By Jeffrey Nelson
Photo credit: Jaymeekae @ istockphoto
When looking at raising a bilingual child, one of the first questions, obviously, is which language to teach them. In some situations, like my own, the answer is fairly obvious because there are not a lot of options; or so it would appear.
Our home language was Spanish and that is my wife’s native language and we speak Spanish together. Spanish just makes sense. It isn’t the only language we could have chosen, but it was definitely the most practical.
Which Language Is the Easiest for My Family
There are many things to consider when looking at raising bilingual children. Often times the easiest language to teach them makes the most sense. I don’t mean easy as in Spanish is easier than Chinese, I mean it with regards to how well it fits into your life. I wrote another post on this subject called the easiest language to learn. That explains what I mean when I say ‘easy.’ Once you figure out your easiest language, it’s much less complicated to put together and execute a plan to encourage bilingualism in your little one and your rate of success should be significantly higher.
Which Language Is the Most Practical?
While the saying where there’s a will there’s a way is definitely true, it takes slightly more than that to raise a child bilingually. You need resources. Unless you plan on devoting a lot of time to your child and speak your language at a very high level, you will inevitably need outside help (you probably will either way). This help can come in many forms and it is definitely necessary if long-term, balanced bilingualism is the goal for your child. Passing on a language to your child that you do not speak is definitely possible and sometimes may be the right decision. It can, however, be quite costly and time-consuming if there isn’t some natural way for it to fit into your life.
For example, if you have a Chinese immersion school half a mile from your house and the available budget to send your child there, that would be a great start. Even though you speak Albanian, it may be the easiest thing for your family.
Answering a few questions may help clarify a few things in this hypothetical case:
- Are you able to spend a significant amount of quality language-learning time with your child?
- Are there any Albanian resources available (people, schools, festivals, etc)?
- Does your spouse speak Albanian? Do you have parents and/or grandparents that could help with the language input?
If the answer to all of those questions is no, you may want to rethink Albanian even though it is your native language. A reason to speak Chinese would also help an incredible amount, as simple exposure isn’t enough, however imperfect systems can have varied results as well. If you have both, you will have a successful little bilingual the majority of the time.
How Do I Know Which Language to Choose?
Most of the time, this is going to be fairly common sense. Again, in my case, my wife is a native Spanish speaker. The language used at home is Spanish. Spanish resources are easy to come by and a lot of opportunities exist for language practice; grandparents, TV, books, etc. Everything lined up for Spanish to be our little guys second language. Sometimes, however, things are not so easy. A family may have multiple languages and/or limited resources. This is highlighted by a story I came across last week.
I received an email a few days ago from a mother who is married to a man from Pakistan. He grew up in a French-speaking country therefore he speaks French as his native language but also speaks Dari. The mother understands French, speaks a little, but is fluent in Spanish, Portuguese, and English. Both parents work full time and they live in England. In this situation, it’s a little bit more difficult to know which language to choose. She doesn’t want her husband speaking Dari to the child because she won’t have any idea what they are talking about. At the same time, her French may not be strong enough to support French as a second language.
These are just a few of the many questions families encounter when trying to figure out their own bilingual definition for their child.
Do you have a unique situation with regards to passing on a language to your children? Comment below and one of the many regular experts here will weigh in with their opinions!
Jeffrey Nelson is a bilingual husband, father, and author who writes on bilingualism about raising his bilingual child with his wife. His goal is to promote bilingualism and dispel the myths that being bilingual is somehow a disadvantage. He lives in the Midwestern United States with his wife, Gyovanna, and their 11-month old son, Liam. You can read more from him at livingbilingual.com.