I’m really pleased today to share an interview I conducted by email with Eowyn Crisfield, an expert on child bilingualism. Originally from Canada, Eowyn now lives in the Netherlands, where she pursues a range of activities in this field, including the blog On Raising Bilingual Children, one of the most insightful spots on the web when it comes to information on the subject. Thank you for stopping by Bilingual Monkeys to share your thoughts with us, Eowyn!
Could you offer an overview of your background, particularly your professional and personal ties to the subject of raising bilingual children?
I studied bilingualism at the undergraduate level, while doing a BA TESL/TEFL, and at the graduate level while studying applied linguistics. I did my studies in Quebec, which has been at the forefront of bilingualism research since the early days of Gardner and Lambert. I taught English as a Second/Foreign language in Canada, France and the Netherlands at the tertiary/professional level for many years, but after doing my MA I began to specialize in child bilingualism and teacher-training for bilingualism, and this has been my main professional focus since 2003.
“…everyone involved in the process of raising or supporting bilingual children needs to have accurate and in-depth information about best practice.”
What are your main professional activities these days?
I work in three different arenas right now. At the core all of these areas is my personal belief that everyone involved in the process of raising or supporting bilingual children needs to have accurate and in-depth information about best practice. I work with families, doing a variety of seminars relating to raising bilingual children, as well as doing Family Language Planning.
I work in multinational companies and with organisations that support mobile families, helping parents plan for success for their children while encountering different languages in their mobile existence.
Finally, I work on an academic level, doing teacher-training for bilingualism and research on early language learners in schools. I have pioneered a unique whole-school training program, which endeavours to create a school-wide knowledge base and practice for schools who welcome high numbers of non-native speaker students.
Could you describe your blog? Why did you start it? Which posts are your personal favorites? Why?
Ah, why did I start a blog? Really, I started blogging because so many people told me too… I got tired of finding reasons why I shouldn’t have a blog… I actually find the blogging process very difficult—trying to have an idea regularly that I can compose into a pithy 400-600 words that are interesting to others is a challenge for someone more used to academic writing (and with three young kids…). Because of this, my blog tends to be quite eclectic—I don’t have a “plan” and I don’t usually try to link posts in order of importance or subject. Most of the time, blog posts are inspired by a conversation I’ve had with someone, or a question I’ve been asked. Now that I am 18-months and 67 posts in, I do sometimes find it hard to address “new” topics, so I am always happy to get questions from readers to guide me.
My favourite post so far is In Defense of the Bilingual Child partly because I felt it came to me in a moment of inspiration, and partly for all the positive feedback I got about it. One of the best things about blogging is hearing from readers who have connected with a post, and this one spoke to a lot of readers. A close second would be Language Status: How cool is your language?. This topic is one that I feel strongly about—too many people underestimate the role of language status in the success of bilingualism, and too many people don’t recognise the seriously detrimental effects it can have on children. I have a background interest in sociolinguistics, and so I keep up with this field as a matter of personal and professional interest, as I believe it will become more and more entwined with research into child bilingualism.
“…what is of primary importance to me is that parents need to spend time planning for bilingualism, from birth to adulthood.”
As a parent of bilingual children, what strategies and routines have had the most positive impact on their language development?
Our family has moved from an OPOL paradigm to a domains of use paradigm as our kids have gotten older and moved into school. I think that many strategies can work in many situations, what is of primary importance to me is that parents need to spend time planning for bilingualism, from birth to adulthood. A family with a plan has a much better chance of successfully raising bilingual children than a family who takes a “laissez-faire” approach.
What frustrations have you experienced as a parent? How did you address these challenges?
My biggest frustration is trying to balance input and acquisition of three languages. We have English and French as our family languages, and these are non-negotiable. But right now, we live in the Netherlands, and I want my kids to speak Dutch as well as possible also, for reasons of cultural respect and integration. But finding the time/resources to help my children master three languages is an on-going battle, and I am always reviewing and adjusting to try and meet our goals. Mostly, it’s about being realistic (for myself and for my children) and looking at the long-term goals of our language plan, as well as the short-term.
What’s one thing you wish every parent knew about raising bilingual children?
I would like parents to realize that children are not “little sponges.” Becoming, and staying, bilingual or multilingual is hard work, even (or especially) when you are young. It takes a lot of mental effort and also sometimes a lot of social isolation and effort (when children are acquiring the second or other language through “immersion” in child care or school). We need to be sensitive to the demands we are making of our children, and to our own responsibilities in ensuring that our kids are “okay.”
“…it’s important to remember that no two bilingual children are ever alike, even in the same family.”
What other key advice could you offer to parents seeking to raise children with good bilingual ability?
I hate to sound like a broken record, but I emphasize, time and again, the importance of planning. If you want your child to arrive at adulthood being able to work or go to school in two languages, unless you live in an environment where this happens naturally, the parents need to make a plan, and use it. Understanding the necessary elements for successful bilingualism, and planning how to provide these, is the responsibility of the parents.
A second thing I would like to emphasize is the importance of talking to your children about why they need to be bilingual. Children do not process or view things in the same way adults do and so we need to contextualize for them the reasons for their languages. We can’t just expect that they will know and accept our bilingual plans for them and go along with them because we say so (like so many other things in parenting!).
And finally, it’s important to remember that no two bilingual children are ever alike, even in the same family. This is probably the most pertinent thing I have learned from my children rather than my books. My oldest is a very different bilingual than my twins who are four years younger. And my twins are very different bilinguals from each other, even though they are exactly the same age and have been raised together and have had identical input from birth. No matter how carefully we plan and educate, our children’s personalities and desires also affect the process.