By Violeta Garcia-Mendoza
I usually don’t notice our bilingual kids’ difference in language development until we leave the house. At home, even without words, their Spanish-American mami and American daddy can usually anticipate their needs and wants; the words we use vary, sometimes English, sometimes Spanish, but we’re a happy, noisy bunch.
But when we go out for a walk, or to a playdate, or on an errand, we all get a little more anxious. I notice other children my kids’ ages talking more and have to field questions from people. The worst of which is: (delivered in politely veiled judgement) “Don’t they talk?” I really should answer “They do, but not to you” (after all, mostly these people are strangers), but I haven’t yet learned how to pull off an exotic don’t-approach-me vibe. Instead, I nervously over-explain. I tell them how and why my husband and I are raising our children bilingually, how they’ve heard both languages since birth from a variety of different mouths. And then, after I explain, the next question is usually, “But isn’t that confusing?” Thankfully, the kids usually interrupt at this point by needing something (urgently!)
Long term, the answer to this question is no. But, as much as it sends me spinning into self-doubt and mami guilt, short term the answer is yes. It’s hard work to learn a language in the first place, and more so when you’re learning two as a simultaneous bilingual. Your child needs to sort out vocabulary and grammar rules in two languages, and figure out who speaks what language when. And there’s the social reinforcement thing, too. At home, it’s easier, mami and daddy understand whatever language they choose to speak in. But outside, when they exuberantly yell “Ardilla!” or “Avión!” and they’re met with puzzled stares from monolingual friends and neighbors, they learn to stay quieter until they have a better grasp on everything.
Right now, my husband and I are really in the trenches of language development with our three kids. Our older son and daughter are two and a half, and are younger daughter is 15 months. Just enough experience, then, to have gained a bit of wisdom which I offer you here and now. With these tips, raising a bilingual child can go from simply confusing (in the perplexing, overwhelming way) to complicated in an intricate, beautiful, identity-affirming way.
- Read up on approaches. As headache-inducing as it can be, it really does help to read up on various approaches to raising a bilingual child. Whether it’ll work best to assign each language to one parent, location, day of the week, etc., depends on your personal situation (most of the books include flow charts to help you sort it all out). It’s also good to research if you want to try a combination approach, and in years to come, as your circumstances change and child’s needs change.
- Be consistent. One you have a plan, try your best to stick to it consistently. The routine, and the lack of stress it will create, will help your child gain confidence in both of his languages.
- Have patience. No matter with what fervor you approach the task, it’s unlikely that your child’s language development is going to look the same as his same-age peers while he’s still little. He might understand more words, but speak fewer. He might be quieter outside the house. He might mix up grammar rules much more. Whatever the case, try to take a deep breath and keep in mind that the bigger disparities in language development even out as your child gets older.
- Ground your child’s languages in experience. In order to raise your child to be truly bilingual, try to aim for them to have the same or at least very similar experiences and opportunities in both languages. This will help keep his vocabulary grounded in his day-to-day life (making it much easier to remember) and also help him see how both languages are relevant.
- Stay motivated. Raising a bilingual child is hard work. To stay motivated, find ways to remind yourself why it’s important that your child grow up bilingual. Depending on your situation, it might be important for your child to be able to communicate with extended family, develop a strong cultural identity, or be more appealing in an increasingly global job market. Find ways to reward yourself, and your child, too, for your accomplishments. Planning fun activities like a trip, a special dinner out in an authentic restaurant, or a visit to a children’s international festival nearby can provide opportunities for you and your child to realize how your hard work is paying off.
Violeta Garcia-Mendoza is a Spanish-American poet, writer, and teacher. Her work has appeared in a variety of literary venues, including Literary Mama, MultiLingual Living, Mamazine, Tattoo Highway, The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Cicada, Soleado, and the anthology The Maternal is Political: Women Writers at the Intersection of Motherhood and Social Change (Seal Press, 2008). Her website is Turn People Purple and her blog is Multi-Culti Mami. Violeta lives in Pennsylvania with her husband, their son and two daughters, all adopted as infants from Guatemala, and their two incorrigible dogs.