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Some Frequently Asked Questions About Non-Native Bilingual Parenting

  1. Is the mother's (or primary caretaker's) contribution to the child's language development more important than the father's (or secondary caretaker's)?

  2. What advantages do bilingual children have?

  3. Do I know enough of my second and non-native language to try and teach it to my children?

  4. If I want to teach my children my second language, how can I compensate for my non-native language abilities and help my children learn beyond my abilities?

  5. If neither my spouse nor I speak a second language, how can we help our child become bilingual?

  6. What disadvantages do bilingual children have?

  7. How interactive does language exposure have to be in order for my child to develop use of that language?

  8. Isn't it unnatural to try and use a non-native language as the primary communication with your children?

  9. Will my children pick up my mistakes and is that a problem?

1.  Is the mother's (or primary caretaker's) contribution to the child's language development more important than the father's (or secondary caretaker's)?   


Both parents play an important role in their child's language development. If the mother spends more time with the children than the father, the language she speaks to the children will probably have more of an impact than the language the father speaks to the children. However, this does not mean that the father's language will not or cannot be acquired by the children. If the father makes an effort to spend quality language time with the children (reading stories, playing games, engaging in active conversation with the children), the children can and will learn the language he uses with them. One researcher's personal experiences raising his own children to speak his non-native German while living in Australia offers evidence that the father does make a significant contribution in the language development of his children. Even though George Saunders and his wife are both native English-speaking Australians and living in Australia, they decided to try to raise their children in a bilingual household, where they would hear their father speak German (which he acquired as a teen and an adult through formal education) to them and their mother speak English to them. In his book, Bilingual Children: From Birth to Teens, Saunders highlights two scholars' observations suggesting the significance of the father tongue:               Rondal (1980) calls fathers 'the forgotten contributors to child language development,' and Friedllander (1971, 1972) offers some encouragement to fathers who are solely responsible for passing on a language to their children but who have limited time to do so, by suggesting that the emotional intensity which seems to characterize many father-child interactions compensates at least partially for the limited time spent in interaction.But perhaps the most compelling evidence in Saunders' book of the fact that a father can teach his language to his children is the reported results of his study of his own children, who surprisingly learned to speak well in German, even though practically their only exposure to the language can from their father, and not from the mother, who spent four to six times more time with the children, and not from the Australian community where they were reared.


2.  What advantages do bilingual children have?Children have the capacity to develop new language more naturally than do adults. Children who learn more than one language before adolescence, will acquire those languages with more ease and "native-like" ability than they would trying to study those languages as adults. Most adults who began to seriously study a second language for the first time in junior high, high school or later, look at bilingual children with envy, realizing that even years of laborious study are not likely to render them "equal" or "balanced" bilinguals. It is true that many bilingual children are not balanced bilinguals, using each of their languages with equal ability, since assuring that they have equal exposure to both languages is quite a task--sometimes an impossible task--for the parents. However, bilingual children do acquire their dominant language (or both their languages if neither is dominant) to an ability equal of that of their monolingual peers. Additionally, they acquire a piece of a second language, generally learning far more of that language far more quickly than an adult could. How well a bilingual child develops their second language can vary from a child who only knows a few phrases and some very basic vocabulary in a second language, to a child who listens and understands, but cannot or perhaps will not speak, to a balanced bilingual child who communicates in both languages with the same command as monolingual peers in both languages.

Whether a bilingual child is just dipping their toe into a second language, or actually swimming in it, that child is experiencing to some degree the richness of another language. Children that are exposed to more than one language, even if they never fully learn that language as children, have a higher capacity for foreign language learning as teens or adults. Just playing foreign language cassettes in the home, and trying to speak whatever you know of a second language to your infants and young children will help their minds expand linguistically in a way that will give them an educational advantage later.

In addition to stretching their minds intellectually, learning two languages allows children to stretching their understanding of people beyond their dominant culture. Being able to step into another culture through its language is like being able to live a second life. Although some bilingual children do not have a lot of exposure to the culture of their second language, the language itself conveys much of the culture of the people who speak that language. Further, even if children are not living with native speakers of their second language (who are fully a part of the culture associated with the child's second language) in their house or community, they are still likely to be exposed to original songs and stories from that culture. Bilingual children have some experience seeing how different cultures cause different people to interpret completely differently the exact same circumstance. [Example] Seeing two different cultures internally helps bilingual children realize that much of what is considered universal human behavior within a culture may be unique to that culture. This awareness and understanding of differences between people prepares children to reserve judgment when they see someone respond "inappropriately" to a situation.

