By Corey Heller
Photo Credit: Pixydust8605
There are hundreds, thousands, heck there may even be millions of reasons to raise a child bilingually. Those of us doing it know this intimately! Our children will grow up with the ability to speak in at least two languages, have a connection with more than one culture, will be able to speak and connect with family living abroad, learn additional languages with less struggle and will be an integral part of our global society where multilingualism is the norm. The list goes on and on.
However, that having been said, the benefits may not always outweigh the negatives!
Negatives? What negatives?
For most of us, raising bilingual children has been nothing short of a joy… a blessing… a gift. But this isn’t the case for all of us and it is important to be aware of the negatives that sometimes creep into what should be a wonderful thing.
The things is, the negatives of bilingualism don’t really have anything to do with bilingualism itself. The negatives are more subtle than we realize and may have slipped into our lives without us even realizing it.
When it comes down to it, the negatives of raising a child bilingually have everything to do with us parents and how we perceive and implement bilingualism in our lives and our families.
We, the well-meaning parents of the world, are the reason bilingualism can have negatives. In fact, for some of us, our best intentions are the source of the negatives in our family’s bilingualism. It is simply a case of us getting in the way of what otherwise should be moving along smoothly and pleasantly.
The good news is that we are also the solution!
If we can see the ways that we cause distress and frustration in our family’s bilingual journey, then we have a chance to turn things around, to magically whisk away all of the negatives of bilingualism in our households. The first step, however, is recognizing how we may be sabotaging things. We can’t change anything if we aren’t aware of what we are doing.
Below is a list of 10 indicators that bilingualism in our family is not working out well. Remember, you can change these if you give it some time and attention! Turn the negatives back into positives!
1. Stressed out: Bilingualism is a beautiful thing but not if you or your family are stressing out about it. As soon as we start to get agitated about about our family’s bilingualism, the uglier and uglier bilingualism becomes, especially in the eyes of our children. At the very least, we should aim to keep our frustrations about bilingualism away from our children unless we can talk about it constructively and productively with them. Better is to talk with other parents or experts who can help us work through our stressful feelings. If we find that bilingualism is simply too much for us to handle, then maybe raising our children bilingually isn’t something we should be doing (at least right now). Instead look for outside sources for your children’s language learning, such as a children’s language class or a nanny who speaks the target language. Maybe in time things will be less stressful and you can come back to it in a different way, shape or form.
2. The wrong reasons: Why on earth are we raising our children bilingually? Is it to impress the neighbors? Is it because we think our children won’t get into that prestigious college if they don’t start learning a language from birth? Or maybe it is because we were made to feel guilty by a well-meaning family member or spouse? If we aren’t raising our children bilingually because we feel deep down that we want to, then we really need to take a good look at why we are doing it. Many of us don’t realize it but we are actually raising our children bilingually out of fear (e.g. we are anxious that our neighbors will give us a hard time, worry that our children won’t succeed in life, are concerned that our family members or spouse will berate us). If these types of reasons our our motivating factors, then we aren’t doing it for solid, positive reasons and should examine things further. Family bilingualism works well when we feel good about providing our children the gift of bilingualism. Shouldn’t that be enough? If we are doing it for external reasons (especially ones motivated by fear), then we (or our children) may end up very resentful down the road. Don’t let that happen!
3. Impacting relationships: Is bilingualism in our family coming between us and someone we love? For example, maybe it is coming between us and our spouse or us and our children? Perhaps it is even impacting our relationship with our parents? Do we find ourselves arguing about it with constantly with someone we love? If we start to find ourselves feeling sick to our stomach when we think about speaking the non-community language, then something is not right. What this means is that it is time to sit down together with our family (extended too, if need be) and talk about it honestly and for an extended period of time. Bilingualism should be helping to bring us together as a family, not tear us apart. It is important for us to try and find out what the source of the problem is. There are most likely compromises that can be made. It may not be perfect for everyone in the end but it will be better than everything crashing and burning before your eyes! Plus, us ending up the bad guy in the end just isn’t worth it. Nor is a torn, fractured or damaged relationship with our spouse or our kids.
4. Expecting too much: Are we extremely unhappy with where things are with our children’s bilingualism? Did we think things would be easier than they are or that our children would most certainly be balanced bilinguals by now? I mean, sheesh, with all of the time and effort we put in, we’d expect a much greater return at this point! Right? Well, not necessarily. Bilingualism is not a short-term treasury bond. No one has promised us a specific return on our bilingual investment at a specific point in time. Our families consist of human beings with diverse personalities who are interacting with a multitude of other human beings who in turn are living diverse lives themselves. We need to put aside our weighty expectations (especially those that are dependent on our children performing certain ways and with certain skills) and instead set ourselves more reasonable weekly goals that are based on our actions. For example, we can focus on making sure we read a book out loud in our language each day or helping our children write out three sentences in our language. Our children are still struggling with things that we thought they should have mastered by now? Who cares! As long as we are sticking with it, then we have already accomplished a lot! Are our children excited about that new book that we got them in our target language? Are our children still wanting to watch that DVD in the target language? Are we still enjoying our family’s bilingualism and doing what we can to stick with it? If so, then focus on those small accomplishments, especially the fact that we are still doing it (that is the hardest one of all)!
