Look Inside: MAXIMIZE YOUR CHILD'S BILINGUAL ABILITY

Guest Posts

What advice do others have about promoting the language and literacy development of bilingual children? Find out in these guest posts!

ADAM’S NOTE: Ever feel shy or uncomfortable about speaking the minority language in a majority language setting? In this guest post, Sam Zerin writes eloquently about this emotional challenge and offers some very helpful suggestions. It’s an important post that I think will speak to many parents and I urge you to read it and share it with others. Thank you for writing it, Sam.

Sam and his son

Sam and his son in the Jerusalem Botanical Gardens, Spring 2016

Sam Zerin is a musicologist and amateur language enthusiast, currently living in the U.S. state of Rhode Island with his wife, toddler, and two adorable bilingual cats. He is raising his son in Yiddish, a language that runs deep in his family history, though he himself only learned it as an adult. You can follow his adventures of raising his son in a non-native language on his blog (at tate-loshn.weebly.com) and on Facebook (at facebook.com/tateloshn).

Like many American Jews of the past few generations, my mother’s parents spoke Yiddish when they didn’t want the kids to know what they were talking about. They wanted their kids to assimilate and become full-fledged Americans, and that meant speaking English, not Yiddish: that so-called “dying” language that symbolized Jewish life in the Old World, before Hitler came along and destroyed it all. And so, my mother, like so many other American Jews, never learned her parents’ native language. Of course, it’s ironic that now I’m speaking Yiddish—and only Yiddish—with my own child, specifically so that he’ll learn and use the language. It’s also an ironic twist of history that when I speak Yiddish with my son, it’s my parents who don’t understand.

Reversing History: Raising My Son in a “Dying” Language

I’ll be honest: I enjoy the irony. It’s a positive reversal—some might say an antidote—to the modern course of Jewish history. Instead of allowing Yiddish to die, by refusing to give it to the next generation, I’m bolstering it and giving it a future. Instead of memorializing it as a nostalgic relic of the forever-gone Old World, I’m embracing it as an essential part of my modern, daily life right here in the New World. Instead of casting it aside in favor of English, in order to assimilate and become “more American,” I’m equally valuing both halves of my “Jewish-American” identity. Instead of defining monolingualism as an essential element of national pride and identity—whether English for Americans or Hebrew for Zionists—I am celebrating multilingualism as a hugely important Jewish, Zionist, and American value.

And you know, I get a lot of compliments for it. Sometimes people think it’s really cool. Others get nostalgic and tell me how they always wished their parents had spoken Yiddish with them, but alas, they hadn’t. The guy who installed our home alarm system told me my son is going to be a genius someday, because I’m raising him bilingually. At our synagogue’s barbecue for new members last weekend, somebody asked if I’d consider teaching a Yiddish class—she thinks it’d be really popular. It’s nice to be met by such positivity.

Is the Yiddish Language Doomed?

An article in the March 23, 1928 edition of The Jewish Transcript. The Yiddish novelist Isaac Bashevis Singer famously quipped: “The Yiddish language has been dying for a thousand years, and I’m sure it will go on dying for at least a thousand more.”

The Challenges of Raising My Son In A Language That My Family Doesn’t Know

But I’ll be honest: the fact that I’m raising my son in a language that none of my parents, siblings, in-laws, aunts, uncles, cousins, neighbors, or babysitters speak or understand can sometimes be uncomfortable, too. For example, when my son and I are hanging out with my parents, and my parents speak to him in English, I understand what they’re saying—but then when I speak to my son in Yiddish, it unintentionally excludes them. Mealtime conversations are particularly hard, because I want to continue interacting with my son in Yiddish, but at the same time, I want the conversations to include everyone at the table. And it’s not just about being inclusive or exclusive; I don’t want it to feel like I’m hiding secrets from people, or like I’m talking about them in a language that they can’t understand. That can be very uncomfortable when I’m at the playground with my son, for instance, and he’s interacting (or I want him to interact) with other children who are there. Sometimes I point at another child and say to my kid in Yiddish: “Do you want to say hello to them?” or “Look, so-and-so is going down the slide! Weee!” or “Hey, look, those kids want to play with you!” And if those other kids’ parents don’t understand Yiddish, will they worry what this stranger is saying about their children?

Besides all that, I want people to know what I’m saying to my son, because that’s how relationships develop, and that’s also how positive memories form. Birthday parties can be awkward, for example, when everyone laughs and smiles and sings the birthday song in English, and then I sing the Yiddish birthday song and the entire room falls silent. Of course, there’s also the “weirdo” factor, especially in a place like the United States where multilingualism is generally viewed in a negative light (even while it’s celebrated as an academic resumé builder). It sometimes feels like I don’t belong when I’m speaking a language that even my own family and friends don’t understand, and when I’m out in public there are xenophobes to worry about. That’s all really uncomfortable.

