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How Monolingual Parents Can Raise a Bilingual Child

How Monolingual Parents Can Raise a Bilingual ChildThese days it seems more and more parents are taking it upon themselves to find a way to raise bilingual kids even if they are monolinguals or non-native speakers of the language they choose for their child. It’s something I’m always in awe of, because I understand the amount of dedication and passion it takes to raise a child with a second language even when it’s one you’re fluent and comfortable in.

There’s not one defined strategy for non-native speakers to use, but their best tool will definitely be a dual or full language immersion school for their kids. This will pretty much be the road of less resistance and with more guarantees of success.

Regardless of how non-natives decide to immerse their child in a second language, there will be challenges and fears along the road. If you already have a determination to give the gift of multiple languages to your kid, I urge you to not let those challenges undermine you because you’ve already achieved the hardest part: deciding.

During the five years we’ve been publishing SpanglishBaby, a community of parents raising bilingual kids, we’re constantly receiving questions from readers asking for advice on how to expose their child to a second language. Let’s explore together three of the top questions and concerns had by non-native speakers raising bilinguals.

#1. Should I speak to my child in a language I’m not a native of?

This is truly a gateway question that can make or break a parent’s determination to raise a bilingual child. The fear behind this question lies in both the commitment necessary to switch over to speaking in a language which doesn’t flow intuitively, as well as not knowing if the effort will turn out a positive outcome for the child’s fluency in the language.

Karen Nemeth, one of the SpanglishBaby experts, specializes in language acquisition and declares that, “a child can’t develop true bilingual fluency unless they are exposed to rich, varied, interesting language through conversation, books, stories, songs, rhymes and games.” Research conducted by Dr. Barbara Zurer Pearson, author of Raising a Bilingual Child, shows that this exposure needs to be about 50% of a child’s waking hours; and it’s not enough for them to just hear it, they must actively participate in that language by conversing, singing, and producing it.

Basically, the short answer is yes, you should speak to your child in a language you’re not a native of if you have the determination and will to expose him to it as much as possible.

#2. How do I build proficiency in my non-native language to help my child become bilingual?

Ellen Stubbe Kester, Ph.D., a bilingual speech language professional, encourages non-natives to build their level of proficiency as much as possible, because the richness of the language you speak to your child does matter. She states that, “…if you are using a very limited vocabulary with your daughter in a particular language, your daughter will have a limited vocabulary in that language.”

The same rules apply to you as to your child — input drives output. The more of a language you hear and read, the more your vocabulary will grow. Hence, Dr. Stubbe Kester goes on to recommend six approachable ways to improve your level of language proficiency:

  1. Use online and computer language programs.
  2. Many libraries host conversation programs for people learning English as a second language. Find someone who speaks the language you want to practice and set up exchanges where you speak English one day and then their language another day.
  3. If available, check out and read children’s books in your target language from your local library.
  4. Write down all of the actions, objects, and descriptors you want to say during your days with your child. Look them up at night and make cards to tape onto objects.
  5. Go volunteer in a young bilingual classroom.
  6. Immerse yourself in the language by traveling to a country where it’s spoken. (Wouldn’t we all love that!)

#3. Will my bilingual child pick up my non-native accent?

Accents are always a huge topic of conversation when it comes to non-natives teaching their children a language. The best response here is that what’s of real importance is not whether the child has an accent or not, but whether they have an opportunity and motivation to use the language. Barbara Zurer Pearson, Ph.D. encourages parents saying that, “As long as you are not the ONLY language model the child ever has, he will be very unlikely to pick up your accent, and he will probably end up eventually correcting your errors.”

Barabara Zurer Pearson goes on to add, “Remember, as a language model for your child, you are not only providing new words and grammar; by speaking another language with him, you are creating an environment where the language is welcome all the time. That gives the child more time to practice and consolidate what he’s learning. And you are demonstrating that this is a language worth learning. This adds to his motivation to learn the language. Those are very big gifts you are giving your child.”

And I couldn’t agree more, because bilingualism is one of those precious gifts you give your child that no one will ever be able to take away from him.

Share: Are you raising a bilingual/multilingual child in a language you’re not a native of? Which challenges have you faced?

Article excerpted and updated from the book I co-authored  Bilingual is Better: Two Latina Moms on How the Bilingual Parenting Revolution is Changing the Face of America, Bilingual Readers (2012).

Photo credit: Steve Hankins on Flickr

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