Bilingual children not only better appreciate what is human versus what is cultural, but they are also more inclined to have a deeper appreciation of language. They understand at an early age that their is more than one way to label or discuss something. They understand that different labels for the same object or idea in different languages can have different connotations. They are more likely to see the creative possibilities of language and explore their own linguistic creativity.


3.  Do I know enough of my second and non-native language to try and teach it to my children?

Perhaps the most damaging bilingual parenting myth, which prevents many qualified parents from thinking they are qualified to raise bilingual children, is the myth that you should be a native speaker of a language to teach that language effectively to your children. You do not have to be a native speaker of a foreign language to teach that language to your children. Nor do you have to be living in a country where that language is spoken to teach it to your children. Although very few parents attempt to teach their non-native language to their children, it has been done successfully. And near native fluency is not a requirement. In George Saunder's book, Bilingual Children: From Birth to Teens, Saunders reports in detail of one case of infant bilingualism where the second language taught by the parents was native to neither parent, and in fact the parents were rated by the Foreign Service Institute as intermediate speakers of their second language:

"Reports on cases of infant bilingualism where one of the languages acquired by the child is not the native language of either parent, nor the dominant language of the community, are rare; apart from his [Saunders'] own research, only three are known to this writer: Past, Dimitrijevic and Stephens. Past reports on his daughter Mariana's acquisition of English and Spanish in Texas. Both he and his wife are native English speakers of English, and both also speak Spanish, although far from perfectly. On a Foreign Service Institute type language proficiency test, where a score of 0 represents a complete lack of communicative ability and a score of 5 indicates the ability of an educated native speaker, Past and his wife scored 2+ and 3+ respectively. The Past family's situation differs in several ways from the present study, the principal difference being that the parents attempted to spend 60-90 minutes a day talking only Spanish to each other and to their daughter. That is, in the home there was no clear division of language according to interlocutor. Instead, Mariana was encouraged to speak Spanish, and not English, to both parents at certain times of the day. To increase her exposure to spoken Spanish, her parents encouraged her to watch bilingual television programs, gave her opportunities to play with Spanish-speaking children, and at age 5;0 enrolled her in a bilingual kindergarten. As another means of exposing Mariana to native quality Spanish, her parents began to teach her to read the language, along with English, when she was only 1 year 11 months old and just learning to speak. And what were the results of this experiment? Although Mariana preferred to speak English whenever she had a choice, and although her speech was not as rapid in Spanish as in English and she occasionally had to grope for a Spanish expression, she could communicate well in Spanish if she wanted to. The Oral Language Dominance Measure administered at the start of school showed her English to be only slightly superior to her Spanish and she rated as a balanced bilingual capable of receiving instruction in either language. Her reading ability was assessed as a second grade level in both languages. . . . Her experience with speaking and reading the two languages resulted in practically no confusion and she enjoyed normal relations with her peers. " (33)


4.  If I want to teach my children my second language, how can I compensate for my non-native language abilities and help my children learn beyond my abilities?

Try to increase your child's exposure to the second language as much as you can. Form a playgroup with other children who speak the foreign language. Make an effort to learn songs that you can sing to your child at night. Acquire a library of books you can read to your children. Play children's song tapes in the car. Find videos in the foreign language for your children. Use a dictionary to look up a few words each day that you do not know. Review the grammar books. Read books and magazines to yourself for at least a few minutes a day; keep a dictionary nearby to look up unfamiliar words you find in your reading. Play games with your children. Give yourself lots of encouragement and praise; do not get discouraged just because you find yourself fumbling for expressions and vocabulary.


5. If neither my spouse nor I speak a second language, how can we help our child become bilingual?

Many parents who do not speak a foreign language still manage to expose their children to a foreign language. You can hire a nanny who speaks a foreign language to help you with raising your children. You could cooperate with another mother in your neighborhood who speaks another language, arranging to trade off babysitting regularly. Your could enroll your child in a bilingual pre-school or even elementary school. Some public schools are even experimenting with foreign language education programs for children of monolingual parents who speak the dominant language of the community. Canadian schools are responsible for some of the most successful programs of this genre. But even the Alpine School District in Orem, UT boasts a very successful program. Children of monolingual English speaking parents who have completed this program can go on to learn a third language in high school, passing the AP test in two languages upon high school graduation.

You could also start learning a foreign language with your child. Enroll in a foreign language class and share what you learn with your infant or young children.