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Annick De HouwerA few weeks ago I shared two excellent books on early child bilingualism in the post Recommended Resources: Books on Bilingual Acquisition by Prominent Researcher Annick De Houwer. Along with my impressions of these books, the post included an insightful interview with Dr. De Houwer and a book giveaway, which generated a number of questions from this audience.

Dr. De Houwer, a professor of Language Acquisition and Multilingualism at the University of Erfurt in Germany, generously offered to respond to some of these questions (and expressed regret at not being able to respond to everyone). On behalf of us all at Bilingual Monkeys and The Bilingual Zoo, let me thank Dr. De Houwer for her helpful thoughts today, and more broadly, for the important work she has long pursued to shed brighter light on child bilingualism. The world’s bilingual families are very grateful!

Question from Elodie in Germany: Can bilingualism not happen, even if the parents do everything that can be done? Can children resist that much that it will never work?

Question from Lainy in the U.S.: I’d like to know some strategies to get my children to produce the second language. They understand the spoken language very well, but they are hesitant to speak it.

Question from Stephanie in Japan: What I really want to know is how best to divert the child back into speaking the target language when s/he responds in the “wrong” language. Currently we ask our daughter “How do you say that in English?” Or we say “Please speak to Mama in English”. But I’ve heard from several friends in child development that children can’t actively distinguish between languages until age 4, so I am a bit confused as to whether that’s true (in which case I should just tell her the word in English?) or if that’s not true and I should continue as we have been doing.

Response from Dr. De Houwer: Indeed, children can strongly resist speaking a particular language, Elodie. In the preschool years there certainly are strategies that you can use to counter this. Using the names of languages, Stephanie, will not be particularly helpful, though. If very young children are not using the language you want them to speak, you can do various things to try to get them to change. You can ask: Oh, did you mean so-and-so, where ‘so-and-so’ is the word or phrase in the language you want them to speak. If they say yes, then ask them to repeat what they meant, so you can properly understand them. Or you could say: I really don’t understand that word very well, can you say it differently? (That’s if you think children know the word in the ‘right’ language.) You can try this for a few weeks and often this will be enough to switch very young children over to the ‘right’ language but sometimes that doesn’t happen. Then you could bring a cute hand puppet into the house and tell your child that this puppet only understands Polish, or Spanish, or whatever language you want them to speak. And then…it’s time for your talents as a puppeteer to develop! Play games with your child and the puppet, so that your child gets into the habit of using the right language.

Now with older children I’m afraid it’s nearly impossible to change ingrained habits of using language X with a parent who speaks language Y to them, but it is worth talking to them about it and explaining that you understand that they don’t feel good talking a language they have little fluency in, but that it’s really important to you that they speak your language. Educate your school aged children about your language, and show them (online perhaps?) children who speak it. Try to increase their motivation to speak it, and put them in circumstances where in order to say anything they must use it, because the person they’re talking to doesn’t know another language they know.

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This article continues a series of guest posts at Bilingual Monkeys called “Bilingual Travelers.” What sort of impact does travel to a location where the minority language is spoken widely have on a child’s bilingual development and bicultural upbringing? In this series we join other families as they make trips to destinations around the world and report back on their experiences.

If you’d like to contribute an article to the “Bilingual Travelers” series—or the series Thank You Letter From a Bilingual Child—please contact me to express your interest in guest posting at Bilingual Monkeys.

Christine Gilbert is a writer, photographer, and documentary filmmaker. She writes the popular blog almostfearless.com, which chronicles her journey from a software project manager living in Boston to full-time traveler, writer, and creative—all while traveling around the world with her growing family. In 2014, they were named National Geographic Travelers of the Year. Christine and her family are currently living in Oaxaca, Mexico, and expecting a third child. She is the author of the new book about her family’s adventures, MOTHER TONGUE.

Author Christine Gilbert and friends

When we moved to Mexico in 2012, I was seven months pregnant, and just coming off a long stretch of travel that included learning Mandarin in Beijing and Arabic in Beirut. My husband and I were beyond excited to have some comforts of home as we prepared for the birth of our second child. The experience would later make its way into my book Mother Tongue, but at the time we were still trying to figure out what languages to raise our child with—should it be Mandarin for business, Arabic for politics, or Spanish for practical reasons?

