Note: Be sure to read the many comments below this post. And feel free to share your own thoughts, too.
There are a range of well-known benefits for a child, a family, and even the world at large when a child is raised with more than one language. A few of these valuable benefits include:
- cognitive benefits, from childhood to old age
- social benefits, including closer communication with extended family members
- educational and professional benefits
- benefits for the world, when bilingual ability leads to bridge-building between cultures
At the same time, I think it’s worth drawing attention to the fact that raising a bilingual child—at least for the vast majority of parents—requires sizable sacrifices, too. And these sacrifices generally grow in proportion to the scale of a parent’s aim: if the goal is native-like proficiency in the minority language, including strong reading and writing ability—and yet schooling in the minority language isn’t part of the equation—then the sacrifices made over the course of the bilingual journey can be significant indeed.
Why is this important? Because I think people tend to focus on the benefits of bilingualism—as they should—but sometimes to the exclusion of the sacrifices that must be made to reap those benefits. I would never discourage anyone from seeking to raise a bilingual child—on the contrary, I always try to be as encouraging as possible because I believe that the benefits will always ultimately outweigh the sacrifices.
However, I also feel that it’s best to be bluntly honest about the challenges, too. Parents should enter this experience with their eyes open, clearly aware that the decision to raise a bilingual child—especially if the aim is high—will almost inevitably demand certain sacrifices, too, some that may not even be foreseen at the outset of the journey.
Because each family’s experience is naturally different, I can’t say which sacrifices will loom largest in another parent’s life, but perhaps sharing the main sacrifices of my own experience will suggest some likely challenges. My hope is that a keener awareness of this side of the bilingual journey might help cushion the impact of whatever sacrifices you face: after all, when we can anticipate the future, we’re better able to prepare for it and cope with it. (Please note: I’m just stating the facts of my experience for what they’re worth. I’m not whining over these circumstances—which I take full responsibility for creating—or angling for any sympathy.)
So let me describe the five biggest sacrifices that have been part of my journey to date. And below this post, I encourage you to comment by sharing your own experience of the sacrifices you’ve made (or expect to make) in raising a bilingual child.
5 sacrifices of the bilingual journey
Sacrifice #1: Time and effort
If responsibility for nurturing the minority language falls mostly on your own small shoulders—as it does on mine—then the amount of time and effort required to foster active ability in the target language must not be underestimated. Put plainly, if the bilingual goal is not made a central part of your lifestyle—something you devote substantial time and effort to on a daily basis—it will be far more difficult for the child to reach higher levels of language ability. I’m not making a value judgment here—even lower levels of passive ability can be a significant achievement, a good foundation for future growth. But if your dream is active ability in the minority language throughout childhood, then you must be willing to invest considerable time and effort toward advancing this aim.
Generally speaking, I enjoy spending time with my kids (like any parent, there are moments I’d rather run in the opposite direction!), and so, even if bilingualism wasn’t part of our lifestyle, I’m sure I would spend ample time with them. Still, I think it’s fair to say that, because of our bilingual goal, I spend a good deal more time with them than I otherwise would have, which means, of course, that my personal time for other interests, other activities, gets squeezed, at least to some extent. Quite simply, if my kids were monolingual, I’d likely have more time for myself.
However, that fact—which may be seen as a downside, on one hand—has actually produced an upside on the other: beyond fostering their bilingual ability, I believe this more intensive interaction has resulted in richer relationships with my kids. In this way, the sacrifice of time and effort has actually proven to be a blessing to our parent-child bond.
Sacrifice #2: Money
Resources in the minority language—books, workbooks, magazines, CDs, DVDs, games, apps, etc.—are crucial for promoting steady language development. Maintaining a continuous stream of suitable resources throughout childhood, to match the evolving age and language level and personal interests of each child, is a vital part of the journey and involves ongoing investment. (Not to mention devoting the regular time and effort required to seek out these suitable resources.) And beyond materials for the home, there may be costs for lessons in the target language, trips to other countries, and various other expenses.
When it comes to buying resources, I realize that I probably go overboard (my wife would wholeheartedly agree with that statement), but to my mind, the more resources I have in the minority language, and the more suitable those resources are for my children at each stage of our journey, the more I can maximize their progress. And because of my location, I simply don’t have access to a well-stocked public library with materials in the minority language.
I shudder to think how much money I’ve spent over the past decade on minority language resources and related expenses—though I naturally would have spent at least a sizable percentage of this same amount on books and other materials even if my kids were monolingual. Perhaps more than I expected, our bilingual goal has brought with it continuous costs that have pinched other aspects of our budget and our lifestyle. While this is a sacrifice I consider well worth making, I’m afraid that my wife and I (to cite only one example) rarely buy new clothes for ourselves anymore. (We’re like farmers who wear the same pair of worn-out jeans for 20 years. )
Sacrifice #3: My career
When my children were small, I worked full-time at the Hiroshima-area newspaper. I was a writer and editor with a good salary and benefits. At the same time, I was concerned about the situation because I worked long hours and my children’s exposure to the minority language—which basically came only from me—was limited.
