Even with the solid support of family members and friends, the bilingual journey can be a tremendous challenge for the minority language parent, both physically and emotionally. Not only does supporting the minority language require daily doses of physical energy, there are often ongoing concerns about language development—and quiet feelings of loneliness—that test the parent’s emotional strength.
And it all becomes tougher still—sometimes much, much tougher—when you feel a lack of support from the people around you.
Now and again, I hear from people who are struggling with this very scenario: a spouse, a relative, or a friend who shows little support—even open disapproval—for the efforts being made by the minority language parent to hand down the mother tongue. The circumstances naturally differ in each case, but the basic dilemma is the same:
How do I handle this lack of support in a way that enables me to overcome the frustration I feel and continue to effectively support the minority language?
This question, of course, has no universal answer. After all, the underlying reasons for this lack of support will always be unique to the circumstances, and so an effective response must fit the specific situation and individuals involved.
That said, I do think we can be helpful to one another by sharing our personal experiences and our thoughts on the subject. In this way, we can consider the problem from a variety of perspectives, which might provide ideas and inspiration for successfully addressing our own difficulties. And if this is a challenge you’re facing now, putting it into words may help clarify the problem, and replies from others could point you toward potential solutions.
To get the ball rolling, I’ll share my personal perspective below. Then it’s your turn. My hope is that a good number of comments (as in the outpouring of comments to What Language Should I Speak in Public with My Bilingual Child?) will benefit us all as we navigate what can be rough bumps on our bilingual journey.
“Lack of value”
While there may be a range of reasons for a lack of support, I suspect that, in many cases, a large part of this stems from the fact that the person is unable to see the value of the child acquiring the minority language and becoming bilingual.
In my situation, because English is our minority language and we live in Japan, where English ability is prized, this has been a definite advantage when it comes to others’ perceptions of my efforts to hand down this language to my children. I recognize the good fortune in this, and I realize, too, that there are other minority languages which don’t share this same advantage. In fact, quite the opposite may be true: the perceived “lack of value” of a minority language can lie at the very core of this problem of lack of support.
First, let me say this, loud and clear: Whatever your minority language, if it has value to you, it has value. Period. No one should ever have to defend the value of handing down their mother tongue to their own children if they feel, personally, that it has value within the family.
Even if my mother tongue was Martian, you can bet that I would still be just as persistent about fostering Martian in my kids, because this language would be at the heart of who I am and they simply couldn’t know my soul if they didn’t know that language. (For a fuller discussion of this, see Why Communicating in English with My Kids is So Important to Me.)
At the same time, helping others see the more tangible value in a minority language where this value is harder to quickly grasp—beyond its intrinsic spiritual value to the parent-child bond—can raise their awareness and refresh their attitude toward your efforts.
How? Here are three ideas…
The true value
1. The value of bilingual ability in general
There is now ample scientific evidence that being bilingual has a very positive impact on the brain, throughout a human life. Not only does ability in multiple languages strengthen the mind during childhood, this effect apparently lasts into old age, helping to stave off mental decline by several years. Simply put, bilingual ability—whatever the minority language might be—is exceedingly good for a child’s brain.
2. The value of bilingual ability to the child’s life
Depending on the particular minority language, it may be difficult to say, here in the present, how this language will be of value in the farther future, professionally or socially. But I would be willing to bet that ability in any minority language in this day and age (even Martian) will add value and advantages to the child’s life, on into adulthood. The world has become so small, so interconnected, that bilingual ability can’t help but enrich a person’s lifetime.
3. The value of the child’s bilingual ability to others’ lives
In A Powerful Way to Inspire a Positive Attitude in Your Bilingual Child, I discuss the idea that finding opportunities for the child to be helpful to others through the use of the minority language can be a very potent way for him to feel the value of this ability. At the same time, such opportunities could also demonstrate this value to the people around you. The challenge is: What opportunities can you find, or create, so that your child could somehow help others by using his bilingual ability?