Interactive multimedia software programs are available that could enhance your child's second language learning. An increasing number of developers of educational foreign language tools are creating tools for younger children, including games, books, toys, etc.

In A Parents' and Teachers' Guide to Bilingualism, Colin Baker offers an important caution to monolingual parents to want to encourage their children to learn a foreign language:

"The dangerous conclusion would be that the first language should be learned in the home and the second language can be acquired outside the home. This is a false and dangerous position because parents' attitudes, encouragement and interest are vital in a child's second language development. Gentle inquiries about the child's second language development may indicate to the child that the parent is positively interested. Praising the child when they hear the child speaking the second language may do wonders for the child's language ego. "(24)

Baker continues by adding that although it is vital that the parent show they are interested and supportive of the child's foreign language development that "there is a danger in allowing interest to become concern, and enthusiasm to boil over to anxiety" (24). This caution applies to all parents encouraging their child use more than one language. Once the rules of the game of language learning become too restrictive and penalties too severe, the child is no longer creatively exploring learning and is likely to assume the defensive position in what may be developing into a war. Parents may win some battles, but they cannot win the war, since the cooperation of their opponent depends on it.


6. What disadvantages do bilingual children have?

Although much evidence suggests that bilingual children are not intellectually disadvantaged from their monolingual peers, it is possible for bilingual children to not develop adequately enough either of the two languages they are learning to be able to be an effective student at school in either language. This is most likely to happen in a scenario where the child doesn't have enough exposure to their preferred language (probably the dominant language of the community) since his or her parents do not use and may not know that language, and the child resists speaking the language that is spoken at home. It is avoidable. A very thorough discussion of this question is discussed in Colin Baker's A Parents' and Teachers' Guide to Bilingualism.


7. How interactive does language exposure have to be in order for my child to develop use of that language?

If you set your infant in front of a t.v. screen which is broadcasting in Spanish, or play Spanish cassette tapes continually in your home, your infant will not learn to speak or even understand Spanish. This passive language exposure will stimulate the child to a degree, possibly increasing their ability to learn Spanish or another foreign language during a formal study of that language later on; however, in order to actually learn to communicate in a language, children must interact in that language. The more they interact the more they learn. A child that hears his or her mother speak German to him or her, but who refuses to return communication in German will not progress as well in German as the child who is exposed to the same amount of language from his or her mother, but willingly returns conversation in German. In order to maximize your child's ability to communicate in a language, you need to find as many creative ways as you can to get them to use the language interactively. Encourage your children to be active listeners by asking questions as you read a story to them or even when you are playing with them. Encourage them to verbalize their feelings, their opinions, their interests, etc


8. Isn't it unnatural to try and use a non-native language as the primary communication with your children?

The less familiar you are with your second language, the more unnatural it is likely to feel to use that language in any situation, including with your children. Truthfully, speaking from experience, when I first tried to speak a foreign language to my child, it felt unnatural. But that feeling does not last. I decided to speak French to my son as soon as he was born. I felt awkward and uncomfortable much of the time. But I kept trying and after several months that feeling of discomfort went away completely. I unapologetically still use the dictionary to look up many unfamiliar words and I still make the grammar mistakes non-natives are susceptible to make, but it now feels perfectly normal to speak French with my son. In fact, it is my inclination to address other people's infants in French. When I'm speaking to young children, words often seem to surface in my mind first in French, especially those familiar phrases I use frequently with my own son. It will, of course, take more effort to raise a child in a language which you do not speak natively. It might help if you take the time to memorize nursery rhymes, childrens'songs and lullabies.


9. Will my children pick up my mistakes and is that a problem?

If you do not speak a language perfectly, it is important that you are not the only model of that language for the child. Playgroups with other children, books, television programs, songs, other adults who speak that language can all be sources for your child. It is not necessary for you to have perfect pronunciation and perfect grammar and a complete vocabulary, but it is necessary for you to have a certain level of competence in the language. Even if your language skills need improvement, if you are determined to give your children a bilingual experience, you should be able to reach beyond your present language level by studying further the language.     Many non-natives are too critical of their mistakes in the foreign language. Ask several native speakers of that language their opinion of your ability to communicate effectively in their language. Do not be discouraged if you conclude you do not know the language well enough. You may be able to learn it well enough to stay ahead of your infant or very young children. You do not have to have a command of sophisticated adult conversation to communicate with a very young child competently. You may also be able to establish a practice in the home of using the language for only several hours a day, when you can carefully control the language environment for that period of time. You can make a couple of hours a day a language study time, where you work on learning the language through song, games, reading, writing, etc.

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