In the end, the company—which, like newspapers everywhere, is facing financial challenges—did me an important favor when they downsized my position and asked me to work freelance from home. (My wife, though, naturally didn’t view this favorably at the time!)
For a number of years, then, I’ve been working from home as an independent writer and teacher, which has enabled me to provide much stronger language exposure for my kids. (And made it possible for me to start this blog, which probably wouldn’t have happened otherwise!)
However, I think it’s also true that, once I began working from home and recognized the positive impact this had on my children’s language development, it made me reluctant to seek another full-time position. At this point, because they’re now a bit older and their bilingual ability is firmly grounded, I suppose I would consider returning to full-time work, if a suitable situation appeared. But until now I’ve actively avoided taking this step, a choice that interrupted the more traditional career path I was pursuing.
Sacrifice #4: My own language ability
Before my children were born, I studied Japanese pretty hard and it became the main language for communication with my wife (whose English level is low). However, once we had kids, I rarely used Japanese at home, and never in front of the children. (If I had continued to openly speak Japanese, I was afraid that this would undermine their need to use English with me, once they began to talk.) At the same time, as I became busier at home and at work, I no longer opened my Japanese books very often and my diligent study habits faded.
For the sake of my children’s bilingual ability, my emphasis on English over the past 10 years has been very positive…but I’m afraid my Japanese hasn’t improved at all. In fact, I now speak the language with less confidence than before and I feel embarrassed that I’ve lived in Japan for 18 years and haven’t yet reached a higher level of fluency.
But it isn’t too late. And, actually, now that English has been firmly set as the shared language with my kids, I’ve begun dusting off my old textbooks and considering how I might again attend a Japanese class somewhere in town.
Sacrifice #5: My communication with my wife
Because I wanted to avoid speaking Japanese in front of my kids, particularly during their early formative years, and because my wife doesn’t speak English well, this meant that we have long communicated with each other by simply using our mother tongues: I speak English to her and she speaks Japanese to me.
This approach has worked well, in terms of our children’s bilingual development, but it’s been less successful for our own communication as a couple because neither of us is fluent in the other’s language. It’s something I guess we’ve just accepted, and gotten used to, but it’s nevertheless true that our communication prior to the time we had children—when we would communicate in one shared language, generally Japanese—was more effective and more satisfying. (This is clearly another reason I need to study Japanese again!)
A short price to pay
Of course, responsible parenting demands sacrifices from any mother or father, but I do think raising a child with more one language can compound such sacrifice, particularly for minority language parents. It may be that not all sacrifices should simply be accepted—I could have done more to maintain my progress in Japanese and improve my communication with my wife—but there are others, like the time and effort required to provide sufficient language exposure, that can’t really be averted without seeking support elsewhere. (And such solutions will likely have costs attached, shifting a sacrifice of time and effort to a sacrifice of money.)
At the end of the day, though, the sacrifices of the bilingual journey pale in comparison to the many benefits they bring, and the satisfaction that comes from our successes, however we define them for our own family. And though these sacrifices may last throughout the years of childhood, this is finally a short price to pay for the long lifetime of bilingual ability it bestows on our children, a gift that could go on giving for even generations to come.
Hello Adam. Thanks for bringing up the other flip side of the coin so to speak. I totally sympathise with your sacrifices especially the last one. Our situation is also somewhat unique. I am Czech, my husband Italian, and we live in England. I speak to my children (Oliver 4 and Victoria 1) in Czech whereas my husband in Italian. Our children go to local nursery and my son is due to start school in September. We use all efforts and resources to keep the 2 minority languages alive and so far I can proudly say that Oliver is trilingual. At the same time we are concerned about the level of English our son needs to acquire in order to succeed at school attended by monolingual children. At the same time my husband often finds himself in a competition with my language as I spend more time with the children. As per communication issues we tend to use a mixture of the 3 when all of us are present although I speak reasonable Italian which I use regularly especially when visiting relatives in Italy. When children are not present we switch to English. It is a challenge but I would not want it any other way.
Katerina, thanks for your comment. Yes, your situation is clearly challenging, but it sounds like you’re experiencing good success. Once your son enters school, I’m sure his English will grow quickly and he’ll do well alongside the other children. Actually, the larger long-term concern might be fostering higher levels of ability in his minority languages after English becomes a bigger part of his life. This is something you may need to address as time passes. All the best to you and your family, Katerina!
Wow, this is very, very well-phrased. Thank you for that!
My (Italian) husband and I were speaking just yesterday about how fortunate we are that HE can express himself so completely and easily in English, thus helping us out with #5. Nevertheless, he was lamenting that after 12 years in Italy, my Italian is still very much a *second* language. I use it frequently and reasonably fluently, but when I need to get an idea out clearly and concisely, I switch to English – something that I can fortunately do without consequences at my work place.
