The other day I received a message from a frustrated parent, on the verge of abandoning the bilingual journey, who explained:
“I’ve done my very best, but my child just won’t speak the minority language.”
In fact, I hear this claim now and again so it isn’t uncommon. But I think it’s worth keenly reflecting on this sentiment for a moment.
What “very best” really means
First, it’s crucial to make a clear distinction between what the parent thinks is his or her “very best” and what “very best” really means. While I certainly empathize with the frustration that lies behind this statement, the truth is, parents in this situation underestimate their “very best” because they lack awareness of the further efforts that could still be made. In other words, there is always more that a parent can do to nurture progress toward the goal of getting a child to use the minority language more actively or any other aim along the road to bilingual ability. The idea that we’ve done our “very best” but “failed” is not only a misconception, it’s badly counterproductive because this hasty conclusion can then undercut additional action: After all, if I’ve already done my “very best,” what more can I do?
Let me stress again: There is always more you can do to address the difficulties you face. You just have to find out, or figure out, which actions could potentially be most effective, and then keep trying…and trying….and trying…until you experience some productive developments and a greater degree of success.
If we simply sigh and say that we did our “very best,” which suggests that no further progress is even possible, we’re basically giving ourselves permission to stop trying, to give up. At the same time, this claim that we did our “very best,” while sincerely felt, also enables us to accept “failure” too easily: Hey, I did my best, but it was just too hard.
Well, here’s my dose of “tough love” for today:
No, you haven’t “done your best” yet—that’s a shortsighted view of the longer journey—because “doing your best” at raising a bilingual child means “doing your best for the full length of childhood.” “Doing your best” until age 3 or 5 or whenever frustration gets the better of you isn’t really “doing your best.” What you’ve actually done is what you’ve been capable of doing so far, up to that particular point in your child’s young life, and there’s always more that you can do. And, yes, I know it’s hard, I don’t discount that, but don’t dare make this the justification for giving up on your dreams because…
The only time you should give up the idea of raising a bilingual child is when it’s not truly important to you, when you honestly don’t feel that it’s worth the effort it demands, not because you mistakenly believe you’ve done your “very best” but “failed.”
The challenge is psychological
The reality is, the limits to your “very best” are completely elastic, and can always expand, if you have the desire and the willingness to keep going, keep learning, keep trying—whether it’s raising a bilingual child or any other larger aim in life. There are no real limits to our “very best” and we risk deceiving ourselves, and undermining our efforts and progress, if we claim that our “very best” has some kind of hard ceiling. It doesn’t, and never will. Of course, we can’t do everything, we do have a certain capacity within our daily lives and we must make choices, but that’s very different from the false belief that we’ve “failed” despite doing our “very best.”
When all is said and done, if you just keep going, day after day, you and your child will continue to make progress. As I stress in Have You Failed at Raising a Bilingual Child?, the very idea of “failing” at this quest is illogical because the only way you could truly claim such a thing is if your child made no progress at all despite your persistent daily efforts throughout the years of childhood. I have yet to encounter one person, from anywhere in the world, who has told me that they made continuous efforts for all those years but “failed.” Different degrees of success are only natural, depending on a range of factors, but rest assured that there is always a payoff to perseverance.
So, in many cases, the larger challenge to success at raising bilingual children is purely psychological: Frustrated and alone, parents feel discouraged and defeated and their efforts falter in the face of difficulty, when merely plodding on with playful, resourceful persistence, day by day, would gradually and naturally produce a positive outcome.
Look, I know this is a lot easier to write about than it is to live out, but you need never feel alone with your frustrations, a guarantee I first made in You Are Not Alone. That’s why this blog is here, and that’s why I and hundreds of other parents have banded together for mutual support at my forum, The Bilingual Zoo.
If you want to raise a bilingual child—if you really want to raise a bilingual child—you surely can. But you must be willing, now and forever and no matter what difficulties may arise, to continue giving your “very best” to this aim, day after day, year after year, without pause, without end…and with all the wild, playful joy that you and your family can possibly feel.