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This article continues a series of guest posts at Bilingual Monkeys called “Bilingual Travelers.” What sort of impact does travel to a location where the minority language is spoken widely have on a child’s bilingual development and bicultural upbringing? In this series we join other families as they make trips to destinations around the world and report back on their experiences.

If you’d like to contribute an article to the “Bilingual Travelers” series—or the series Thank You Letter From a Bilingual Child—please contact me to express your interest in guest posting at Bilingual Monkeys.

Jonathan “Fish” Fisher is a teacher at Hiroshima Jogakuin Junior and Senior High Schools and at STEPS English Conversation School in Hiroshima Prefecture, Japan. He is the father of a very strong willed, very energetic 2-year-old boy, Oliver. His partner, Yuco, is pregnant with their second child, due in May 2016. When Fish is not daydreaming about his native North Carolina, he is thinking about various human rights struggles and social justice issues and how to include such topics in his lessons about English. This blog post is about a trip Fish took with his family for one week in November 2015.

My family at my sister’s wedding.

My family at my sister’s wedding. (That’s us on the left.) Photo courtesy of JameyKay and Arlie Photography https://jameykay.smugmug.com.

Making a home in Japan

My son, Oliver, was born in a suburb of Hiroshima, Japan in the fall of 2013 while I was still busy wrapping up my masters degree at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada. When my partner, Yuco, and I got married earlier that year, the plan had always been to start our lives together in Vancouver, a kind of symbolic halfway point between her hometown in Japan and mine in North Carolina in the southeastern United States. But with my son’s birth, plans changed. I found work at a small English conversation school in the Japanese community where Yuco and I had first met, and we traded the adventure of Vancouver for the stability of my partner’s hometown, where we could rely on her family for childcare as we all got down to the details of a bilingual marriage and bilingual parenthood.

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My three children and I at Trocadero in front of the Eiffel Tower

My three children and I at Trocadero in front of the Eiffel Tower

This article continues a series of guest posts at Bilingual Monkeys called “Bilingual Travelers.” What sort of impact does travel to a location where the minority language is spoken widely have on a child’s bilingual development and bicultural upbringing? In this series we join other families as they make trips to destinations around the world and report back on their experiences.

If you’d like to contribute an article to the “Bilingual Travelers” series—or the series Thank You Letter From a Bilingual Child—please contact me to express your interest in guest posting at Bilingual Monkeys.

Michele Cherie is an intentional wife, mama, and non-native French speaker raising her three children in French. She lives in the U.S. state of Oregon with her husband, kindergarten-age daughter, toddler son, and baby boy; they’ve just returned from three months in France. She writes at IntentionalMama.com about making purposeful choices for a culturally-rich, peacefully paced family life—with a French twist.

Here in Oregon we have just a handful of French-speaking friends, so my husband and I planned a trip to France this past summer so our children could be immersed in the language and make some French friends. We initially planned to stay for six weeks because my husband gets a six-week stretch of summer vacation each year. However, while reading Be Bilingual by Annika Bourgogne, I got the idea that the children and I could stay a month or so longer so that they could attend a few weeks of school in France. My husband was on board with this idea, but it still took a leap of faith for us to purchase the plane tickets allowing me to stay in France five weeks longer with our three young children to care for while my husband returned to the U.S.

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Battling the Majority Language Giant (While Feeling Like a Minority Language Gnome)

By Ana Paula G. Mumy, MS, CCC-SLP

When I found out I was pregnant with my first child, as any parent, I did so many things to prepare for our daughter’s arrival, but as a bilingual mom-to-be, I conscientiously prepared for being the primary Portuguese speaker in her life. Even with all of the preparation of reading blogs and books about bilingual parenting, building a library of children’s storybooks in Portuguese, and relearning children’s songs from my childhood, I naively thought it would be easier, that as long as I spoke only Portuguese to my children from birth, they would easily become Portuguese speakers and would naturally choose Portuguese as our language of interaction.

When my son arrived about 1.5 years later, I excitedly thought to myself, “Yay, we’ll have another Portuguese speaker in our home!” The unfortunate reality is that even in the midst of my efforts to keep Portuguese central and constant in our lives, they still favor English, which is my husband’s and our community language. What’s even more bewildering is that for my daughter, who’s older and has more advanced language skills, if I ask her if she’s able to say in Portuguese the English utterance she just made, she can do it most times without any difficulty. So I’m left with the puzzling question, if she clearly has the Portuguese language base, why didn’t she choose Portuguese in the first place when I’m speaking to her in Portuguese?