But, wow, I certainly feel #4…and seeing it in black and white here, I can clearly see that pushing English with my kids (now at 22 months and 6 years) has contributed to my Italian non-fluency. Fortunately this is somewhat compensated for by the fact that most of the world around my kids (other parents/teachers/doctors) is Italian ONLY, so I am forced to use my Italian, mistakes and all.
Lately when reading your blog, I feel like I’m cheating at this bilingual path. In September my 6-year old just started elementary school, and we opted for a bilingual public school where she gets 20 hours of instruction in English (from an Australian) and 10 in Italian per week. It makes my life much easier than had we opted for a standard, Italian-only school! We’re still pushing at home, but I feel like my job has been made immensely easier…so I’m cheating. 🙂 Nevertheless, we would not have chosen the bilingual school if she had not already been so fluent in English at age 6, which was all on my shoulders since day care and the world around her is all Italian.
Anyway, thanks again!
Amy, I understand what you mean by “cheating,” but there’s really only choices to be made, those that are as effective as possible based on our particular circumstances. And having a child attend a school that can provide strong minority language support, when this is an option, is often a very effective choice. Not only does it provide the consistent language exposure needed, it takes some of the pressure off the minority language parent to be constantly vigilant at home, as you noted.
I admit, sometimes I wish my kids had more English support at school—it would be a relief not to push quite so hard at home (probably a relief for my kids, too!)—but this just isn’t realistic right now…and, anyway, such circumstances give me more to write about at this blog!
Amy, let’s make improving our own language ability one of our resolutions for next year!
Thanks for sharing this. I also feel that raising bilingual children comes with the need to make numerous sacrifices. It’s certainly not easy. As the director of a language learning program, one of the most common comments I get from parents is that “it’s expensive.” Of course it is, this isn’t a have-fun and get-together play group. This is an investment in your child to better their life and their future above and beyond what almost any other activity can offer. The sacrifices in terms of time, energy, and money I make as a father to help my daughter are huge. But definitely worth it.
Nick, thanks for adding your thoughts. I would definitely agree with the idea that supporting children to speak more than one language can “better their life and their future above and beyond what almost any other activity can offer.” The investment may be substantial—there’s almost no getting around that fact—but the payoff is tremendous.
For me at this stage I feel the biggest sacrifice is not speaking to my daughter in my own native language. My husband is Chinese and I’m Australian and we hope our 18 month old will be able to speak Mandarin (we live in Australia). As the primary carer it is largely up to me to foster her Mandarin language development. It’s hard but I’ll keep striving to give her as much exposure to Mandarin for as long as I can.
Judy, yes, I feel for the sacrifice you describe (see Why Communicating in English with My Kids is So Important to Me), but it’s also true that, in time, you may be able to use more English, too, arriving at a happy place where you and your daughter can enjoy communicating in both languages. But, for now, I certainly understand the importance of emphasizing her exposure to Mandarin. Keep at it, Judy! I’ll be cheering for you from Japan!
Hi Adam, thanks for your precious suggestions.
Hope you don’t mind if I share here my experience…
I’m Italian and mom to a 4 years old boy. My husband is Italian and we live (guess where?) in Italy!
I studied English at the university, I use it every day at work and I speak pretty good English even though my accent (and sometimes also my pronunciation) are terrible. I spent a couple of months in US and UK here and there and obviously I can’t hope to improve in this way. Anyway, I was so willing to teach English to my kid (I failed my first English exam 4 times and it was soooo bloody frustrating) that I started learning nursery rhymes when I was pregnant. When Matteo was finally born I was stuck!! I did not know where to start! My vocabulary about diapers, dummies, willies (etc.) was so poor that I started abandoning my idea… BUT… I just went on singing… singing… and I found myself spending half of my day with my baby singing songs in English…and the good thing was that every occasion seemed to be good for a song!
Obviously Matteo began singing before he could talk…and he was doing that in English. In the meantime I was reading books (God bless Amazon!) and commenting them in English. And thanks to songs, books and Peppa Pig I found myself talking to him naturally and amazingly!!
Then when he grow up and started asking me “Mom, what does twinkle little star mean?” I understood that I had to give a sense to the dozens of songs he could sing…and this is why I created http://www.songsinthebox.com, a portal with lots of English and American songs with pictures of the lyrics and lots of activities for children 3-9. I created this website for him first and then for all those parents willing to teach English to their kids with little knowledge but great love and determination!
I don’t speak English every single moment with Matteo; actually sometimes we just share a few sentences but he understands most of what I (or other English speaker) say and he also answers to them pretty well!
Well, maybe this is not much…but to me this is the starting point of a great success…considering that Matteo’s teacher failed 4 times her first English exam at the university!! 🙂
Marina, thank you for sharing your experience and the link to your wonderful website. I think your example of singing to your son, and the many useful resources you offer at your site, can inspire others to take similar action, focusing on children’s songs as a first step toward nurturing a foundation in the minority language. I loudly applaud your good work (can you hear me clapping from Hiroshima, Japan?) and I wish you the very best, both personally and professionally. (Please feel free to join The Bilingual Zoo and share your efforts with our community there—I’m sure many people would find your approach very interesting and appealing!)