5. Trying to prove a point: Did someone tell us that it wouldn’t be possible to raise our children bilingually? Maybe our sister-in-law insisted that raising children bilingually isn’t worth the effort (that’s why she stopped) and we want to show her that she is wrong? Or perhaps someone teasingly provoked us when he/she said that it was a waste of time? Whatever the reason may be, if we are raising our children bilingually to prove a point to someone else (or the world!) we might want to work on changing our mindset. This is a negative approach to raising our children bilingually and what you really want is to have a positive mindset. An “I’m-going-to-show-them” motivation will most likely build negativity in us down the road (and in turn we will pass that on to our children). Let’s not go there!
6. Cultural arrogance: Do we think our culture is superior to the community culture that we are living in? Do we hear ourselves saying “(our cultural group) is the best there is” to our children? It is one thing to be proud of our culture and to want to instill that pride in our children. It is another to cause our children to believe that our culture is better than other cultural groups, especially the one we are living in. Just because we might be living in a non-native country doesn’t mean that we should put our native culture on a pedestal. What we want is to help our children embrace both/all of their cultures, not one over the other. We want our children to feel truly bi/multicultural, not superior due to blood ties. If we do this, what may happen is that our children may start to feel that they have to choose between cultures, rather than feel comfortable and love both. Plus, it just isn’t good for us to go around acting as if our culture is better than all others – that in itself is troubling.
7. Bilingual drudgery: Has the day-in-day-out process of raising our children bilingually become boring? Does it make us feel sick to our stomachs? If it feels as enjoyable as cleaning the toilet or folding 10 loads of laundry each day then either we need to liven things up or throw in the towel. Of course, I’d encourage us to liven things up: We can find music in our language so that we can sing and dance to it (alone or with our kids). Or maybe some books online in our language that we have been wanting to read. If they are appropriate for our kids, then we can read them out loud. If they aren’t, then we can just read them for our own joy! How about getting some movies that we like in our language and watch them (with or without the kids)? The most important here is that we find our groove again. When we find our joy for our language again, our children will notice this and things will be much easier (and less laborious) for everyone.
8. To please someone else: Did our mother or mother-in-law talk us into raising our children bilingually even though we really didn’t want to? Maybe our spouse pleaded with us until we finally gave in? No matter the reason, we need to be raising our children bilingually from our own motivation (at least eventually!). Sure, someone maybe helped encourage us to get started even though we resisted at first. Or someone may give us pep talks along the way. However, those are different from doing it for other people. We need to find pleasure in raising our children bilingually, otherwise we will come to feel resentment toward the person we are trying to please (as well as toward our children). If we just can’t find the joy that we need to motivate ourselves, then we might want to start by talking with the person we are trying to please and see what they have to say. It could be that they didn’t realize it would cause resentment in us. Perhaps they thought we just needed that initial boost? Once we start talking it out with the person we want to please, together we may be able to find a wonderful solution (and will avoid feeling resentment).
9. Brain benefits: How could we not know about the many brain benefits that come with raising children bilingually? The media has been filled with articles about it over the course of the past few years. Who wouldn’t want to delay Alzheimer’s? Who wouldn’t want to give their child an educational edge? The question is whether or not this is the primary reason we should be raising our children bilingually. If we are motivated solely by wanting to give our children a more robust brain or so that they will possibly do better in school, then I don’t think we are going to have the stamina to keep it up for very long. This doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t give it a try for as long as possible – go for it! It just means that we should try and find more personal, emotional and meaningful reasons for raising our children bilingually. Those things have the staying power that we need. Plus, many of the brain benefits come from being bilingual over a longer period of time, not simply from a single foreign language class for toddlers. See if you can find an international or bilingual school in your area so that your child can have the gift of bilingualism over a longer period of time.
10. It is the “in” thing to do: Childhood bilingualism is all the rage right now! Everyone wants their child to speak more than one language. Even famous movie stars are sending their children to foreign language schools in the hopes that they will emerge multilingual. If we are raising our child bilingually primarily because we want to be part of the latest bilingualism trend, then we should be warned: When the fad is over (and eventually the excitement about it will pass) we may be left feeling empty, silly and a little resentful. However, why not use this trend as a springboard to even better things? We can use it for the inspiration we need to come up with a more long-term plan that sees our children’s bilingual into the future, long after the fad has passed. Because the truth be told: multilingualism is just cool all unto itself. We don’t need the media telling us this. We know it! We know that multilingualism is here to stay (thank goodness) and will be just as bold and beautiful even after the shininess of it fades from the media.
Many of us don’t want to talk about these things because they may sound petty or silly. It is hard to admit that we are motivated to do something for less than stellar reasons. It is just as hard to admit that we are stick and tired of doing something that we feel we should be enjoying. However, if we don’t face our feelings, our efforts may backfire right in our faces, leaving us feeling hurt, resentful and possibly scarred emotionally. Don’t ignore those little nagging thoughts or feelings that keep creeping up!
Ultimately, we want to make sure that our motivation comes from somewhere deep down. This will keep us from getting side-tracked (or giving up) along the way. A solid motivation will keep us focused and steady on our family’s bilingual journey.
Remember to focus on the day-to-day joys as well as looking ahead, way ahead. When we can keep our eyes on both the here-and-now as well as the future, then we can enjoy the process of getting from here to there slowly, one step at a time, filled with fun, joy and love.