While there may be other factors involved in someone’s lack of support, much of the problem could simply be that this person doesn’t yet understand the true value of bilingual ability and the minority language. If that’s the case, what is needed is not blame, but education: by patiently educating the person—by communicating, and demonstrating, the value of the minority language in the ways described—you will hopefully move their mindset in a more positive direction.
Ideally, of course, the goal is to gain the active support of such people, but even their “passive support” would be far better than the obstruction they may be causing now. At least with “passive support” (which would basically describe the situation with my dear wife), you will be free to continue your efforts without the frustrations of their interference.
You are not alone
Finally, remember—always remember—You Are Not Alone.
In fact, you can find warm, sympathetic support at The Bilingual Zoo, my lively forum for “keepers” of bilingual kids. There are hundreds of other parents in this community, providing mutual encouragement for raising bilingual children, and you would be welcome to join us…
I think it’s really important to take a step back and look at the bigger picture concerning the benefits of bilingualism when faced with opposition or a lack of support. Our son is only seven months old and we thankfully haven’t encountered any real opposition or objectionable comments so far. I think that some negative attitudes towards bilingualism stem from the insecurities of people who only speak a single language.
Yeah, that’s right. I think the opposition on bilingualism is due to the incompetence, I hope without maliciousness, of people around. Here in Italy, especially, I’m always struggling. I don’t understand why my parents don’t speak English with my kids. Unbelievable. My kids don’t even speak Italian yet, just English, and my parents just don’t. Why? I don’t know what to say. They’ve been living in Italy for 20 years and it seems they forgot their own mother tongue.
Jonathan and Kiara, this sort of personal emotion—insecurity or even envy—may be another factor that contributes to negative attitudes from some.
I’m a bilingual from a 100% monolingual family. My husband is also monolingual and his family. I’m seeking to raise my children bilingually and hear the C word too much…confusion. Fortunately, I know the research about second language acquisition and bilingualism and teach it for a career. There is actually no Theory of Language Confusion I teach my students. There are so many cognitive, social, economic, and even health benefits to being multilingual. I have to remind myself this when I feel family does not get my choices. I keep simple reminders for myself and my students on a pinterest board if anyone is interested. Thank you all for the encouragement. I’m hoping 25 years from now my kids will thank me!
Mandy, thank you for your comment. I agree completely and I appreciate the link that you shared. The idea of “reminders”—whether related to a lack of support from others or a lack of personal motivation when it comes to our own daily efforts—seems to be a vital part of maintaining a strong spirit as a parent.
And, yes, I believe that all our children will be grateful for the efforts we’re making now when they’re finally bilingual adults!
I found this interesting because our bilingual journey is the “opposite” to yours; we are living in Australia, trying to raise our child to use Japanese (her mother’s native tongue).
While we have almost universal support for our objective (raising a bilingual child), there is often a certain amount of apprehension at our method. We only speak Japanese to our daughter at home (in my case as much as possible, she’s just 4 months, so still within my abilities!).
I think people are worried she may somehow come out of this only speaking Japanese, but living here, it will be hard work for everyone just to get her to any sort of Japanese proficiency! I guess for some people the difference between the ideal and the reality of bilingualism can catch them unprepared, which may lead to feelings of insecurity.
Liam, I would encourage you to patiently stand your ground and continue using this “minority language at home” approach, at least for the time being. Although it’s true that your daughter’s English may not develop as quickly as her Japanese—and this will likely create concern among members of your extended family when she’s initially unable to communicate with them well—the long view here would be more beneficial to her minority language development. In other words, by giving her Japanese a head start, you’ll raise the odds of fostering a firm foundation in this language and “conditioning” her to use it actively, particularly with her mother. Once her Japanese has taken root, at around 3 or so, it may be possible for you (just you) to gradually shift to using more English with her, if that’s your preference and if the circumstances seem suitable. Bear in mind, however, that her English will develop relentlessly when she grows older and begins attending a majority language school (to the relief of your family members!). So your wife, as the main minority language parent, will need to be as proactive and persistent as possible about using Japanese with her and supporting her Japanese side, throughout childhood.