I never imagined that the majority language giant would be so large, so difficult to overcome. I didn’t realize my competition with him would be so fierce, so constant, so exasperating. Many days I feel like a little insignificant gnome trying to guard this minority language treasure that I hold. The majority language giant is everywhere I look…in all public places we roam—the library, the playground, the grocery store, the mall, play dates with friends, church, the skating rink…simply everywhere! This giant is so present, so powerful that he even attempts to take over in our home on television, on the iPad, on the radio, in storybooks. So here I am, this tiny minority language gnome always seemingly on the losing end; the odds constantly against me in this intense competition for relevance, input, and need. And to make matters worse, I confront the quandary that the majority language giant is equally needful…such a love-hate relationship exists with this giant!

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Speech-Language Pathologist Tells All About Bilingualism, Speech, and Language Delays

The question I am asked most often when talking about raising my children bilingually is, “But won’t that confuse them?” Often times I believe the hidden or unspoken question behind this query is, “Won’t they be delayed if you do that?”

The first thing I want to address as a speech-language specialist is that there is no research-based evidence that bilingualism causes language disorders. Again and again the research demonstrates no negative effects of bilingualism, even for children with known language impairments, such as children with Down Syndrome and Autism Spectrum Disorder, for example. It has been shown that children with language impairments are capable of learning two languages. The impairment will be evident in both languages, but it will not be made worse or become more severe because of the bilingualism. In other words, the exposure to two languages is not adding to the language impairment, and the language impairment would likely have been present even if the child was monolingual. Yet another way of explaining this is that bilingualism does not make children more or less susceptible to language disorders.

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German flag lollipop

German flag lollipop!

This article continues a series of guest posts at Bilingual Monkeys called “Bilingual Travelers.” What sort of impact does travel to a location where the minority language is spoken widely have on a child’s bilingual development and bicultural upbringing? In this series we join other families as they make trips to destinations around the world and report back on their experiences.

If you’d like to contribute an article to the “Bilingual Travelers” series—or the series Thank You Letter From a Bilingual Child—please contact me to express your interest in guest posting at Bilingual Monkeys.

Mayken Brünings, originally from Germany, now resides with her French husband on the outskirts of Paris where they have a direct view of the Eiffel Tower.

Mayken has a four-year-old daughter who is being raised in German and French. She is trilingual in German, French, and English and juggles a full-time office job, writing children’s books, and competitive swimming while serving as generally the sole source of the minority language. She is very grateful for the existence of grandparents and the invention of Skype.

My family’s bilingual situation is comparatively “easy”: We live in Paris, only a few hours by car or train from Germany, and there is even a direct flight to my hometown where most of my family still live. (I won’t tell you about the size of the plane, though.) As a result, so far we’ve managed to organise several trips to the minority country each year.

Every Christmas we make the 12-hour car trip to stay for a week at my mother’s (Oma). Our daughter celebrates Christmas with a real tree with real candles and delights in the treasures of our local Christmas market.

Once or twice in the last two years, I’ve taken my girl on a mother-daughter trip to see Oma for a few days, by train or by plane. We usually come back loaded with German books and CDs and other goodies.

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Traveling by ferry from France to Ireland

Traveling by ferry from France to Ireland

This article continues a series of guest posts at Bilingual Monkeys called “Bilingual Travelers.” What sort of impact does travel to a location where the minority language is spoken widely have on a child’s bilingual development and bicultural upbringing? In this series we join other families as they make trips to destinations around the world and report back on their experiences.

If you’d like to contribute an article to the “Bilingual Travelers” series—or the series Thank You Letter From a Bilingual Child—please contact me to express your interest in guest posting at Bilingual Monkeys.

Peter Martin, originally from Dublin, Ireland, now lives in France with his French wife and their three children: two daughters, 7 and 5, and a son, 2. The children are being raised in French and English.

Peter runs his own business, Globeclic, which designs and localizes websites and pursues other digital projects for international markets.

Like other parents raising bilingual children, I want to expose my kids to the culture of the minority language as much as possible. So when the opportunity arose to travel back to Ireland for ten days this summer to see family and friends, I was quite excited. I know France and Ireland aren’t exactly a million miles apart, but it’s not so easy to get back there, even for a brief stay, when I have to find a time that’s good for everyone and juggle job commitments on top of that.

Since my first daughter was born, seven years ago, I’ve been experiencing the immense joy and privilege of living life as a bilingual family. It hasn’t been easy, though. Because, selfishly, I had to learn French to help me find employment, just when my daughter was born, I had to use both languages and she was conscious of the fact that Daddy was gaining ability in the majority language, too. But it’s encouraging to see that, with each new day, my kids are absorbing and using new English words.

Having three children means that I can see how they adapt to the two languages in their own personal way. On one hand, returning to Ireland for a visit is always a litmus test for my children to see how well their minority language is progressing. On the other hand, it enables me to see how well I’m doing as a mentor for their bilingual journey.