I’ll join the zoo and give my contribution! Have a good monkey day!
We are in a similar situation as yours: I also started teaching my kids English through songs and books, and gradually increased the English talking as they started understanding more. It does work! We had a couple of English speaking friends around which also helped a lot, but only once the kids knew some basics. Since moving countries and having hardly any English speaking people around any more, all their English input depends on me. So I am making more and more effort of only speaking English to them.
So keep up the good work!
Greetings from Germany,
with Joshua (6), Emily (5), Lisa (4) and Sophia (2)
Thank you Melanie,
Your post and your experience give me more strength to keep going… You know, sometimes it is hard and I often wonder if I’m going in the right direction… Then I listen to my boy speaking English while playing with his cars and I’m the the happiest mom in the world!
Hi Adam, just read your post. And yes, raising children in general and multilingual ones in particular, I agree with time, effort and money being an important part of raising multilingual kids. But just like many parenting sites, is it worth highlighting the sacrifices? Sometimes parents are so caught up in raising their children the right way (whatever that is, be it breastfeeding, cosleeping, babywearing) that they really go into their martyr roles and won’t be persuaded that their children would be just as fine with a more relaxed approach to parenting. The same with multilingual kids: I am pretty sure that if your approach to this would be more relaxed, your children would also speak English. I think your learning Japanese and communicating with your wife is just as important as raising your children with English and Japanese (which would in all likelihood happen anyway). I guess it is all about balance: it is possible to raise happy kids without putting all your time and effort into it, and it is possible to raise children with many languages without sacrificing everything for it. In all honesty, I am sick of articles that say how much sacrifice parenting requires. No one debates that. What parents need is not more sacrifice, but being told that they are doing fine. I know you would be doing just as fine without sacrificing so much.
Please allow me to respond to your post point by point. It seems that the commentators before you added more information to the article for us readers, while your comments are debating – let me take the bait.
1, Is it worth highlighting the sacrifices?
It was for Adam and some of us who read it and learned from it. He gave very valid reasons for doing so as well: because it’s easier to deal with obstacles if we know what we’re dealing with, and because some obstacles are unforeseen at the start of the journey, so his example might highlight certain obstacles that other parents might not think of as they make their decision to raise their children bilingually, set their goals high or low.
2, Sometimes parents are so caught up in raising their children the right way / they really go into their martyr roles
Sometimes they are and sometimes they do, but Adam never said what he was doing was the right way or wrong, he just states this is what he’s doing, so I’m not sure this is relevant here.
3, I am pretty sure that if your approach to this would be more relaxed, your children would also speak English.
Even though you seem to be sure, I think it’s hard to predict what would happen – and in the article, Adam makes it very clear that his goals are high, and this is what he thinks it takes to reach his goals (he also acknowledges where he goes overboard and in his other articles, he highlights how he keeps the atmosphere relaxed when he is with his kids). He has more information that helps him choose his approach regarding his life than any of us do.
4, I think your learning Japanese and communicating with your wife is just as important as raising your children with English and Japanese
With all due respect, what you think is important here is not important at all. It is his family, his life, and he is taking an honest look. You can choose to learn from his example, and follow it or do things the opposite way, or you can choose to ignore it.
5, It is possible to raise happy kids without putting all your time and effort into it
No doubt. Although whether the kids’ happiness is the most important goal of parenting is questionable. But the article doesn’t say anything about the kids’ happiness or misery. It talks about a very specific and a lot more measurable aspect of their life and skill set, their ability to speak both languages fluently.
6, It is possible to raise children with many languages without sacrificing everything for it
No doubt. The article states that Adam made his choices and the choice to raise the kids bilingually up to his standards required some sacrifices – by no means does he say he has given up everything, and he does state how much he has gained.
7, In all honesty, I am sick of articles that say how much sacrifice parenting requires.
You are making the choice to read the articles that talk about sacrifice in parenting. It would also be your choice to be more selective in your reading material.
8, Articles that say how much sacrifice parenting requires. No one debates that.
So no article should ever be written that doesn’t spur a debate? This article in particular is not aiming to start an argument, it states very specific examples of exactly what sacrifices Adam has made over the years to reach his specific goals. It is informational, not argumentative.
9, What parents need is not more sacrifice, but being told that they are doing fine.
What parents need in one culture might be very different from another culture, not to mention the individual differences. With the admitted risk of generalizing from uncontrolled observations and knowing that the issue is irrelevant from the point that Adam is making in his article, let me state that being told how fine the parents are doing (and how fine their kids are doing) is contributing to some very questionable consequences where I live.
10, I know you would be doing just as fine without sacrificing so much.
Doing just as fine with what?