I send my best wishes (and a big dose of minority language exposure) from Japan!
I’m prepared for the fact that my daughter may not speak English, or at least that well, for a few years. But I feel the effort is a must; we have a friend whose parents are both Japanese, however as she was born and raised here her Japanese lags her English in significant areas, despite going to Saturday Japanese schools.
I plan to keep trying to use Japanese for as long possible, because although my wife has the “quality” input, from what I’ve read on the topic, “quantity” and “variety” of input are also important.
Liam, I agree. When it comes to the minority language, it’s generally better to err on the side of more exposure!
Hi, my story is a bit different to yours. I am French and I live in England. My husband is English and he is a French teacher at an Upper school. We are both speaking French to our 2 year old son since he was born. He goes to nursery one day a week and to his grandparents one day a week as well. The rest of the time he is with me. We play, sing, read books, etc. in French all day long! And yet, he only speaks English… He knows about 20 words and they are all in English! I can see that he understands both languages but he only says English words. I don’t understand what I am doing wrong…
I am so upset about it. We receive no support from my husband’s family, they are just glad he is speaking English. They don’t understand how important it is for me (and also for his future) that he speaks my language. They are just saying that we are confusing him. Should I really stop speaking French to him?
Pauline, thank you for reaching out. I feel your frustration, but I urge you and your husband to stand your ground, disregard the misguided thinking of your husband’s family, and continue communicating to your son in French. As Norman Vincent Peale said, “It’s always too early to quit,” and in your case, the bilingual journey has really just begun (even though the past two years may feel like forever sometimes!).
I also encourage you to read this post, as it speaks directly to your concern…
Important Thoughts on Babies and Hammers
In fact, it sounds like you and your husband are making a lot of good efforts that I expect will eventually pay off well, as long as you continue to be patient and persistent about exposing your son to French on a daily basis.
One thing to consider, though, since exposure doesn’t seem to be a significant issue at the moment, is your son’s actual need to use French with you and your husband. You say that you both speak to him in French, but are you also using English with him or around him? If your son is clearly aware that you and your husband speak English, this may be undermining his need to use French with you. After all, if he knows that you’re also fluent in the majority language—the language he hears everybody else speaking—he might just assume he can use that language with you as well.
I know this is very tricky, since you both obviously need to use English, too, but I think it’s true that the more you can consciously control your use of English around him, during these first few formative years, the more you’ll be able to establish a firm foundation in French and “condition” him to use French with you as his language ability grows. If using French outside the home, too, seems impossible, then I would follow a strict version of the “minority language at home” approach and make it an iron-clad rule that only French is spoken at home; English can then be spoken, by everyone, out in the community. By being clear and consistent in this way, about the “domains” for each language, he will come to distinguish when the use of each one is expected.
For more food for thought about which language to use in public (a concern of many parents), please see this post, and the many comments below it…
What Language Should I Speak in Public with My Bilingual Child?
Pauline, I’m cheering for you! Stay strong, and keep up your firm, playful efforts in French, day after day after day! I look forward to hearing good news from you as time goes by!
I encountered resistance from my in-laws when my first child was a baby. I heard “don’t throw out the baby with the bathwater” and when he got a little older, “Grandma doesn’t speak Spanish—you have to speak to me in English” which is a true statement, but in contrast, my mother tries to learn Spanish words, and will use them with him/them when speaking English. It is so frustrating.
My big downfall was when my husband was out of the country and I had a chance to go on a trip for a week with my mom and her sisters. My mother-in-law was going to watch my son while I was gone, and she was very apprehensive about the language barrier. I decided (foolishly) to speak English only to him for one week before I left just so that he would know words for things that we used and did every day. Everything was fine for them, but when I came back, it was so difficult for me to slip back into Spanish. I am not a native Spanish speaker, and it is a daily struggle for me. That, combined with having a toddler, being pregnant, and my husband being gone, it was so easy to just speak and not have to think about the correct word or tense first, and my Spanish—and his—started severely lacking.
