Raising a child in a non-native language is a hot topic these days. What with the cost of language schools out of reach for most parents and a lack of native-speaking family members and friends nearby, raising our children in a non-native language has become a desirable option.
The question on most parents’ minds, however, is whether we are doing more harm than good in attempting to raise our children in a language that is not our native language. How can we know if our language skills are good enough for this undertaking? Will our children learn our language mistakes and speak with our same inauthentic accent? And if so, does that really matter in the end? Aren’t our children gaining more, despite the small downsides?
What will make or break your choice to raise your children a non-native language will come down to how you relate to your non-native language: what is your comfort level with your non-native language, your willingness to evolve your language skills over time and your dedication to the long-term goal? Your dedication to the process is key. You can always work on mastering language skills. Finding the drive to stick with it is something that even native speakers struggle with!
Start by answering the following questions:
1. Why do you want to raise your child in a language that is not your own?
What is it that truly motivates you to do this? Do you think it will help your child intellectually down the road? Do you hope it will help your child find a better job in the future? Perhaps you are inclined to raise your child in a non-native language because it is something you felt was lacking in your childhood? Most likely you feel connected to your non-native language and can’t imagine not sharing it with your child. Whatever the reasons are, make sure you are very honest with yourself. No motivation is in itself bad so allow yourself to dig deep to find answers.
2. How comfortable are you with your non-native language?
This question is not about your linguistic skills (we’ll get to that). This question is about the intimate relationship you have with your non-native language. Will you be able to converse comfortably with your child in your non-native language on a daily basis? Will you feel comfortable using your non-native language even after a long day at work or a day of what feels like endless struggles with your toddler? It is hard to know ahead of time how comfortable you might feel in raising your child in your non-native language but take a stab at it and try to imagine what it would be like. Don’t let yourself get discouraged! Just let yourself imagine the good and the bad and how you might react to each.
3. What resources will you incorporate?
When we raise our children in a non-native language, it is important to have native examples to fall back on from time to time. This is not only for our children! It is also to give us the boost WE need to carry on. Do you have books, DVDs and music in your non-native language that you like to read, watch and listen to? And do you have the same for your child? What about native-speaking support in the community? Do you have a native-speaking friend who can come over once a week to hang out with you and your child and converse in the language? Or what about a language playgroup? Having this native-language support will make raising your child in your non-native language so much more fun and inspiring. Plus, the chances are much higher that you will stick with it!
4. How strong are you in your non-native language?
Be honest with yourself as to your level of vocabulary and grammar. Will you be able to expand your child’s language skills and expressions as he/she ages? How do you feel about your accent in your non-native language? Does it bother you? Do you feel it is ok? Will you be keeping your non-native language alive with additional language lessons and practice? Again, this is not about finding faults in your language abilities! This is about being honest with how YOU feel about your language skills. Take time now to address these issues instead of down the road when you hit dips in the road.
If your language skills are not very strong, don’t let this stop you from coming up with a plan for raising your child at least partly in your non-native language! Answer the questions above and then think up alternate plans for how you can do a “part-time” bilingualism of sorts!
Here are some tips and ideas for part-time bilingualism:
1. Choose a day or two (or three!) a week to speak only in your non-native language with your child.
You don’t even have to make it an all-day thing – just in the mornings or evenings works too. Watch DVDs together and read as many books as possible! Reading out loud to your child is a wonderful way to impart vocabulary that we don’t normally use in our day-to-day lives (plus, it encourages lots of questions and discussion).
2. Take a language class together with your child.
Check around in your community for classes where your child could join you (or maybe are even geared toward parents and children!). Since you already know the language, this will simply make it more of a regular part of your life and you and your child will be more inclined to use the language.
3. Hire a native-speaker to come to your house a few times a week.
Come up with a language plan with the native-speaker so that you will feel more dedicated to using the language on a daily basis. Knowing that you will be meeting with your native-speaking counterpart will most likely keep you and your child cheerfully motivated.
4. Subscribe to (or purchase) an online language program.
Try to find something that is enjoyable and captivates your child’s interest. Set up a regular time to do the language program with your child and then decide on how/when to use the language during the week.
5. Agree to switch back and forth between languages based on need.
If you feel fairly fluent in your non-native language but find yourself stuck on certain topics, then just let your child know that you are switching to your other language to explain something. Sure, it is best not to switch back and forth between languages too much but on the other hand, to not offer your non-native language to your child at all because of some difficult linguistic episodes would be a great loss. Your child will get used to this process as long as you are consistent about how you switch between languages: for example, give a cue via a sentence such as “Mommy is going to switch to English now since she can explain this better in English.” Use that sentence each time.
As you can see, fluency is only one element in the decision of whether or not to raise your child in your non-native language. It is something you can tackle through dedication and commitment. Agree with yourself to only do as much as you feel comfortable doing – no more and no less. The true determining factor how you relate to your non-native language. As long as using your non-native language fills you with joy, then continue to use it and share that language joy with your child!
Make sure that you are continually providing your child with words, grammar and expressions that develop and grow in complexity along with your child. If this means using both of your languages (non-native language for general conversation and native language for more complex discussions), that is just fine! Don’t worry about this to the point of giving up. Just keep it in the back of your mind as your child ages.
The main thing is to get your plan in place and then take the non-native language leap! Take it month by month and then year by year. Just offer your non-native language for as long as you feel comfortable doing it. Every plan can be adapted. The key is making sure that you are 100% honest with yourself about where YOU are at in raising your child in your non-native language.
Are you raising your child in a non-native language in which you don’t feel very strong? Does this concern you? What are your concerns and how are you working through them? Alternately, for those of you raising your child in a non-native language in which you feel very strong, what concerns do you have? Do you miss speaking to your children in your native language?