Note: Be sure to read the many comments below this post. And feel free to share your own thoughts, too.
There are a range of well-known benefits for a child, a family, and even the world at large when a child is raised with more than one language. A few of these valuable benefits include:
- cognitive benefits, from childhood to old age
- social benefits, including closer communication with extended family members
- educational and professional benefits
- benefits for the world, when bilingual ability leads to bridge-building between cultures
At the same time, I think it’s worth drawing attention to the fact that raising a bilingual child—at least for the vast majority of parents—requires sizable sacrifices, too. And these sacrifices generally grow in proportion to the scale of a parent’s aim: if the goal is native-like proficiency in the minority language, including strong reading and writing ability—and yet schooling in the minority language isn’t part of the equation—then the sacrifices made over the course of the bilingual journey can be significant indeed.
Why is this important? Because I think people tend to focus on the benefits of bilingualism—as they should—but sometimes to the exclusion of the sacrifices that must be made to reap those benefits. I would never discourage anyone from seeking to raise a bilingual child—on the contrary, I always try to be as encouraging as possible because I believe that the benefits will always ultimately outweigh the sacrifices.
However, I also feel that it’s best to be bluntly honest about the challenges, too. Parents should enter this experience with their eyes open, clearly aware that the decision to raise a bilingual child—especially if the aim is high—will almost inevitably demand certain sacrifices, too, some that may not even be foreseen at the outset of the journey.
Because each family’s experience is naturally different, I can’t say which sacrifices will loom largest in another parent’s life, but perhaps sharing the main sacrifices of my own experience will suggest some likely challenges. My hope is that a keener awareness of this side of the bilingual journey might help cushion the impact of whatever sacrifices you face: after all, when we can anticipate the future, we’re better able to prepare for it and cope with it. (Please note: I’m just stating the facts of my experience for what they’re worth. I’m not whining over these circumstances—which I take full responsibility for creating—or angling for any sympathy.)
So let me describe the five biggest sacrifices that have been part of my journey to date. And below this post, I encourage you to comment by sharing your own experience of the sacrifices you’ve made (or expect to make) in raising a bilingual child.
5 sacrifices of the bilingual journey
Sacrifice #1: Time and effort
If responsibility for nurturing the minority language falls mostly on your own small shoulders—as it does on mine—then the amount of time and effort required to foster active ability in the target language must not be underestimated. Put plainly, if the bilingual goal is not made a central part of your lifestyle—something you devote substantial time and effort to on a daily basis—it will be far more difficult for the child to reach higher levels of language ability. I’m not making a value judgment here—even lower levels of passive ability can be a significant achievement, a good foundation for future growth. But if your dream is active ability in the minority language throughout childhood, then you must be willing to invest considerable time and effort toward advancing this aim.
Generally speaking, I enjoy spending time with my kids (like any parent, there are moments I’d rather run in the opposite direction!), and so, even if bilingualism wasn’t part of our lifestyle, I’m sure I would spend ample time with them. Still, I think it’s fair to say that, because of our bilingual goal, I spend a good deal more time with them than I otherwise would have, which means, of course, that my personal time for other interests, other activities, gets squeezed, at least to some extent. Quite simply, if my kids were monolingual, I’d likely have more time for myself.
However, that fact—which may be seen as a downside, on one hand—has actually produced an upside on the other: beyond fostering their bilingual ability, I believe this more intensive interaction has resulted in richer relationships with my kids. In this way, the sacrifice of time and effort has actually proven to be a blessing to our parent-child bond.
Sacrifice #2: Money
Resources in the minority language—books, workbooks, magazines, CDs, DVDs, games, apps, etc.—are crucial for promoting steady language development. Maintaining a continuous stream of suitable resources throughout childhood, to match the evolving age and language level and personal interests of each child, is a vital part of the journey and involves ongoing investment. (Not to mention devoting the regular time and effort required to seek out these suitable resources.) And beyond materials for the home, there may be costs for lessons in the target language, trips to other countries, and various other expenses.
