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Bilingual Success Stories #3: Intentional Efforts Empower the Journey Even Before Birth

Bilingual Success Stories Around the World

NOTE: I was recently in touch with Victor Santos, whose family—along with the inspiring, in-depth stories of 25 other families—is featured in Bilingual Success Stories Around the World: Parents Raising Multilingual Kids Share Their Experiences and Encouragement. Victor and his wife Olya are shining examples of mindful, proactive parents who are experiencing very rewarding multilingual success with their kids. I hope their story, shared here in full, can offer fresh inspiration for your own bilingual or multilingual journey. :mrgreen:

*Victor and Olya live in the U.S. state of Iowa, in a small city where the population is largely monolingual. While both have lived in the U.S. for a number of years, and speak fluent English, Victor is originally from Brazil and Olya is originally from Ukraine.

*Victor works remotely for a large language testing company, and Olya works in human resources for an insurance company. At the same time, they produce children’s books and other language learning resources for families and educators through a company they founded, called Linguacious.

*They have two children: a son, Dylan, 3.5 years old, and a daughter, Isabella, 10 months. Victor speaks to the children in Portuguese, Olya speaks to them in Russian, and the couple communicates with one another mainly in English.

Victor and Olya may have grown up on opposite sides of the Earth, but their mutual love of languages ultimately brought them together somewhere in between, in a small city in the American heartland. They both had studied German and shared a mutual interest in the mechanics of German grammar.

“Our first conversation on our first date,” Victor said with a smile, “we were talking about cases in German.”

Olya nodded. “I wrote my dissertation about German nouns and you were working on the gender of German nouns then.”

“I somehow always saw myself married to a foreigner because of my interest in languages and cultures,” Victor said. “I thought that marrying somebody from my own culture and language would be a bit boring.”

Two separate paths eventually cross

Victor grew up in Brazil and did his undergraduate degree in Linguistics. At the time, he had a particular interest in indigenous languages. “I thought I wanted to work with indigenous languages of the Amazon and Australia for the rest of my life. Indigenous languages make European languages look like baby talk. The grammar is so much more complicated. You have to keep track of whether something is animate or inanimate, if it’s a direct object or indirect object, and this affects the form of the word, the morphology. So I was like, ‘This is nice.’ I like that level of difficulty.”

But at his university, he recalled, he had a professor who was studying indigenous languages in the field and had the peculiar habit of scratching at himself while delivering his lectures. “At one point, I decided to ask him, ‘Are you okay? Why do you scratch yourself so much?’ And he’s like, ‘Well, every month I visit a tribe and I’m there studying their language, but I come back full of ticks.’ And I’m like, yeah, maybe I’ll do my Master’s in something else!”

Victor went on to earn his Master’s degree in Computational Linguistics from a binational program in Germany and the Netherlands. After that, he came to the U.S. to pursue his PhD in Language Learning and Assessment at a university in Iowa. It was then that Victor met Olya.

Olya’s journey to the U.S. was the result of a sister city relationship between her hometown in Ukraine and the city in Iowa where she came to reside. In Ukraine, she majored in Languages and Literature and studied English, German, and Spanish. After earning her undergraduate degree, she was invited to study in Iowa and entered an MBA program.

Although Olya decided to pursue a career path that was different from the language-related professions that she had originally envisioned, like teaching or interpreting, she expressed joy at being able to revive her passion for languages in connection with the family’s multilingual aim and their work creating language learning products for Linguacious. “It’s really fun to bring that back because that interest has been there the whole time, just kind of sleeping a bit,” she said.

Intentional efforts began before birth

Because of their longtime interest in different languages and cultures, it comes as no surprise that Victor and Olya have been very intentional about their multilingual aim for their own children. In fact, their efforts began not just at birth, but before birth. “We were invested in learning each other’s languages,” Victor said. “It was part of the courtship ritual, so to speak.” Olya described the efforts she made to learn some Portuguese and Victor’s efforts to learn some Russian, stressing how the language ability they gained has helped make life easier for them as a multilingual family.

The couple’s proactive efforts then continued when Olya became pregnant. Intent on speaking to Dylan in their native languages after his birth, they first began doing so prior to his arrival with Victor addressing their not-yet-born son in Portuguese and Olya addressing him in Russian.

Research on the question of language input in the womb—such as the study “Language experienced in utero affects vowel perception after birth,” led by Christine Moon and published in the journal Acta Paediatrica in 2013—indicates that pre-birth language exposure does have a measurable impact on the developing child. What’s even more important, perhaps, is that the couple’s earliest efforts to speak to their son in the two target languages enabled them to establish the new pattern of language usage that they felt suited their multilingual goal. In other words, this first step, taken before birth, no doubt helped pave the way for their routine use of these languages from the day Dylan was born, a transition that took the couple from speaking mostly English each day to a home where they consistently use Portuguese and Russian, too.

“For us,” Olya said, “it was important to do this from day one and I feel like that was a very good decision. Since then I’ve talked to friends who tell me things like, ‘I have a 4-month-old baby. I’m still speaking to him in English, but I’m going to start soon.’ And that can be a difficult transition to make.”