I don’t think anyone has the ability to predict what would happen if Adam didn’t (and hadn’t) put the effort and time into reaching the goals he set out for himself and the kids. I think it’s pretty clearly stated that sacrificing something for something else (an act of giving up something valued for the sake of something else regarded as more important or worthy) is a fact here, not something to whine about, something to regret, something to feel bad (and not fine) about. There is a big difference in stating a fact vs. talking about the emotional baggage that we choose to attach to the fact, and Adam seems to state the facts of sacrifice and acknowledge the areas where he’s ready to change, but no one says he’s not doing fine now.
I hope you’ll continue to reach your goals, good luck with everything!
Olga, I wish it were true—I wish it were possible for me to be “doing just as fine without sacrificing so much”—but, from my perspective, this is mostly wishful thinking. The truth is, and this whole blog is my attempt to explain why, if I were “more relaxed” about my efforts, my children’s language development would not be as strong and steady as it has been over the past ten years. It’s even possible, depending on how “relaxed” I was, that my children would not actively speak the minority language at all.
The irony is, if I were more “relaxed,” and made less sacrifice (particularly in terms of time and effort), there would still be a sacrifice, but that sacrifice would be my children’s level of ability in the minority language.
Why? Because, as always, language acquisition comes down to exposure and need, and, generally speaking, the less exposure to the minority language I would provide (whether from me or through other arranged opportunities), and the less need my children would feel to use that language, the less progress they would make. In this crucial and concrete way, the bilingual journey can’t easily be equated with such parenting issues as breastfeeding, co-sleeping, and baby-wearing. (For the record, I took no part in breastfeeding, but I did do my share of baby-wearing and we continue to practice the Japanese custom of co-sleeping. )
As for my aims, I make no apologies for holding high expectations: I seek to maximize my children’s development in the minority language so they will continue to have roughly native-level ability, in all skill areas, throughout childhood. But this doesn’t mean I’m a tyrannical taskmaster about how I pursue this goal. In fact, my approach—which is a big part of this site, and expressed most directly in the post Be Very Serious. Be Very Playful. The Bilingual Journey Demands Both.—involves maintaining a healthy balance between “extreme seriousness” and “extreme playfulness.” I admit, I don’t always get this balance exactly right, and so I’m continually making adjustments along the way, but this is the ideal I uphold.
Finally, let me add that I take pains at this site to say that my aims and my approach are not a “method” that every parent must follow. If parents find value in my experience and my thoughts on this subject, wonderful; if not, that’s completely fine, too. I recognize that every family is different, with its own unique set of circumstances, and my goal for this blog is only to share my journey in the hopes that it may help others on their own travels.
Olga, I appreciate your thoughts and I wish you happy travels, too, whatever path you choose.
Time and money – once a week we go to the Dutch school here in Israel. We do this already for years. In the beginning I had to leave work early so I had to give back the time I was not at work on another day.
The hours of Dutch school are sacred – no holiday or birthday party will stop us. I sit for two and a half hours in the park waiting for him but this is pure benefit – all time for me!!
Money for books, DVDs, and also this school.
Talking as much Dutch as possible also when Hebrew would be faster and easier in certain cases – only homework is done in Hebrew.
We are lucky that Dutch and the Dutch people are seen as positive so people are a bit jealous we are able to talk this language. It helps that Dutch has a certain higher status than other languages people speak here.
Gretha, thanks for adding your experience! It sounds like these sacrifices are paying off for you and your family!
Great post and I agree with most of the points.
1. Time and Effort
Totally agreed, even time of our boy. Because we’ve decided he will be bilingual we have him travel 45 minutes one way to school. That makes a long day.
Chinese material from China is pretty cheap and I had already spent tons on my own education that the kids can benefit from.
3. My career
We benefit from our boy being at a bilingual immersion school so our careers haven’t suffered as such. But we would like our careers to be more convenient to his school. (i.e. closer or at the school)
4. My language ability
Since I learned Chinese as an adult and my wife learned English as a student in China, we’re both still learning each others’ languages. That way, I’ve always wanted to learn the “basics” of Chinese and now I am WITH my boy. Same with my wife, there are basic issues in English that she never learned in China. We both benefit this way.
5. Communication with my wife
This I couldn’t deal with. I agree this is a huge sacrifice which can be dangerous. Family time for us is very important and since we both speak both languages we from time to time switch back and forth. My Chinese isn’t as good as my wife’s English though and we do communicate a lot in English as a default argument language… 😀
I would add one more…
6. Relationship with family
Culturally we are very different than both our families. My parents don’t understand much of what we do and my wife’s parents don’t understand American ways. We make it work but the immersion school was a huge issue with my family… (asking why, he’s already immersed!!) and the possible trip in the future back to live in China will most definitely cause as much pain as our original trip from China to America.
Magnus, I enjoyed this peek into your experience and I wish you and your family all the best moving forward.
