Raising children in the 21st century is a harrowing task. The media and internet bombard parents with reality TV shows, books about parenting styles, Tweets on trends, blogs with never ending lists of dos and don’ts on how to raise children. Add having your children in a foreign country to the mix and things will never, ever be boring. Parents living in a country where their native language is not spoken will undoubtedly ask themselves whether or not to teach their children their native language. The myth that teaching children more than one language before entering school is harmful still exists in some monolingual countries but fortunately today there is plenty of research showing that speaking more than one language is beneficial, not to mention the fact that the globalized world we live in needs citizens who speak more than one language.
But, you may ask, how do you go about raising a bilingual child? First, make sure that parents and parental figures that spend the most time with the child or children are all on the same page. The role of family and community is essential in language development. Depending on which language you are teaching your children and what languages are spoken in the country where you live, finding support in your larger community in the form of clubs, schools or religious communities is a great way to start. Larger cities will usually have more cosmopolitan populations but small towns, like Mexico’s San Miguel de Allende, can prove to be the setting for bilingual and bicultural communities.
Secondly, do your homework. What are your motivations for teaching your children your language or whichever language you are choosing? Why is it important to you? Once you have answered that question you’ll be glad to know that learning more than one language is very good for your health. There is a link between neuroplasticity and language acquisition. Neuroplasticity allows the brain to, among other things, create more gray matter. Which basically means that if you continue to challenge your brain through learning new things, like another language, you are essentially making it stronger and more resistant to illness, even delaying the onset of Alzheimer’s. And with bilinguals aging better than their monolingual counterparts, not only is it a great idea to teach your children to speak your native language but to also to learn other languages as well.
Finally, no parenting blog post would be complete without a list of tips. These are things that I have learned from raising bilingual children who are at different developmental stages.
- Exposure: when learning anything, from how to fix a car to dancing salsa, you need to be exposed to it, and it is no different with language. The predominant language where you live will be the easiest to come by, so it is the second language that you need to expose your children to in a more rigorous manner. A good way to do this, apart from speaking in that language as much as you possibly can, is to expose children to the language through television, movies, books, videos and music. My twelve-year-old son used to watch the same Barney DVD over and over, always in English and I always had to accompany the second viewing with a glass of wine. Thankfully, Netflix has come along to save my younger children from their mother becoming an alcoholic and my two-year old can watch a diverse selection of Barney episodes. A Netflix caveat: if you want your child to watch a children’s show in English, you may have to use adult account settings, since for some strange reason only known to Netflix, children’s accounts will not play in English if the account is not set up in an English speaking country.
- Repetition: this is actually the golden rule of parenting, any parent can tell you that they repeat themselves constantly, remember your parents asking you “how many times have I told you to…?” When we are learning something new, we need to repeat it and where language is concerned, we can’t repeat ourselves enough.
- Community: if you are lucky enough to live close to other expat families, take advantage of this and get your kids together with them for playdates as much as you can. Get out there and show your children that other families are doing the same thing as you and that there are other kids who speak more than one language as well. This is particularly helpful in communities that are more insular, enrolling your kids in a bilingual school, though not elemental in raising bilingual children, provides a community of like-minded individuals who want their offspring to speak another language as well.
- Travel: with small kids and the current economic climate, this might not be an easy or accessible option, but traveling to a country where people speak the language you are teaching your kids is a great way to get them to practice and learn. If international travel is out of the question, look for communities in the country where you live where that language is spoken and take a staycation.
When I was growing up in New York state, I knew a lot of kids whose grandparents spoke other languages but I didn’t know a lot of kids whose parents spoke more than one language. My mother told me that she and my father tried raising me as a multilingual child, since each of them spoke English as a second language. But at some point, pretty early on in my language development, my father stopped speaking to me in Ukrainian and only spoke to me in English. My mother, on the other hand, took the term “mother tongue” very much to heart and spoke to and my younger brother in Spanish most of the time. I now wish my dad had made an effort to teach us Ukrainian. That is why I encourage my children to not just speak English and Spanish but to learn other languages as well. So far we have gone on a Japanese learning spree with Studio Ghibli films (with the audio always set in Japanese), as well as picking up some German with the adorable blue bunny Kikaninchen and friends Junalo. So have some fun, learn new things with the children in your life and let me know how it’s going.