Through my interactions at this blog and at The Bilingual Zoo, it’s clear that there are many, many parents who are not native speakers of a certain language but want to nurture ability in that language in their children. In some cases, the parent already has some proficiency in the target language; in other cases, the parent doesn’t speak the language but hopes that the family can learn it together.
In both cases, here’s a new book I wholeheartedly recommend: Family Language Learning: Learn Another Language, Raise Bilingual Children by Christine Jernigan. Although I think any parent raising a bilingual child would find it worthwhile reading, the book’s special focus on providing encouragement and support to non-native parents makes this a unique and valuable resource for parents who aren’t native speakers of the target language.
The author, an instructor of foreign language teachers at North Carolina State University and a language coach for parents who want to raise bilingual children, has successfully raised two bilingual children of her own in a second language: Portuguese, which she began to acquire as a young adult. Alongside the wealth of helpful advice she gives parents for improving their own language ability while nurturing the language development of their children, she shares illuminating personal moments from her own journey, as well as the journeys of other non-native parents she interviewed.
In the introduction, Christine writes: “My daughter was just over three when she mentioned matter of factly that she had ‘two voices.’ When I asked what she meant, she explained that she had one voice in English and one in Portuguese. She recognized her special gift—the one we’ve worked on since the day she was born.”
The fact is, no matter your current level of ability in the target language, and no matter the ages of your children, it’s possible for you to foster both your and your children’s proficiency in that language, giving them the same “special gift.” Yes, your expectations for the outcome must be realistic, in line with the efforts you’re able to make, but the experience can only be enriching, however far you travel on your bilingual journey.
Family Language Learning is a well-researched and well-written book that winningly achieves its aim: to give non-native parents the practical tools and necessary inspiration to make language learning a family affair that can benefit both parent and child for a lifetime. By sharing her hard-won knowledge and experience in this smart, friendly guide, Christine Jernigan has done a real service for the success of non-native parents everywhere.
Interview with Christine Jernigan, author of Family Language Learning
Christine kindly agreed to share her thoughts, by email, on the origins of her book and her personal experience as a non-native parent of two children who are bilingual in English and Portuguese.
Could you share a bit of your background?
I’m from Nashville, Tennessee, and I have the accent to prove it. Liberal arts education at Wake Forest University. Graduate school at the University of Texas at Austin. I like being a student.
So many people say, “I love to travel,” and I do, but I don’t like being a tourist. I like linking in somehow to the people who live in a country, even in small ways. This past year we went to the Dominican Republic. We were not Americans expecting English to be spoken at every turn. I want to teach this type of travel to my kids.
Why did you decide to write Family Language Learning?
It’s funny, looking back, I had always been a terrible language learner—to the point of wondering if I had some sort of learning disability when it came to foreign languages. I write about this in the book.
But after college I went to Brazil for a while to teach English, and I really liked Portuguese and I did pretty well learning it. When I was pregnant with my daughter, I wanted to raise her to speak it. She wouldn’t have to go through the torture of language classes like I did.
I tried reading about how to teach your child a language that you don’t speak as a native, but the resources were geared towards parents who knew another language since birth, parents who were already fluent. (For example, I learned Portuguese in my 20’s and am still learning it. The books to help parents are mainly for, say, French people who have come to the US and want their children to speak French.)
So I started my own research. I did interviews for case studies and published what I found in parenting magazines. I got a lot of positive feedback and knew others were interested.
How is the book different from other books on raising bilingual children?
Two main ways. First, it’s geared more towards non-native speaking parents. Native speakers of another language will find it useful as well, but the focus is on parents like me who aren’t language wizards, but who want to give their children the gift of another language.
Second, it’s easy reading. It doesn’t read like a how-to book or a textbook. The most consistent feedback I’ve gotten about this book is that it’s so “readable.” People who know me personally say they can hear my voice in the writing.
What would be your best advice for non-native parents who hope to raise children with active bilingual ability?
Number one is to choose the right language. I would define that as the one that you feel passionate about. It doesn’t have to be the one that “makes sense.” For example, you might think that Arabic or Mandarin would be best for your child because of the job opportunities it opens up. But you enjoy learning Italian—no special reason why, just the way it sounds to you is nice.
Go for Italian, because that’s the language you have a higher chance of sticking to.
As a non-native parent yourself, what method do you use and which strategies and routines have had the strongest impact on your children’s bilingual development?
