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Guest Post: Non-native Speakers Can Bring Up Bilingual Kids, Too!

ADAM’S NOTE: During my recent travels in Europe, I met several non-native speakers of English who are making determined efforts to raise their children in this language. I even had the chance to stay with a family in Poland and see the fruitful progress that they’re experiencing. Today’s guest post, by Elzbieta Rzeszutko, another parent in Poland using English with her kids, calls this “intentional bilingualism,” which I think captures the essential spirit of a non-native aim, in any language, very keenly. In fact, whether we are native speakers of the target language or not, being “intentional” about our efforts—day by day and year by year—is the overarching key to success. Elzbieta, thank you for sharing your encouraging story with us! :mrgreen:

Guest Post: Non-native Speakers Can Bring Up Bilingual Kids, Too!

Elzbieta Rzeszutko is a Polish mother, in Poland, raising her two children, 5 and 3, in English. Though not a language teacher, she has a passion for teaching and a mission to persuade people that education can be fun. She shares her proactive approach with others through her popular blog At the Tip of My Tongue (written in Polish, this is the English translation of the Polish name) and through media appearances.

Elzbieta RzeszutkoThough my husband and I are Polish, and we live in Poland—a largely monolingual country—the language that we use with our two children is English. Because we believe strongly that bilingualism is so beneficial, we think it’s worth pursuing even if your knowledge of the target language isn’t “inborn” but acquired. In other words…

Non-native speakers can bring up bilingual kids, too!

And I’m happy to say that we’re experiencing success at our bilingual aim. The other night I was carrying my five-year-old daughter to the loo and her limp body, hanging loosely over my shoulder, suddenly mumbled: “Fox in socks on box.” A half-conscious child at this age who starts rhyming in the minority language is living proof of success to me.

[Adam’s note: This snippet of rhyme is from a wonderful Dr. Seuss book called “Fox in Socks” that I read many, many times to my kids when they were small!]

So, yes, I’m a non-native speaker of English and our approach is most frequently referred to as “non-native bililingualism.” However, I much prefer to call it “intentional bilingualism” because I have been as intentional as I can be about my efforts.

In this post I’ll share with you some of the ideas and strategies that have made up our bilingual journey to date.

Pride is part of the equation

My kids are still small, but they’re now speaking English well for their age. And even in public, my husband and I speak English with them, much to the surprise of any onlookers. I admit that, initially, I was very shy when it came to speaking English in public. I was expecting criticism of my language ability or of the mere fact that I’m publicly speaking a foreign language in a monolingual country. Even a silly appointment at the pediatrician was a mental ordeal because I would lapse back into speaking Polish to my first child or I would whisper to her in English like it was some conspiracy. Obviously, she sensed the uneasiness of the situation and assumed that there was something wrong about speaking English in public. So I worked on my attitude over a period of a few months, and I discovered that building up my confidence and pride boosted my daughter’s willingness to speak English more boldly, too.

Bilingualism runs in the blood

I am a walking example of bilingualism running in the blood. My grandfather had a great love for languages and taught himself three languages, all as an adult. He made sure that my father had a chance to be exposed to more than one language, too. My father, in turn, decided to speak some English with me and my family also had the chance to spend two years in an English-speaking country. And me, I’m now carrying on this legacy by raising my children in English.

You see, it’s not only language that gets handed down from generation to generation, but the love of languages as well. What’s more, it doesn’t take much work to get a child started on learning a language. If you’re able to provide the basics of a language and bring in a range of resources to sustain that input, you and your child can then continue growing in the language together.

Making use of books

While I’m persistent about using English when my kids are present, I do allow one exception. When it comes to books, which are crucial for fueling language development, I read to them in both languages because I think it’s the only way I can ensure that both English and Polish reach a similar level, where my children are using rich and varied vocabulary.

So I decided that books should form a solid foundation for our approach. And since books for small children seem to cover a limited range of topics (things like animals, dinosaurs, space, travel, etc.), I’ve tried to get books on these topics in both languages. With the help of these books, not only do my children have a chance to acquire new words, so do I.

Other activities and techniques

While I can speak English well, I’m also aware of my shortcomings in grammar and vocabulary. But, in fact, these shortcomings are what drive me to remain mindful and proactive about coming up with creative solutions for our bilingual journey. At the same time, my younger child needs additional support when it comes to his speech development.

The combination of these two factors has led me to discover additional tools. I make use of many techniques from speech therapy: games with picture cards, jumbled up picture stories, story cubes, role play, and many more. I actively seek out as many ways as I can find for nurturing speech and language development.

I really value books that have rhyme. When I read books like this to my kids, I can intentionally withhold the last word of a line and my kids will complete it with the missing word. They seem to always come away with a few more new words from our rhyming books…then multiply that by the many books we have.

When I read picture books to them, I ask them questions: What are the characters feeling? What will happen next? Close your eyes and name some of the things that are in the picture.