I would agree that my communication with my wife has been a downside that I wish were different. As I mentioned, now that my kids are a bit older, and the majority language is no longer the same “threat” to their minority language development, I think it’s possible to improve the situation by using more Japanese. Looking back, though, roughly halfway through the journey, I’m not sure I could have handled this aspect of our lives much differently, really, given our set of circumstances, without potentially undercutting the need for my children to use English with me.
Let me say this straight up… To me, raising multilingual children is not about sacrifices. Yes, it may cost money but I would never ever sacrifice the relationship with my husband for the sake of a language. A strong parental relationship is also a great gift and wonderful example for children. I find sacrificing a relationship a little sad. Multilingualism takes hard work and dedication but that is not the same as sacrifices.
Annabelle, I don’t disagree that the example of a strong parental relationship is important; I didn’t say that I sacrificed my relationship with my wife. Based on our particular circumstances, and our aim to hand down our mother tongues, we felt the choice to generally continue using these languages in our own communication, too, was best—not ideal, no, but the best approach available to us.
The thing is, we all work within less-than-ideal circumstances, whatever they may be, and we do the best we can to make the most effective choices possible for our own particular lives. Such choices are a balancing act, I think, as we try to satisfy a range of needs and desires. At the same time, the choices made inevitably limit other choices, and this is where, at least in my experience—in any sphere—there is continual “sacrifice” (maybe “compromise” would sit better with you?), not in any long-suffering martyr-like way, but simply as a fact of life.
Do you speak English to your wife while your kids are not around?
I use both languages, Joanna, but it’s true that I’ve gotten into a habit of speaking more English than I once did. As I generally don’t use Japanese as much as I used to, before my kids were born (when I spoke it often, in and out of the house), my ability has gotten rusty. And so I’m leaning on English with her more than I should…
It’s true that it probably doesn’t help your Japanese, but I’m sure that speaking English with her even when the kids aren’t around has helped you hardwire yourselves to do this all the time. I also wonder whether you speaking English to Keiko and her responding to you in Japanese wouldn’t make your children think it’s okay to respond to you with the ML too? (This doesn’t seem to be the case in your household…but I wonder for mine.)
Joanna, I think there’s a significant difference, in terms of its effect on an infant, between a parent who actively uses the majority language around that child and a parent who only (or primarily) uses that language passively, as in listening to the majority language parent. I’m not aware of any research on the subject, but my suspicion is that a baby doesn’t really have the capacity to judge whether the listening parent actually has ability in that language or not, and so this doesn’t undermine the child’s “need” for the language to nearly the same degree as active use. And by the time the child is a bit older, and can adequately judge the parent’s competency in the majority language, he has already been “conditioned” to communicate in the minority language, making this concern largely moot.
My sense is that this is what occurred with my own kids, and likely is the case for families of similar circumstances.
I’d like to add perspective as a fully bilingual parent. Time, money, effort and career still hold true for me. What changes is this:
1. My relationship with my daughter using majority language. When I was just starting out on my bilingual journey I would read to my daughter in both languages. Truth be told Llama Llama series and Dr Seuss are some of my favorite books. To get my daughter to speak Russian, I had to give up reading to her those books. We loved the Llama Llama books because of that special mama-llama relationship. It’s been 3 years and I still sigh as I look at the book on our shelf.
2. Relationships with the outside world. Nobody talks to us at playgrounds because the parents hear us chattering away in a foreign language and shy away from starting conversation. With a recent move and a job that’s almost an hour away, spontaneous conversations with strangers and school parents is probably the main way I had of making friends. Also as my daughters’ Russian improves the more annoyed my in-laws are that they can’t understand conversation between us.
Thank you Adam for posting this. I do think it’s very important to go into it with your eyes wide open. When my child wasn’t speaking my language I was angry and frustrated and didn’t understand why all the parents I saw either abandoned the language or had an incredibly easy time of it. It’s encouraging to know that I’m not alone in having minority language development be something that requires conscious dedication.
Tatyana, thank you for sharing your experience and your perspective. Yes, those “sighs” are simply part and parcel of the journey, I think—not something to dwell on, but still a fundamental reality for most parents raising bilingual children. This shouldn’t be misconstrued as a negative, glass-half-empty way of thinking, either—again, I’m not suggesting that we dwell in bitterness over our sacrifices nor is it impossible to address those situations that make us sigh most deeply. But I do think parents would be wise to hold a realistic, warts-and-all perception of what it means to pursue a bilingual goal for their children, especially if that goal is high.
Thank you for this very honest essay. I think it’s important for parents to think about the costs and benefits to what they do, the give and take of different choices. I also think this has helped me, as someone new to the bilingual journey, manage my own expectations about what level of bilingualism is realistic depending on what I am willing and able to do.
One sacrifice I have made is in my self-image. I had been pretty sure I would be an old-school parent and not one of those flash-card parents all stressed out about their child’s academic skills. Now what do I do every night? “Homework” with my 2 year old! But we love every minute and I don’t pressure him. That being said, here I am, a flash-card parent.
