Bilingualism and language learning are hot topics in my household. That’s no surprise since all four of us are bilingual, and my husband and I are both language teachers. In fact, we’re all steeped pretty deeply in language learning.
I’ve been studying the processes of how humans acquire language since beginning my master’s degree in linguistics in 1998. I’ve also been personally involved in language learning after studying French, Czech, Spanish, and Portuguese for at least two years each, plus the equivalent of two semesters of German and ASL (American Sign Language). Since then, I’ve dropped all of those except Portuguese, which has become my second language.
My husband has been immersed in the process of language learning since coming to the U.S. to learn English almost two decades ago. Since then, he’s learned the language so deeply that he not only thinks in English and has near-native control in writing and speaking, but he also is an English instructor at a community college.
So, because language learning is an important part of both our home life and work life, I have quite a bit to say on this topic, especially after seeing so much talk about the benefits of raising bilingual children.
How does a bilingual house work?
Every bilingual household is unique, but this is how ours works. Both of my kids, ages 8 and 5, are bilingual. We have a two-language household–English and Portuguese. My husband speaks only his first language with our kids, I speak only English with our kids, and my husband and I speak mostly English together.
When the four of us are together, it’s a seamless mix of the two languages, with my kids switching back and forth between the two languages depending on who they’re talking to, and my husband using English with me and Portuguese with the kids. Fortunately, because I understand Portuguese well, this works just fine for us.
We don’t “teach” our kids languages. We let them learn language naturally, just as children have always done and should still do. Kids learn language from their parents and the world around them. Since birth, we have spoken to our kids in our native languages (me in English, my husband in Portuguese), and our kids have naturally, easily learned the two languages from the beginning.
But just because this works for us doesn’t mean that it should work for everyone. I think that bilingualism is a wonderful gift that we can give our kids, but I don’t think it’s the right choice for every family.
Should we raise our kids to be bilingual?
In my opinion, the answer is, um, maybe. It depends on factors that differ from one family to the next.
Here are some reasons to raise kids to be bilingual:
Because being bilingual is a wonderful skill that helps build bridges between cultures. In today’s globalized world, that’s a huge plus.
Because children learn language so easily. (Although that’s actually is an oversimplification–children learn the phonological characteristics–i.e. the pronunciation–of languages in a way that adults do not. Because children have an amazing capacity to learn language without an accent, we often view that as an ability to learn language easily, but language learning is actually much more complex than that.)
Because if your children are in a situation where they will be exposed to more than one language, it just makes sense. The situation could be like ours, in which each parent speaks a different first language, or a situation in which the kids are growing up in a country where they speak a different language at home (such as an American family living in Mexico).
Because being bilingual delays the onset of dementia. While dementia is probably not your first concern with your small children, one benefit that seems to really be true is that bilingualism helps fight off dementia as we age.
Because bilingual schools are becoming more popular. You don’t need to start when your child is tiny. An immersion school will make your child bilingual; if you’re interested, check out options in your area.
Here are some reasons that raising bilingual kids might not be for you:
Because it might not fit the situation in your household. If you or your partner don’t speak another language, it won’t be easy for you to introduce another language in your home. Some people have done it, and that’s great, but for most of us, parenting is already challenging enough without the added pressure of finding ways to introduce your child to another language at home.
Because there are other ways to give your children a well-rounded upbringing. Yes, bilingualism is a wonderful gift to give your child, but there are many others. If it doesn’t seem like the right fit for you, do what feels right and instead devote your energy to those ways in which you can truly be there for your children.
Because many of the purported benefits of bilingualism may not really be true. This is controversial, but recent comparisons of studies of bilingual children have shown conflicting evidence. Don’t get me wrong–it’s definitely a good thing, but it may not be as advantageous as we’ve thought in recent years.
Because raising children to be bilingual might be harder than it first appears. Children are bilingual when they can function in both languages. This doesn’t happen unless the child gets consistent, quality input for an extended period of time, and it won’t stick if the child doesn’t have a good reason to keep it up.
In the end, I think that, like most aspects of parenting, there’s no right or wrong way. We should do what feels right for our families and ourselves.
I’d love to hear your thoughts. Have you tried to raise your children to be bilingual?
P.S. On being a bicultural family