We play all sorts of games in English, many of them quite silly. For instance, we have a monkey puppet that has a peculiar liking for smelly fish, but she can only speak English so if you want to talk to her…

Taking bilingualism for a stroll

I’m very conscious of the fact that the more experiences I can provide for my children, the more varied their vocabulary will be. We go to the forest to talk about plants and animals; we go to the art museum to talk about art; we go kayaking to talk about, well, kayaking. There’s no better way of boosting language ability than taking our bilingualism for a stroll.

Finally, I don’t take anything for granted. Sometimes parents believe that their bilingual aim will materialize on its own simply because they’re a native speaker of the minority language. But I think we know that’s not true. It takes a very proactive approach to achieve your bilingual goal. Fortunately, the pursuit of bilingualism can also be a really fun family journey.

How about you? Feel free to share your impressions with Elzbieta, or your thoughts on “intentional bilingualism,” by adding a comment below!

12 Responses

  1. This is a terrific piece. As a non-native speaker of the language in which we’re raising our son, I’m very mindful of gaps in my knowledge. For instance, our young son is obsessed with trucks and I had to study up on the names of all manner of trucks in the target language. Accordingly, I also find that raising a son in the target language is also very helpful to my own development in the target language.

    1. Hello, this is Elzbieta here. I am so glad that you’ve found my article valuable. I can relate to you with the trucks and car’s nomenclature. I am going through the same. I clearly recall my first days with our new language at home – frantically going through online IKEA catalogues to brush up on my knowledge of house appliance’s names. Just like you, I notice a significant improvement in my English over the past years.

  2. This post is really inspiring.

    I really admire your determination and perseverance, I’m doing something similar with my child and can relate so to much of this – especially the shyness of speaking the non-native language while out and about.

    Thank you for such a great article. 🙂

    1. Jenna, I am thankful for your comment. It is really encouraging to hear that others are tackling similar challenges. It gives a sense of a universal experience that we are all sharing. All the best to you!

  3. Very inspirational, Elzbieta, thank you very much for sharing! I also find myself on that same journey (Portuguese in Portugal raising my daughter in English), and trying to pass on the multilingual torch. My own torch shed light on some many paths for me. One of them was to live in Poland and to learn the language. So I’ll be sure to follow your blog from now on. 😉

  4. Very inspirational.

    I am from Brazil and I am also on the same journey. I sometimes feel doubtful about what am I teaching, if maybe my English is a little weak, but it can’t make me give up on giving the opportunity to my daughter to know English…it is so important!

    There are moments that I really don’t know how to say what I want…or I am not sure if the pronunciation is correct. Even if I have studied English for so long it is still not like Portuguese. It is a lot more comfortable to just talk in my mother language that I know so well and I am very confident about how I use it and I remember so many songs and rhymes of my childhood. I don’t know how to make jokes in English for example…

    My child is 2 years old now and even with those difficulties I kept on trying and now that she is starting to talk I can clearly notice that she understands everything I tell her and already says some things in English (even if most of the time it is still Portuguese). Now when sometimes I talk to her in Portuguese it feels weird for me.

    Books and music are amazing, drawings… And talking talking talking, narrating every little detail of what is going on all the time.

    Well…time will tell.

    1. Hello Debora,
      I believe that doubts are what fuel us to further improve our own language skills. I am glad to hear that there are so many other likeminded people all over the world. Good luck with your bilingual journey! At the point that I am now, it feels like it becomes easier with the passage of time. Have a good year!

  5. Thank you, Elzbieta, for coining a positive label for this particular front of the bilingual movement!

    My wife and I are at the beginning of the journey. Our son is one and we have been *intentionally* exposing him to our second language, German, in rather monolingual Montana in the US.

    The “bilingualism runs in the blood” section made me think a little deeper about my own roots in bilingualism. I grew up in a military family and my earliest years were spent in Germany while we were stationed there. Later, as a teenager and university student, I choose to strengthen my connection to German-speaking countries by doing a series of student exchanges in Germany and Austria.

    While I don’t have any memories of my time as a toddler in Germany, I am told that I was exposed to a fair bit of the majority language. I believe that exposure set me up for success in my exchanges, particularly with my pronunciation.

    But I have mistakenly thought of this exposure as somewhat passive. Reading this piece, I realize that I have not fully acknowledged the intentional things my mother did to set me up for bilingualism. Her’s was not a full fledged bilingual project (she was starting from scratch herself), but she did take German classes while we were there, sang German nursery rhymes with me, and brought home German holiday traditions that kept me intrigued and interested. I even have a few old kids books in German that we now read to our son. It certainly helped that she was a teacher and early learning specialist.

    All that to say, thanks for helping me see my own bilingual roots a little clearer! I think I need to call my mom…

    1. It’s so nice to hear from you! I must admit that the deeper analysis of my upbringing (in terms of language development) was only possible when I went on the path of intentional bilingualism with my own children. Right now I appreciate my father’s work much more than I did as a kid – I’m just so much more conscious of the effort he put into the project. It’s so nice that you want to talk to your mom – maybe she’ll be willing to participate in the development of bilingualism in her grandchildren. My dad occasionally reads in English to my kids – it’s a nice way to acknowledge the value of our “extra” language.

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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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