Four years later and we are still struggling with this, but even more so now that he is in kindergarten at a school with hardly any Spanish speakers, and it’s carrying over to my daughter. She resists speaking Spanish even when I bribe or tell her that I don’t understand English, and they play together in English. I am always trying to find different ways to expose them to the language (currently on the hunt for a new Spanish speaking babysitter, and am in the process of revamping our bilingual playgroup) but it is an uphill battle. I just wanted to let others know that if they are struggling or wondering about quitting—DON’T! It is worth it in the long run, and they will thank you for it someday, but don’t make it harder on yourself by taking a few steps back like I did.
Katie, thank you for this very helpful comment. (In fact, let me thank you for the many helpful comments you’ve made at this blog!)
Despite the difficulties and frustrations, you continue to do your best and I applaud you for staying so positive and proactive. Keep going, and keep seeking out opportunities for your children to engage in Spanish. Your efforts will surely pay off over time, even if English grows dominant during their childhood.
If you haven’t already seen it, this post might offer some additional food for thought…
Help! My Bilingual Children Are Losing Their Ability in the Minority Language!
This is a great blog and thank you for bringing this topic up. It’s a very current issue for us. I am raising our 2,5 year old son living in England with his English father but only speaking Russian to him. We were lucky enough to find a minority language day care and also have a Russian speaking nanny. I also read a lot to him as often as possible. His father speaks and reads English to him but the exposure is very limited because of work etc.
As a result his minority language is at a very developed stage, grammatically correct and I can have conversations with him, ask his opinion on things etc. whereas his English is very basic (simple words and 1-2 sentences with no grammar structure). Grandparents and English friends often comment on what to them seems like not integrating a child into society. I grew up speaking my minority mother tongue in another country, immigrating from Russia at the age of 11 and I know how quickly children pick up a new majority language, so I’m confident his English will develop. I find it very tiring and also a little demeaning to constantly explain our choices to other family members, maybe I am wrong and, like you say, educating them is the right thing to do!
I found the best remedy for feeling the lack of support is talking to like-minded people, parents that are in the same situation and to do that regularly. Some parents from the day care where my son goes have a habit of meeting once/twice a week at each other’s houses, children play together, they can hear us speak the language (and pick up new vocabulary and skills from each other) and we get to share the ideas on how to foster the minority language. Their support has been invaluable. So, if there is a lack of support somewhere (family, friends), actively look for it elsewhere, and don’t give up!
Anna, thanks so much for sharing your story. I understand the downside of the situation at the moment—the need to explain, even defend, your son’s language development—but you’re absolutely right, his English will progress just fine as he grows older so it’s important that family and friends show patience and take this longer view.
In fact, although they may see the head start to Russian as something negative, as “interference” to his development in English, to me, a head start in the minority language is generally very positive because it can help prevent the majority language from quickly becoming dominant and pushing the minority tongue into a more passive role. So I expect the current situation will prove to have been an advantage as time goes by.
And thank you for stressing the importance of reaching out for support to others, if that support can’t be found closer to home. This is very good advice, and I’m glad you’ve found a circle of kindred spirits in your area.
Thank you so much for all your blog posts. I just started looking into multilingual support last night and I feel so much more encouraged to continue with my efforts. I live in Australia and my language is English. I learnt Indonesian and French in school (to a very basic formal level) and can converse simply in Indonesia (need to brush up my French). So I’ve always been into languages but consider myself monolingual.
