By Corey Heller
Photo credit: Leonid Mamchenkov
As parents of bilingual children, we talk about our children’s language skills a lot. We examine vocabulary and grammar, syntax and pronunciation. We worry about speech impediments and language delays. We tell others that our children can speak the community language perfectly but secretly wonder if they are falling behind other monolingual children their age. In short, we examine our children and our bilingual parenting through a tiny magnifying glass.
Unfortunately, by focusing on every little detail in such critical focus, we often unwittingly sabotage our children’s bilingualism. We forget view things from a distance to remind ourselves of the big, big, BIG picture.
One way to get an idea of where we are at with our children’s bilingualism is to pay attention to the thoughts that go through our heads. When things get hard, do we put ourselves down: “This is all my fault. I’m horrible at this.” Or do we give ourselves a lift: “Ok, things are tough right now. Let me take some time to get back on track.” Most of us start with the first thoughts (negative) and then work toward the second ones (positive).
Read this list of top 10 things to find out how you might be unwittingly sabotaging your children’s bilingualism:
1. Critical: “I never do things right!” How critical are we of ourselves, our spouse and our children? Too much criticizing can destroy any well-established set of plans. Even if we can’t stop noticing things that aren’t working well, we don’t always need to say something about them (and we certainly should not be dwelling on them!). Pick a few high priority issues, let everyone know that those are the ones that are most important to you, and then let the rest take their course.
2. Comparison: “Why aren’t my bilingual children as skilled as Johnny down the street?” We know that every person is unique yet we still compare our bilingual children to others that we know or hear about. It is important to focus on the positive elements of our children’s bilingualism and let go of those nasty thoughts that discourage us. Of course, if your child is displaying signs of a speech impediment or other medical issues, then it is important to have your child seen by an expert.
3. Perfection: “This isn’t done well enough, that isn’t perfect, this other thing is annoying me!” Do little things get under your skin when they aren’t done perfectly? Is the way your child says a certain word or letter frustrated you to no end? You are expecting something that is impossible: absolute perfection. When we let the little things bother us to the point of distraction, we are losing our hold on our bilingual parenting journey. Our children make mistakes. We make mistakes. Everyone makes mistakes. Our job is to be able to handle imperfections in our bilingual family’s journey without losing our cool.
4. Worry: “I am so concerned that I am missing something important!” There is no way to know what is going to happen in 2, 5 or 10 years from now. Worrying about it will get us nowhere. Do what you can now while keeping your eye on the big picture. Be aware of the fact that things may not turn out as we hope and remember that this is simply how life works. Worrying too much about our children’s bilingualism takes away from doing what you can now.
5. Assumptions: “I am 100% sure that if I do this then that will happen!” We create both positive and negative assumptions all of the time: “If I speak to my child in my language at home then he will be able to go to college in this language!” Or “If my spouse doesn’t read to our daughter every night in his language, she will never become bilingual.” Nothing is cut in stone when it comes to bilingual children. Yes, if our children don’t get enough language exposure and opportunities to use their language, then it will be very hard for them to pick up the language. However, this doesn’t mean that 100%, definitively, without a doubt our bilingual efforts will end. Assumptions take away our ability to think clearly so don’t let yourself get trapped by these.
6. Rigid: “This is the way we do things, period. No discussion, ever.” Raising bilingual children means being able to change our plans along the way as our family’s needs change. Changing all the time isn’t good either (see #9 below). When we are too rigid, it means that we have lost sight of the big picture. We need to be able to give and take with our children without giving in when it matters the most. Each family needs to perfect this on their own. No one else can tell us when we are being too rigid. We need to figure it out through trial and error. We know we are being too rigid when we are spending more time arguing with defiant children than working together with them to work out a plan.
7. Confused: “I have no idea what I am doing at all.” Do you know why you are raising your children bilingually? Do you know what your overall goal is? Is our main hope that our children will be able to communicate with the grandparents back home? Or will your family be moving back to your home country and you want to make sure your children are prepared to enter school when they arrive? Each family has a different set of goals. It is important that we are aware of what we hope for our bilingual children and family. We may not meet these goals (something for which we need to be prepared) but we should at least have a general idea of what our hopes and dreams are when it comes to raising our children bilingually.
8. Worn out: “I’ve had enough of this bilingual parenting stuff.” If raising our children bilingually feels like walking daily on hot coals or through debilitating quicksand, then we need to step back a bit and see how we can make things at least a little more enjoyable. No one says that your children have to speak your language. However, at the very least, you should be finding ways to keep yourself motivated and inspired. It all starts with us. If we are excited by our multilingualism, then we can help bring our children along by creating situations and environments where speaking our language is meaningful. This might mean playing games in our language or reading to our children out loud from books in our language. Find out what excites you and even if your children don’t want to speak your language, they will benefit from you speaking it around and to them!
9. Unsure: “I’m not really sure if I want to raise my children bilingually.” It isn’t essential that we feel 100% determination in our bilingual parenting efforts but the chances are slim to none that we will stick with it if we can’t really even decide. Making a clear choice can help us take our bilingual parenting seriously and will get others on board with our efforts. Sometimes all it takes is saying, “I am raising my children bilingually!” and meaning it.
10. Lonely: “I am all alone in my bilingual parenting efforts.” If you are feeling alone in raising your children bilingually, then you really need to find others to connect with. Best are other families who are also raising children bilingually in our language. However, even if they don’t speak our language, someone who can help keep us motivated is essential in our bilingual parenting path. Even if we don’t meet eye-to-eye on everything, having other bilingual families to connect with will gives us and our children the chance to feel that bilingualism is a natural and integral part of life.
Our children follow our lead. If we aren’t able to see both the trees in front of us (daily inspiration) as well as the path through the forest ahead (long-term goals), then how can our children find the motivation to stick with their own bilingualism? We need to be both a guide and a follower all at once when it comes to bilingual parenting.
The key to not sabotaging our children’s bilingualism is to listen to the thoughts that go through our heads when things are going well (does this give us a lift or do we become arrogant and self-centered) as well as when things are not going well (do we give ourselves encouragement or put ourselves down). It may feel difficult but finding ways to resolve discouraging thoughts in our heads (without becoming arrogant) will keep us on the right path.
Even if our children don’t seem particularly interested in their bilingualism right now, down the road they will thank us for having found a way through the jungle of bilingual parenting.