The couple’s commitment to speaking the target languages extends beyond their own home as well. Victor told me, “We also agreed that we would never succumb to social pressure. Living here, there’s very little multilingualism. If somebody looks at us in a weird way when they hear us speaking in other languages to our kids, we don’t mind. We know we’re investing in a very important goal. We’re giving our kids an amazing gift.”

“Sometimes, on the playground, people walk in on the situation where I’m talking to my kids in Russian,” Olya said. “Initially, maybe they don’t know how to react, there’s some discomfort, but when I say hi and we start talking, they’re okay.”

“We take it as an opportunity to educate people about the benefits of bilingualism,” Victor said. “The first time we meet somebody, we usually throw it out there from the very beginning: ‘Hi, we talk to them in different languages, just so you know.’”

“And most will say they wish their kids were bilingual or trilingual,” Olya added. “They say, ‘Teach my kids,’ and they’re joking, but they wish that was the case.”

While Victor and Olya would be happy if Dylan and Isabella eventually learn additional languages beyond these first three—Portuguese, Russian, and English—they also expressed some caution about expanding the children’s exposure to other languages prematurely. Referring to Dylan, Olya said, “I wouldn’t want to introduce too many languages at this point. I feel like there’s a big difference between dabbling in a language and knowing a language and I think, for his age, three is plenty.”

“When he turns 5, I think that’s when we’ll be more open to introducing a fourth language,” Victor agreed. “Right now, our main goal is to really solidify the three we have at home.”

Dylan, now 3 and a half, has become “very balanced in his trilingualism,” Victor said. “He can talk away in all three languages.”

The couple hopes that, eventually, both children will not only speak these languages well but be strongly literate in them, too.

Support from other speakers of the target languages

Along with their own proactive efforts to use the two minority languages, Victor and Olya try to take full advantage of the language exposure that family and friends can provide. Their parents—particularly their mothers—have stayed with them for extended periods of time each year, with Victor’s mother fortifying the children’s exposure to Portuguese and Olya’s mother making the same strong contribution in Russian. In fact, the six months that Olya’s mother spent with the family after Isabella was born has apparently influenced Dylan’s preference when it comes to communicating with his baby sister because he now uses exclusively Russian with her. “We don’t know if that’s going to continue,” Victor said. “But it’s interesting how just the amount of exposure makes a big impact.”

In addition to these visits by family members, and regular online chats when they’re apart, Victor was able to find a Portuguese-speaking woman to care for Isabella during the day while he and Olya are working and Dylan is attending his English-language preschool. “I’d much rather hire a Portuguese-speaking or a Russian-speaking nanny than somebody in the neighborhood just because they happen to be there,” he said. “In fact, I’ll pay more for that.”

Beyond this caregiver for Isabella, the couple is also eager to connect locally with others who share their minority languages, inviting them, in a sense, to be a part of their family’s special aim.

“Every time we meet speakers of these languages,” Victor explained, “we ask them from the get-go, ‘Would you please talk to them in Portuguese?’ or ‘Would you please talk to them in Russian? That would mean a lot to us.’”

He advised, “All you have to do is put your hands together and say, ‘Can you please do me a favor? Just always talk to him in this language. That would mean so much to me.’ Most people are pretty nice and are willing to comply.”

Not only does some assertiveness in this way help fortify the children’s language exposure, it can also provide a positive influence on their attitude toward the languages themselves by highlighting the fact that there are speakers of Portuguese and Russian beyond the smaller circle of their own family.

To date, the family hasn’t yet traveled abroad, but as the children get older, they look forward to taking trips to Brazil and Ukraine to see family members and friends while immersing themselves in the language and culture of each location.

Creating resources for themselves and others

When it comes to books and other resources, Victor and Olya have mindfully emphasized their minority languages and actively sought to limit the influence of the majority language. Citing an example, Victor said, “That’s one of the rules at our house: they can watch cartoons in our languages, but we never let them watch cartoons in English. It’s always Russian or Portuguese—never English.”

The couple has even taken up the challenge of creating their own resources after struggling to find appealing materials already on the market. Although the initial impetus for developing products was linked to the language learning needs of their own children, the couple’s efforts for Linguacious, the company they founded, have expanded to include multilingual families worldwide through a growing number of products produced in a wide range of languages.

While Linguacious now offers children’s picture books that include the Little Polyglot Adventures series (inspired by their own kids), the first product they created, a set of vocabulary flashcards with embedded audio, is designed to engage children in the target language through a variety of playful games. “I believe that if kids aren’t having fun, they won’t care,” Victor explained. “They’re not going to want to learn another language unless it’s fun for them.” The aim with our flashcards, he said, is to make “that first taste of the language” enjoyable and successful so that children will have positive feelings about the experience. “Because if the first experience is something they don’t like, they’re not going back to it. They’re like, ‘Yeah, I tried it and I hate it.’”

The Linguacious flashcards are now available in dozens of different languages, including endangered languages that no longer have many speakers like Irish Gaelic, Hawaiian, and the Alaskan language of Yup’ik. Victor said, “At the same time that we’re trying to help families, it also works a little bit for language revitalization where we want kids to care about their languages and their heritage language—it’s your culture, it’s your parents’ language.”