When it comes to buying resources, I realize that I probably go overboard (my wife would wholeheartedly agree with that statement), but to my mind, the more resources I have in the minority language, and the more suitable those resources are for my children at each stage of our journey, the more I can maximize their progress. And because of my location, I simply don’t have access to a well-stocked public library with materials in the minority language.
I shudder to think how much money I’ve spent over the past decade on minority language resources and related expenses—though I naturally would have spent at least a sizable percentage of this same amount on books and other materials even if my kids were monolingual. Perhaps more than I expected, our bilingual goal has brought with it continuous costs that have pinched other aspects of our budget and our lifestyle. While this is a sacrifice I consider well worth making, I’m afraid that my wife and I (to cite only one example) rarely buy new clothes for ourselves anymore. (We’re like farmers who wear the same pair of worn-out jeans for 20 years. )
Sacrifice #3: My career
When my children were small, I worked full-time at the Hiroshima-area newspaper. I was a writer and editor with a good salary and benefits. At the same time, I was concerned about the situation because I worked long hours and my children’s exposure to the minority language—which basically came only from me—was limited.
In the end, the company—which, like newspapers everywhere, is facing financial challenges—did me an important favor when they downsized my position and asked me to work freelance from home. (My wife, though, naturally didn’t view this favorably at the time!)
For a number of years, then, I’ve been working from home as an independent writer and teacher, which has enabled me to provide much stronger language exposure for my kids. (And made it possible for me to start this blog, which probably wouldn’t have happened otherwise!)
However, I think it’s also true that, once I began working from home and recognized the positive impact this had on my children’s language development, it made me reluctant to seek another full-time position. At this point, because they’re now a bit older and their bilingual ability is firmly grounded, I suppose I would consider returning to full-time work, if a suitable situation appeared. But until now I’ve actively avoided taking this step, a choice that interrupted the more traditional career path I was pursuing.
Sacrifice #4: My own language ability
Before my children were born, I studied Japanese pretty hard and it became the main language for communication with my wife (whose English level is low). However, once we had kids, I rarely used Japanese at home, and never in front of the children. (If I had continued to openly speak Japanese, I was afraid that this would undermine their need to use English with me, once they began to talk.) At the same time, as I became busier at home and at work, I no longer opened my Japanese books very often and my diligent study habits faded.
For the sake of my children’s bilingual ability, my emphasis on English over the past 10 years has been very positive…but I’m afraid my Japanese hasn’t improved at all. In fact, I now speak the language with less confidence than before and I feel embarrassed that I’ve lived in Japan for 18 years and haven’t yet reached a higher level of fluency.
But it isn’t too late. And, actually, now that English has been firmly set as the shared language with my kids, I’ve begun dusting off my old textbooks and considering how I might again attend a Japanese class somewhere in town.
Sacrifice #5: My communication with my wife
Because I wanted to avoid speaking Japanese in front of my kids, particularly during their early formative years, and because my wife doesn’t speak English well, this meant that we have long communicated with each other by simply using our mother tongues: I speak English to her and she speaks Japanese to me.
This approach has worked well, in terms of our children’s bilingual development, but it’s been less successful for our own communication as a couple because neither of us is fluent in the other’s language. It’s something I guess we’ve just accepted, and gotten used to, but it’s nevertheless true that our communication prior to the time we had children—when we would communicate in one shared language, generally Japanese—was more effective and more satisfying. (This is clearly another reason I need to study Japanese again!)
A short price to pay
Of course, responsible parenting demands sacrifices from any mother or father, but I do think raising a child with more one language can compound such sacrifice, particularly for minority language parents. It may be that not all sacrifices should simply be accepted—I could have done more to maintain my progress in Japanese and improve my communication with my wife—but there are others, like the time and effort required to provide sufficient language exposure, that can’t really be averted without seeking support elsewhere. (And such solutions will likely have costs attached, shifting a sacrifice of time and effort to a sacrifice of money.)
At the end of the day, though, the sacrifices of the bilingual journey pale in comparison to the many benefits they bring, and the satisfaction that comes from our successes, however we define them for our own family. And though these sacrifices may last throughout the years of childhood, this is finally a short price to pay for the long lifetime of bilingual ability it bestows on our children, a gift that could go on giving for even generations to come.