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Bilingual Travelers: Spring in Hungary Brings Blooming Language Ability

This article starts a new series of guest posts at Bilingual Monkeys called “Bilingual Travelers.” What sort of impact does travel to a location where the minority language is spoken widely have on a child’s bilingual development and bicultural upbringing? In this series we’ll join other families as they make trips to destinations around the world and report back on their experiences.

If you’d like to contribute an article to the “Bilingual Travelers” series—or the series Thank You Letter From a Bilingual Child—please contact me to express your interest in guest posting at Bilingual Monkeys.

Nellie Robertson, originally from Hungary, now resides with her American husband in rural Missouri, located in the U.S. heartland. (In fact, she lives just 30 minutes by car from my hometown of Quincy, Illinois!)

Nellie has two children, a girl, 5, and a boy, (nearly) 3, who are being raised in English and Hungarian. (For this article, they will be known by the names Blair and Eddie.) She is multilingual, and works as a translator, though her location—where no other speakers of Hungarian are present and resources are scarce—has made handing down her mother tongue a sizable challenge.

“If we don’t count afternoon naps,” announced Blair, jumping out of bed before 6 a.m. as usual, “we only have to sleep four more times before we go to Mama and Papa’s!” We would soon be traveling across the ocean to stay for a month, and I shared her excitement fully while trying not to think about how much I hated packing.

It had only been about a year since our last visit to Hungary, but the decision to go again was made partly because of the boost we all hoped this would give to the kids’ ability in Hungarian. On the last trip, Eddie was not quite a year and a half and was just beginning to put words together. Half the time no one could tell which language he was trying to speak. Once we were back in the United States, my typical toddler often ignored what I asked him to do in both languages—and since I had better luck using English, our majority language, by the end of this year we had reached the point where I was hardly using Hungarian at all, even with my 5-year-old daughter.

Optimism, hope, and…embarrassment

I had gone through a similar phase of using mostly English with Blair, but trips to Hungary had always brought miraculous improvement, so I was eager for Eddie to make the same kind of progress. While Daddy was back home in America, I envisioned the three of us talking in Hungarian all day; I imagined them reciting nursery rhymes in both languages; and I looked forward to them arguing over toys in Hungarian for a change.

By the time everything was packed, I was so full of optimism and hope that I said “yes” when my barely 2.5-year-old son, not quite potty trained, asked if he could wear underwear instead of diapers for the 24-hour trip. Only one thing cast a shadow on my excitement: embarrassment.

From our regular Skype video chats with my parents (known as “Mama” and “Papa”), I knew Blair was capable of carrying on a conversation in Hungarian, even though her Hungarian vocabulary was lagging behind her English. But Eddie, unlike his sister, has rarely shown the burning desire to share something, to communicate, so he would mostly just listen. I knew my parents would never fault me for anything, but it still made me sad to think how they wouldn’t understand the things he did try to say, how any emotion expressed in words would be hard to interpret for them quickly enough.

And what about the rest of my family and the friends we would be meeting? I would have to be right there to interpret, and explain how on earth I could have failed to teach the kids my own native language, why their mother tongue is really their father’s.

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As parents of bilingual children, it can be difficult to find perspective in our current struggles. Will my firm actions today really bring about a successful result tomorrow? Will my kids finally appreciate my efforts, though they now seem so defiant and ungrateful at times?

This feature series, “Thank You Letter from a Bilingual Child,” attempts to provide some helpful perspective on these concerns by offering the thoughts of bilingual adults reflecting on their upbringing as bilingual children.

If you’re a bilingual adult and would like to contribute to this series by writing a thank you letter to your parents or another loved one, just contact me to express your interest in guest posting at Bilingual Monkeys.

Olga as a budding bilingual child.

Olga as a budding bilingual child.

Olga Mecking is Polish and lives in the Netherlands with her German husband. Born to multilingual parents, she was raised in Polish and German. Now a mother of three, ages 4, 3, and 1, she is raising her children in Polish, German, and Dutch, the next proud multilingual generation in her family. Meanwhile, Olga also maintains a lively blog called The European Mama, where you’ll find a variety of posts, including an interview with me and, more importantly, some mouth-watering recipes.

Dear Parents,

You were right. You were absolutely right in your decision to raise me with more than one language.

I was three years old when we moved to Germany. I learned to speak German so quickly that people wondered: “Why does that child speak perfect German and her parents have a heavy Slavic accent?”

But who cares about an accent when you can communicate just fine with your son-in-law and your three grandchildren?

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