Is it Possible to Raise Children in Your Non-Dominant Language?
I am expecting my first baby in early May and, of course, its linguistic future is on my mind. I’ve always planned to raise my children at least bilingually with English and Spanish but, given that I am currently living in an English-speaking community without a big group of Spanish-speaking friends, can I really do it? Although I consider myself fluent in Spanish, it is not my default language, the language of my family, or the language I speak with my partner. Perhaps most importantly, I don’t know Spanish nursery rhymes or all the baby vocabulary like diaper and stroller and teething! So how am I going to raise a Spanish-speaking baby??
I have done the research and given this subject a lot of thought, especially working in Indigenous language revitalization and knowing how vital raising children in the language is for language preservation. In the communities I work with, there are many second-language speakers of their languages who will soon be faced with this same question. So here’s what I’ve discovered:
The Benefits of Multilingualism
There is ample evidence out there about the benefits of bilingualism and multilingualism so I won’t go into a lengthy discussion here. Among other things, bilingual children have been found to be better able to focus their attention on relevant information and ignore distractions, and bilingual people have proven to be more creative, better at problem solving, and even more tolerant. There is also evidence that bilingualism and multilingualism reduce the effects of aging and can delay the onset of dementia. And of course multilingual people have greater access to jobs, resources, people, travel opportunities, and the list goes on!
How Babies Learn Languages
Fetuses in the womb start to hear some noises around 16 weeks, and can hear their mother’s voice by week 25. That means for at least the last 10-15 weeks of pregnancy, babies are listening to their mother’s speech patterns, and research shows that when they are born babies can already distinguish between their mother’s language and other languages.
Research also shows that babies are the best language learners in the world. Unlike the rest of us, when they are born they can distinguish between all the sounds in all the languages of the world – which means they can learn any language they are exposed to. By about 6-12 months, they will start to specialize in the languages around them, slowly losing the ability to distinguish sounds that they do not hear regularly. Check out the video at the beginning of this post which explains this phenomenon and other fascinating information about how babies learn languages (definitely worth 10 minutes of your time!)
The first year is an especially critical period. A recent study showed that the brains of children who were adopted into another language community at 12 months old permanently retained the language information they had developed in their first year of life, even if they could no longer speak that language. So there is no such thing as too early for language exposure! (There’s also no too late!).
The amount of exposure is also relevant – just hearing the language here and there won’t be enough. They say that children probably need to be exposed to the language about 30% of the time in order to learn it well.
Strategies for Raising Children in Your Second (or Third or Fourth, etc.) Language
It’s pretty amazing that my baby can already hear me and is learning my language(s) information. I try to speak to my growing belly in Spanish as much as possible (and it may also be picking up some sounds from hən̓q̓əmin̓əm̓ as I continue to attend classes). I am committed to speaking Spanish to my baby once it’s on the outside too, but I know that raising a bilingual child will take more than just me. I’ve been reading some of the great posts that my colleagues at Esperanza Education have written about raising bilingual children, and doing lots of research online and with friends. Here are some strategies I’ve learned for raising children in your second (or third, fourth, etc.) language:
- Keep it consistent: whether you opt for the popular one-parent-one-language approach, dedicated times or spaces for particular languages, or another strategy, the most important thing is to be consistent with your language use so that your children learn from your modelling.
- Push through the challenges without being pushy: Inevitably there will be moments of frustration, where it would be so much easier to revert to English. There will also be times when my children will refuse to speak Spanish. The research shows that it’s important to be flexible, but also not to give up! Allow room for yourself to make mistakes and slip up sometimes, and don’t reprimand your children if they go through a phase of refusing to use a particular language. Using the language should not be seen as a chore (or a tempting arena for rebellion!); eventually they will recognize the benefits and start to use both languages again.
- Learn together: I have been studying baby vocabulary and saving Spanish nursery rhymes playlists in anticipation of my baby’s arrival. Later, I’m sure my children will ask me about subjects that I don’t have the vocabulary for in Spanish – so we will have to learn together. You can look up the words you need, or you can read books on those subjects together with your kids. I read about one mother watching educational science videos in Spanish so that she could answer her son’s questions about aliens and outer space 🙂
- Gather resources: There is a lot of information out there about how to do bilingual education well. For example, I appreciated some of the questions and strategies in this guide. I am also lucky that Spanish is such a widely-spoken language that there are tons of books, games, music, etc. that I can collect now and over the years to help me educate my children (Spanglish Baby is a great place to start for those looking to do English and Spanish at home). For less widely-spoken languages, finding these kinds of resources might be more challenging, which is why it’s a good idea to reach out early to friends and family who may be able to support – which brings me to the most important strategy of all:
- Build a community: As the video at the beginning of this post shows, the most important factor in language learning is being exposed to real people speaking the language (TV and music won’t cut it). It might be tough to get enough language exposure from just one parent, so focus on surrounding your children with as many other speakers of the language as possible. If there is an immersion daycare or school in your community, great! But if not, friends, caregivers, play groups, and community events will all help.
So, Spanish-speaking friends, be prepared for a lot more calls from me in the years to come! I hope you will help me to raise bilingual babies! And whether we are friends yet or not, please send me your resources and ideas for raising multilingual children. ¡Gracias de antemano!