I use the One Parent One Language (OPOL) method. So I speak Portuguese to the kids and my husband speaks English. Over the 13-plus years my husband has been hearing Portuguese, he’s gotten pretty good at understanding what we’re saying.
Most helpful as a strategy has been what I call “pretending” (in the research, it’s called, “False Monolingual Strategy”). Basically, when I’m interacting with my kids, I act like I don’t speak English. Of course at this age, they know that I do, but I keep up the front (sort of like how adults and kids pretend to believe in Santa). So if they say something to me in English, I ask, “O que?” (“What?”), and they have to say it in Portuguese.
Another strategy I use a lot is “feeding.” If the kids are having trouble remembering a word, I give them the first syllable. It jogs their memory and they can complete the word themselves.
What difficulties or frustrations have you experienced along the way? How have you addressed those challenges?
There was a year when my son really rebelled. I guess he was about 8. He was fine with me speaking Portuguese, but he didn’t want to answer in Portuguese. I insisted on it, using the strategies I mentioned a minute ago, and eventually he came around. It was really tiring at the time, though.
Another frustration was with family members who didn’t want me to speak Portuguese while they were around. I understood where they were coming from, because typically you speak the language that everyone understands, so no one feels left out. But I had already established Portuguese as the only language I speak with the kids. And I strongly believe that this level of commitment is needed since I’m the only one speaking it to them.
Eventually we came to an agreement where the kids speak less directly to me and instead direct what they’re saying to family members. It helps that we’re all crazy about each other so we got through it.
What have been the greatest satisfactions of your bilingual journey?
I really like that question. It’s great to have a code language with the kids. Not to talk about people behind their backs, but to be able to have a real conversation anywhere and know that we’re probably not being understood.
Sometimes we’re surprised that we’re understood. Once we were at a music festival in Montreal and this clown came up to us wanting to do some sort of participatory stuff. James said to me, “Eu não quero falar com ele!” (“I don’t want to talk to him!”) and the clown said to him, “Não quer? Por que não?” (“You don’t want to? Why not?”). It was hilarious…a Brazilian clown in Canada, who knew?
We love it when people try to guess what language we’re speaking. Guesses have included Japanese and Finnish. Once in a shoe store a man overhearing us a bit, started speaking German to us. Keeps life interesting.
I’ve also really enjoyed reading children’s books in Portuguese. I could watch the kids just soak it up and it made me happy to see them learn a language I love so much.
Finally, what words of encouragement would you offer to other non-native parents hoping to raise bilingual children?
I’d say, don’t see this as all or nothing. Just exposing your child to a foreign language may be enough—as opposed to full fluency. There are many different methods besides just “speak only the foreign language.” Some families may want to speak the foreign language on the weekends. Others may do it at a certain time of day, like bedtime—reading a book in the target language, using bath-taking and tooth-brushing vocabulary. Family Language Learning offers a range of scenarios for you to fit a foreign language into your busy life.
The lucky winner of this giveaway is…
Alena in the Czech Republic
Congratulations to Alena! And a big thank you to everyone who entered. Christine and I wish all of you much success on your bilingual journey!
Multilingual Matters, the publisher of Family Language Learning: Learn Another Language, Raise Bilingual Children, has kindly offered to provide a free copy of the book in this giveaway at Bilingual Monkeys. To enter the giveaway, just follow these three simple steps…
1. Share this post with others via social media. Help spread the word on Christine Jernigan’s fine book. Use the sharing buttons on this page or simply copy and paste this link…
2. Leave a comment below with the following information. (And please proofread your comment, before submission, to check that the information is complete.)
2. Your children and their ages (Example: Girl, 10 and Boy, 8)
3. Your two (or more) languages (Example: Japanese, English, and Spanish)
4. If you were choosing a new non-native language to learn with your children, which language would you try? Why? (Example: I’ve always loved the expressiveness of Italian—though all I can say right now is “pizza”—so I’d like to learn some Italian with my kids and visit Italy one day!)
3. All entries must be submitted by the morning of Wednesday, May 27 (Japan time). On that day, the comments will be printed out and cut apart to serve as entry slips for the drawing. The slips will be placed in a big, empty tub of Lego and my son will select the winner at random. (But let’s not tell my daughter about this or she’ll probably be upset that she can’t pick the winner!) I’ll then contact the lucky winner by email and update this post with the results.
I won’t respond to your comments here, but Christine and I look forward to seeing them. Thank you for entering the giveaway, and for sharing this information about Christine’s book with others.