Oh well, if we don’t constantly ask ourselves, “What am I willing to do to get this done,” then we’ll never get it done!
Lena, I’m glad this post spoke to you. I think your point about “managing my own expectations about what level of bilingualism is realistic depending on what I am willing and able to do” is very well stated. That’s the thing: Generally speaking, I think there’s a strong correspondence between how much we’re “willing and able to do” and the level of language ability our children can reach—at least until they’re older and then continue the journey largely on their own. But this is true of anything in life, really: the more investment we make in something, the more progress we generally produce.
And there’s nothing wrong with being a “flash-card parent”! The key, I think, is how we handle those flash cards!
Once again, thanks for a great post. In particular, thanks for your honesty and openness. I noticed that a couple of the replies seem to disagree with you highlighting these truths, but I agree it’s important to be honest about the efforts raising a bilingual child implies. Every situation is different, and there might be cases where raising a bilingual child is easier for the parents, if there is a strong community, government or family support for example. But for a lot of us, it’s not as easy and it’s great to recognise that children don’t become perfectly bilingual just because one of their parents is foreign – or whatever particular situation a bilingual family is.
I am French living in the UK, which is not the worst combination – easier than yours, I’m sure – but my kids are fairly comfortable speaking French because I don’t work, because we’ve made the financial and time sacrifices to go to France and attend holiday clubs, because I speak French in front of our British friends, etc, etc… I don’t have as high expectations as you, and my children’s French is not quite equivalent to a French kid, but they are fluent. I know many foreigners whose kids don’t speak as naturally as mine, even if they might speak to them in their language and I believe the difference lays in big part in that type of effort / sacrifices. As you often point out, there is no right or wrong, and a smaller exposure to the language can still lead to an adequately bilingual adult, but of course, the more exposure they get, the more this outcome is likely. At only 3 and 6, my daughters’ bilingual journey is far from over, but I always find your articles a great help, realistic, encouraging and nonjudgmental.
Armelle, thank you. I’m heartened to hear your warm words.
I agree, every family is uniquely different, with not only a different set of circumstances that may make the journey more or less challenging, but also different expectations about the outcome and different perceptions about parenting. Actually, with such a broad range of needs and desires and views out there, this subject can be tricky to write about!
The truth is, I empathize with those who take a more “relaxed” view of their role, and wish I didn’t feel it so necessary to exert the amount of conscious and proactive effort that I do. But, based on my particular circumstances and my goal for native-level ability, including literacy—along with the fact that I’ve worked with a lot of bilingual kids and families over the years and have seen this process firsthand, many times over—I also know that it just isn’t realistic to expect that my children would make the same successful progress if I wasn’t so proactive.
So, in the end, I think it comes down to matching the amount of effort, and sacrifice, you’re comfortable making with the scale of your dream. I’m not telling anyone else what their goal should be, or how much effort and sacrifice they should make, but I do think it’s vital to stress that whatever the longer-range goal is, the amount of effort and sacrifice must match that aim or the family’s hopes will likely not be fulfilled.
Thanks for this awesome post Adam! I could not agree more with it! I am glad, it is not just me but lots of people out there whom also got to put a lot of effort and sacrifice to make sure the dream of having a bilingual kid comes true. Today it is just a dream for me and my husband. Twenty years from now, I am sure my son will be grateful for it.
It took me a few months before I started using the proper technique to raise my kid bilingual. I was one of those people whom thought that just by talking to him and being around would magically turn him into a bilingual person. So far from reality…
After reading a lot about bilingualism and digging into several bilingual blogs I can finally say I am on the right track. I can see the results of my efforts now. Hearing my 13 months old son saying four words in the minority language, it is music to my ears and makes the effort all worthwhile.
I live in the southwest of the USA where many people would say raising a kid bilingual (Spanish-English) is easy; but in reality this is not true. There are a lot of challenges that Spanish as a language is facing; for example, one is to be negative-linked to illegal immigration and to be related to lower class people (funny to see this class division still exists but sadly it does). Just to mention a few.
I know every situation is different, and I am sure it’s easier for some parents to the point they may not need to sacrifice much; but in general if you are doing it right, a lot of sacrifice is involved for sure.
Adam, thanks again for maintaining this website. It is a great inspiration for us, and it is part of your efforts too and we as your keepers value very much.
Dani, thank you for your kind comment. I’m really glad to hear, too, that you feel you’re on the right track. Keep at it, day by day, and I’m sure your son will grow into that bilingual young man who’s grateful for his parents efforts. Though it’s true that our children may not show much gratitude for these efforts during their childhood (mine don’t, either!), I think the guest posts by Tatyana and Olga make it clear that one day they undoubtedly will…
Thank You Letter from a Bilingual Child: Tatyana Leskowicz
Thank You Letter from a Bilingual Child: Olga Mecking
I found this post both interesting and enjoyable. Inevitably, we all have our own approaches and own ideas about what constitutes a sacrifice.
