I was born in Israel, for those of you who don’t know…I married a wonderful American man (he was a mere boy when I first met him, but pish posh). When our friends and family started getting pregnant around us, we sorta started talking about what it would be like to have kids…SORTA. Then, I got knocked up with Bella. We started talking some more about how we were going to raise this bean inside my bump. One thing that I came to realize was that it was SUPER important for me that my child (and then kids) to understand my background, where I am from and that they speak-a my language.
So, I sang to the bump all the songs my mom sang to me as a kid. I started compiling Hebrew children’s books. I spoke to the bump in Hebrew. Now, this was tricky – before I knew the sex of the baby, I had to say everything twice. You see, Hebrew is a genderized language – so there’s a masculine and feminine for each object. As in, hello baby (girl) versus hello baby (boy). I NEEDED to know the gender of this baby, just to save myself some time!
Skip to Bella’s birth…I spoke to her ONLY in Hebrew from the minute she came out of the womb. I knew she would naturally speak English. I mean, she lives in NYC, her family is American, 99% of the human beings she interacts with on a daily basis speak English. Soon enough, she started saying her first words. She called me “Mama” but her father was “Aba” (still is!). She definitely had a more robust English vocab than Hebrew, but no matter what language was spoken, she completely understood.
When she was two, I was hoping the Hebrew would start flowing a bit more steadily out of her mouth. She was completely fluent in Hebrew (every single thing I asked her to do or anything I told her in Hebrew, she would understand). She refused to speak the language. Then, I put her in a preschool where the teachers and at least half of the kids spoke Hebrew. Wow, what a difference the last year has made. Bella now responds to me in Hebrew, asks me questions in Hebrew, asks me how to say things in Hebrew, etc. The school coupled with our trips to Israel have really cemented her language skills. The fruits of my labor are just now starting to show. Boy, am I thrilled!
I read this article the other day, and thought it very interesting. I guess what I have been doing with the girls is pretty right on in terms of “How to Raise Bilingual Children.” I figure that since I’m not a linguistics expert, you’d prefer to read tips from the woman who founded the Multilingual Children’s Association. Are you raising bilingual kids? Do you have any great tricks or tips?
Raising Bilingual Children: The First Five Steps to Success
by Christina Bosemark, founder of the Multilingual Children’s Association
When I was growing up, the only way to raise a truly international child was via an exorbitantly priced Swiss boarding school. Luckily, such elitism has been thrown out the window, and now parents raise multilingual children themselves. The children grow up just as world-savvy and sophisticated — and actually know their own parents! Still for the do-it-yourselfer, a few tips can smooth the way.
The most common question people ask me is “How do I raise a bilingual child the best way?” “Easy, just talk to them!” is my tongue-in-cheek response. It seems almost impossible to imagine the baby transforming into a communicating creature, let alone one conversant in several languages. Although the miraculous progress from cooing to speech occurs in exactly the same fashion whether it transpires in one or in several languages, the practicalities are different. Here are the first steps to raising your very own polyglot tot.
- Family agreement: Even though agreement within the family is perhaps the most essential ingredient, I am sometimes asked, “What do I do if my partner doesn’t want me speaking to our child in a language he doesn’t understand?” An insecure spouse may fear being excluded from “the secret language” between the other parent and the child. Discuss and compromise. It is very important that couples find some solution that is acceptable to both parents as well as beneficial to the child.
- Enthusiastic, yet realistic: Once the idea of two languages has settled in, many people consider adding more. Usually the number of languages spoken within the household is enough for the child to absorb, but it’s actually possible to successfully introduce as many as four languages simultaneously — provided you can offer enough exposure and need for each one. Still, research suggests that a child needs to be exposed to a language 30% of his or her waking time to actively speak it, and since waking time is a finite quantity, so, too, is language acquisition.
- The practical plan: Next, you need to make sure you have a plan. Agree on who speaks what language to whom and then stick to it. There are endless variations on the two most successful language systems. The most common involves one person who always speaks to the child in the ‘foreign’ language. Anyone who is spending a significant amount of time with the child can function as this primary speaker. The second most common language system is where the whole family speaks in the foreign language. To add another language beyond those already spoken within the family, or if your family doesn’t speak any foreign languages, you’ll need to provide an outside source like an immersion program, a nanny or an au pair.
- Get together: Building a support network is probably the most underestimated success factor, so find others who are raising their children to speak your language. You’ll benefit from their knowledge and be able to share both your doubts and your triumphs. It also ensures future play dates that will provide your child with the ultimate language teachers – other kids. Books, music, movies, and toys in your minority language are the most obvious ways to boost your child’s exposure, but there is also an amazing range of other household items such as place mats, tableware, posters, etc.
- Be patient: Raising multilingual children requires patience, and there are going to be times when doubt sneaks in. As with most aspects of parenting, it’s a long term commitment and there will be ups and downs. But remember, that’s happening to the parents of the monolingual children too! Don’t worry if your child doesn’t speak his multiple languages as quickly or as adeptly as his peers. Instead focus upon his successes and marvel at the development of his little brain. Always praise, praise, and then praise some more! Know that when your child says, “I want a hug” in your language, you’ll almost cry with pride. At that moment, it won’t matter that it took some extra effort or that you had to wait a bit for the result.
And, hey, remember, you’re not alone. Madonna, Andre Agassi, and Antonio Banderas are among those raising bilingual children. And if they can do it, why shouldn’t you?