My husband is from Kuwait but Pakistani so speaks Urdu fluently and could re-pick up Arabic which he learnt in school. He tried to teach me Urdu but failed and I gave up. I decided to learn Arabic as his family speaks that too and I have more resources available and access to teachers than I do in Urdu (and I prefer Arabic). I thought I was being stupid trying to learn for my daughter who is now 8 months. I really want her to be fluent at least in conversation but also reading and writing (which I am). I am learning the standard Arabic which they use for news and school, there are too many dialects. I was fortunate enough to have a friend who speaks it to a high level too that can teach me.
I’m finding it hard however because my husband doesn’t value this language and what I’m trying to do. He doesn’t really talk to her in Urdu and I know she won’t learn it just like me if he doesn’t. But I’m focusing on Arabic. After reading your posts I would like to only speak Arabic with her, but my level is very basic so I’m trying one hour a day to start with. Hoping to increase to your 25. I have found cartoons, (which I don’t understand at all) and I think I should be the sole Arabic parent even out in public. My question is, does this sound like I’m doing ok? I also plan to homeschool and would only be able to in English at the moment, so would I treat that the same as her going to school in the majority language, English, then switch to Arabic during breaks and before and after? It’s definitely not an easy language to learn and I’m very self-conscious as my previous language learning was all through correspondence so I am shy and feel silly speaking anything other than English. I realise I must just get over this and I’m trying my best. Thank you for your posts again.
Rebecca, first, I commend you for the efforts you’re making to learn Arabic yourself and nurture this language in your daughter.
At the same time, I’ll be honest to say that the situation you describe will make it hard for her to acquire Arabic simultaneously with English. You and she can learn the language together, as a second language that can grow over time, but it isn’t realistic to expect that she will develop early fluency under such conditions. Not only does she lack exposure to Arabic, she will lack the need to use it with you, since your shared language is predominantly English. Exposure and need are the two “core conditions” for language acquisition.
Your husband can make a huge difference here, in terms of providing this exposure and this need, but he would have to use Arabic consistently with your daughter to establish a firm foundation in the language as well as “condition” her to use Arabic with him once she begins to speak. But without his active participation and support (why wouldn’t he want to hand down this heritage language?), or another way of increasing this exposure and need, it would probably be best to reset your expectations about early fluency and instead view this from a different, but still positive, perspective: you and your daughter, though your relationship will largely be in English, can still make significant progress together in Arabic over the days, weeks, months, and years ahead. All the best to you, Rebecca!
I am the resistance. This will be mine and my husband’s only shared child. I had high hopes of him being bilingual. I totally see the benefit. However, my “dream” was that this baby would tie us together in a way we haven’t really ever been. He has raised his children. I’ve raised mine. I wanted for us to do all of the raising and playing and teaching together this time. I am afraid that rather than being able to form unity in our home, this may form a wedge. It will be my husband and the baby… And then the baby and myself… Two separate relationships. How will we teach and play together as a family when I don’t understand the minority language? I want so badly to have my cake and eat it too. I want my son to learn his father’s language tongue and be brilliant and fluent…but I also want to have simple and meaningful conversations with my husband and child. I am looking to see if there is any advice on the best way for me to support my husband in this journey…but also for my heart to be out at ease because we just won’t have the interactions I had hoped for?!
Jennifer, the actual circumstances of the situation aren’t quite clear to me since, on one hand, my impression is that your journey with this baby hasn’t begun yet…but, on the other hand, you seem to already speak with regret over the situation.
In either case, though, I really feel that the way to “have your cake and eat it, too” would be for you to put all the energy you can—including the energy you’re now putting into these worries—into learning the minority language right alongside your child. By making this commitment, and taking it on with a positive attitude and persistent effort, day by day, you will surely be creating the most unified family possible for such circumstances. Will you become completely fluent and never feel “left out”? Maybe not, but complete fluency is probably an unrealistic goal and you could still make significant progress, and attain a satisfying amount of ability, if you apply yourself to this goal with a full heart and a determined mind.
Many other parents out there have felt these same concerns and responded by learning as much of the minority language as they can for the sake of the child’s bilingual development and a happy home life. You can do the same, Jennifer! I’m cheering for you!