, listening to and speaking with native speakers, as well as the many other ideas you will come up with!
As parents raising our children in our non-native language, we should remember that perfect or “balanced” bilingualism or multilingualism is not a likely outcome from any family’s efforts! As Colin Baker writes in A Parents’ and Teachers’ Guide, “This idea of balanced bilinguals, perfectly balanced in both their languages, is one muddled myth that surrounds bilingualism.” So, relax and enjoy!
It’s not all about the accent…
Many parents believe that they should not raise their children in a non-native language because they will pass on faulty pronounciation and/or incorrect grammar. This may happen. But what are the benefits of NOT raising them bilingually at all? It is worth the effort to continue what you are doing and in addition to find as much native-language exposure for your children as possible.
Support for families:
Bilingual Parenting in a Foreign Language
Check out the listing of Frequently Asked Questions, resources, feedback from parents and much more.
EDIT 04/24/2014: This is no longer live. However, one of the authors sent me the link to her blog in case you would like to learn more about her family’s approach: nonnativebilingualparents.blogspot.com Enjoy!
BUC by Non-Native Speakers
Bernd Klein and his wife Karola, both native Germans, are raising their children in German and English using the OPOL method. www.bklein.de/buc/buc_non_native.php
Bilingualisme (Non-Native French)
The founders of this website are raising their children in French even though both were raised as monolingual English speakers. Wonderful tips, suggestions, advice and personal experiences. bilingue.shearer.org