Be intentional from the start

While Victor and Olya are still in the early years of their multilingual journey with their kids, their passion and talent for languages, along with the insights they’ve gained from fostering active trilingual ability in their young son, make their advice to new parents particularly useful to hear. Both agreed that being intentional about this aim, from the very start, is especially important for generating a positive and productive experience through the first few years.

“Yes, the keyword is intentional,” Victor said. “Bilingualism won’t just happen. You have to make it happen. It has to be intentional. I think having that conversation before the child arrives is crucial. That’s when you still have time to think about these things, map out your resources, and make sure you have a bilingual plan. The sooner you have that plan in place, the higher your chances for success. If you’re a busy parent, and on top of that you now have a baby to feed and you’re waking up five times a night, you’re not going to have time to map out those resources.”

“Definitely start right away,” Olya said. “It’s much harder if you think like, ‘Oh, we’ll start when they reach a certain age.’”

“The other thing is for parents to model it,” she continued, referring to the fact that some parents with a bilingual dream aren’t consistently using the minority language themselves. “I’ve had friends who are speakers of the minority language and they complain about their 2- or 3-year-old. ‘He never speaks in Russian,’ they say. Well, but neither do they.”

“With English-speaking friends,” she explained, “I still address Dylan in Russian. But I don’t exclude them; I translate for them. I might say two or three sentences to Dylan and just give them a brief synopsis. I don’t switch when speaking to Dylan, but I don’t exclude other people, either. I always try to include them.”

Any parent can produce success

Victor then offered his thoughts on the bilingual journey for parents who are native speakers, or capable non-native speakers, of the minority language, saying, “You should understand that you will be the most precious resource for your kids and a lot of the success you experience will have to do with you and your commitment. How willing are you to put in those hours, make that time for them? Because it’s a matter of time, right? You want to increase the amount of input that you give them and the frequency of that input. And sometimes there are these time slots that we don’t think of as time we could be giving input in the language, but actually, it is. You don’t necessarily need to have a dedicated one-hour slot, right?”

Providing a personal example, he said, “I drive Dylan to daycare every day and I pick him up. It’s 10 minutes to daycare and 10 minutes back. If you rode with us, you would go crazy because we talk, talk, talk, talk. It’s 20 minutes of language immersion right there. I don’t care what we talk about. We talk about the clouds, or the car in front of us, but it’s going to be in our language. Twenty minutes every day—if you add that up, it’s hours and hours of input from an early age.”

At the same time, Victor shared some words of encouragement for parents who have more limited fluency in the target language. “You can still be very helpful in terms of creating an interest in the language,” he said. “There are a lot of things that you can do in the house. Like when you’re brushing your teeth, you can do some vocabulary learning. You can have a reward chart. Every time they learn a new word and they can use it, you can give them a star and then you have your ice cream if you get 10 stars. So there are a lot of things you can do that are fun and playful to get the kids’ ears and minds open to speaking another language.”

He stressed that parents in this situation, with limited proficiency, will also need to be proactive about seeking out additional support for their bilingual aim from the local community and from resources online.

Victor emphasized, too, that all parents should take full advantage of “free advice from people who have been in the same situation. With bilingualism, the more issues you’re having, the more you should be talking about them with others because the easier it’ll be for you to find solutions.”

“So at the end of the day,” he said, “whether you’re a native speaker, somebody with lots of fluency, or a limited speaker of the language, there’s no excuse. If the goal is clear in your mind, there is a path.”

He added, “My mom always said, ‘If you want to do something, there’s a way. If you don’t, there’s an excuse.’ So I think there’s a bright possibility for everybody, but it’s going to be easier for some and harder for others.”

AFTERWORD: Victor and Olya are both so mindful and proactive about their multilingual aim for their children, in every aspect of their lifestyle that’s within their control, that their thriving success is not at all a surprise. Since this interview was conducted, their daughter is following in her older brother’s footsteps and becoming just as actively and confidently trilingual. The word “intentional,” which Victor and Olya stressed and which other parents will also emphasize, is one of the central traits shared by every parent in this book. Put plainly, the more intentional we can be in our actions from day to day, the more success we will experience over the years of childhood. And the deep drive that both Victor and Olya feel for being intentional about their actions, in order to maximize their children’s progress, essentially ensured—even before embarking on this journey with their kids—that their vision of multilingual success would be realized.

Continue reading the whole book for more inspiration and ideas to help you realize your own family’s joyful success story! Get your copy of Bilingual Success Stories Around the World, as a paperback or e-book, at Amazon or another bookseller!

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Welcome to Bilingual Monkeys!

I’m Adam Beck, the founder of this blog and The Bilingual Zoo, a lively worldwide forum for parents raising bilingual or multilingual kids. I’m also the author of the popular books Maximize Your Child’s Bilingual Ability and Bilingual Success Stories Around the World. I’ve been an educator and writer in this field for 25 years as well as the parent of two bilingual children, now 19 and 16. I hope my work can help empower the success of your bilingual journey.

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