I also speak to my husband in my native tongue, English, and he replies in his, Greek, when the children are present. In fact, in front of the children, I only speak their dominant language, Greek, when socially necessary.
In my case it is very different, as I am already fluent in Greek, and my husband is in English, so there are no communication problems between us. But I would agree with the comment above – it does cause a certain amount of social isolation. People often assume that I cannot speak Greek or won’t understand them and do not approach me. This is a sacrifice I am willing to make, however.
For me, one of the biggest sacrifices has been a quiet easy life! I have had to switch to working from home, a precarious situation, but this would in any case have happened, bilingual or no, as I care for my son who has special needs. But it has been my insistence on bringing him up bilingually that has frequently caused my blood pressure to rise as professional after professional told me to stick to one language with him.
Financially, it is indeed a struggle. I have also bought a lot of books (and cajoled relatives in the UK into sending us even more books!) and other resources. I realised, however, that I could not afford to buy all the material I would like, and so I started writing fiction for the children myself. This way, I could tailor it to their specific interests and needs and use vocabulary that I saw they needed more examples of. The sacrifice here has been time. Writing fiction can be fun, and it has been very rewarding, but it is very time consuming!
Millie, thank you for your comment. I enjoyed learning about your experience, which in some interesting ways mirrors my own: how we handle the two languages, the fact that we both work from home, and our efforts at creative writing to produce reading material.
I understand the two sides of creating resources in this way: it certainly takes time and energy (and so I can only do it in spurts), but it’s hugely beneficial for language and literacy development. (And it’s often fun for me, too!)
In case you (or others) haven’t seen my posts about the comical stories I’ve written for my kids, largely as “captive reading” material, please see these posts…
Turn Your Kids into Eager Readers with This Fun, Simple Strategy
My Favorite Way to Get a Bilingual Child Reading More in the Minority Language
Also, Millie, you may be interested in joining us at The Bilingual Zoo, my lively (and free) forum for “keepers” of bilingual kids. You’d find a lot of warm support there, including a board for “Special Needs.”
Thanks, Adam, for your honesty in this (and your other) articles. As some others have noted above, each family is different and in their own unique situation, and has chosen (or been “forced” to choose) which sacrifices they will/will not make for their children’s bilingualism.
Here are ours (similar situation to Adam: NZ dad, Japanese wife, three kids – 7, 10, 12, but minority language at home approach).
1. Money – buying books in English, paying for our (almost) yearly trip to NZ, paying for “Saturday school (a school we started with some other international families).
2. Communication with my wife till the kids are in bed. My wife’s English has improved over the years (starting from beginning level), and to tell the truth she is still the kids’ main source of English, which means they pick up her grammatical/pronunciation mistakes sometimes. We switch to Japanese as soon as the last one is in bed.
3. “Perfection” in the kids English (as I mentioned just above). But our goal was always communication with my family in NZ, and they do great in that area.
4. Japanese ability (for the kids) – In the first few years, the kids (well the two boys, actually) had trouble with vocab at school (regular Japanese elementary school), and also with polite Japanese usage too. Now they are catching up and I really think this was just a temporary thing.
5. Time (but not as much as Adam) and effort and calm – we have the kids do 15 minutes of workbook time every weekday morning. This meant a lot of battles in the early stages, but is much calmer now.
Things we did not sacrifice:
1. My career – I still work pretty long hours (11-12 hrs/day most days, and a half day on Saturday), which means less time with my kids. That is why we chose the minority language at home approach. My job does give me good vacations which makes a difference in my kids’ ability.
2. My kids’ social lives – We switch to Japanese whenever a Japanese person joins the group, or when we are in public places.
3. My Japanese ability – I’ve been here since way back when, so this wasn’t an issue, really. In fact, when I do speak Japanese in front of the kids, they correct (well, laugh at, or imitate in an exaggerated way) my intonation when it’s wrong, which is something I need. Everyone is so polite here that after a while no one corrects your mistakes. Thanks, kids.
Each family has to make its own choices. This is a great website for families that are new to this. Adam and everyone here informs them (and us oldies) of a great selection of choices, some of which we would never have considered or even known about.
Peter, thanks so much for taking the time to share your experience and perspective. This insight into your family’s lives reminds me of the great irony of the bilingual journey (and the source of most differences of opinion and debate): Although our general goal is the same—good bilingual ability, to whatever degree we seek—our individual circumstances are different as a matter of course and so our choices and actions will naturally differ as well.
This is why I fully agree: The more we can learn about the journeys made by other parents, the better we’ll be able to make choices and take actions that will be effective for the needs of our own journey. Someone else’s approach may not be right for me, but that doesn’t make it wrong; after all, if it’s effective for them, then it’s right for their circumstances. And at the end of the day, I think that’s the best barometer: our judgment shouldn’t be based on “right” or “wrong” because those notions are completely relative—they depend on a family’s specific circumstances at a specific point in time. The real standard, for any situation, is simply this: Is this choice, this action, effective for the goal I seek in my own journey?