Being bilingual freaking rocks. There, I said it. You can communicate with more people and see things from multiple perspectives. It improves your cognitive function and can even shield you from developing dementia. It's no wonder many parents want their children to develop this valuable skill. However, whether you're a native speaker or learning a second language yourself, raising a bilingual kid is a struggle.
I always regretted the fact that I never learned my father's native language, Vietnamese. I know it wasn't my fault; my parents were divorced before I was born and, as a result, I only saw my dad every two weeks for an evening. I think that's why I ended up gravitating towards Spanish. I studied the language from junior high through college and became fluent when I volunteered and lived in Honduras. When I came back, speaking Spanish was invaluable in communicating with the parents of my students. I knew I wanted to raise my daughter to be bilingual, as the benefits were as obvious as they were awesome. Still, I can't say it's been particularly easy.
Kids who grow up speaking two languages are at a distinct advantage to their monolingual peers. The process can leave parents fried, sure, but rest assured that it's worthwhile. Plus, there's always the added bonus of knowing other parents bringing up bilingual babes are in the same boat you're in. Solidarity, y'all.
Deciding Who Will Speak What
It's the first decision you have to make (after deciding that you're going bilingual), and it really depends on your family's unique situation. In families where both parents speak the non-dominant language, parents may decide to have a "home language" and a "school language." For other situations, it may make more sense for one parent to speak each language exclusively. It could also be a nanny, babysitter, or teacher who is communicating with the child in the second language.
Consistency is important, but it's harder to maintain than you might imagine. Since my husband only speaks English, we decided that I would speak Spanish to our little girl during the day. When my husband got home, we'd switch to English. This worked OK until he deployed. Now I find myself repeating everything I say in the other language because I'm worried she's not getting enough. So yeah, I'm totally exhausted.
Finding A Bilingual School
This is tricky. I live in Texas, so bilingual schools aren't unheard of. Unfortunately, the closest Spanish immersion school is almost an hour away. I've decided it's worth the commute to have my kid with a native speaker twice a week, so I park my ass at Starbucks for a few hours and work to pay for bilingual preschool. All in all, it's not a bad situation.
It's harder if you live in an area where the second language isn't commonly spoken or if you're speaking a more obscure dialect. Parents have to navigate public, private, and charter options, sometimes even opting for Saturday Hebrew or Greek school. Still, bilingual programs are on the rise. Even in California, where 1998 legislation mandated English-only instruction, a new proposition seeks to give communities control of multilingual programs.
Fear not, intrepid polyglot parents. Better programs may be on their way and to a school near you!
I'm not saying that a child that learns two languages will spend the majority of their time being confused. That's a myth. Kids can differentiate between languages very early on and with incredible ability. However, I would argue that those moments of confusion might happen a bit more often when you have a child whose still-forming brain is trying to accommodate two languages simultaneously.
Of course, normal child development is the primary culprit. Many toddlers, for example, overgeneralize (e.g. any man is dada). With my kid, the all purpose word is gato ("cat" in Spanish). Everything in our house is a gato. Dog? Gato. Tree? Gato. Friend's newborn? You guessed it. Gato. The worst was when we were at the petting zoo. Upon seeing a goat, my wonderfully befuddled baby pronounced, "Gato! Moooooooo!"
Yeah, she's confused, but she'll get over it.
Language Development Delays
Don't get me wrong, bilingual instruction doesn't cause language delays. Bilingual kiddos might be a little slower to say their first word, but it's usually within the normal range for that milestone. Fortunately, any delay is temporary and they soon catch up with their monolingual peers.
Still, it can be really frustrating for parents to watch their kids "get by" with smaller vocabularies. Bilingual children usually have fewer words in each language, but when taken together, their vocabularies are the same size. At 18 months, my kid has eight words in English and six in Spanish, but put together she's right where she should be (also taking personality into account, because my honey badger only does what she wants).
If you've ever studied another language, you know about false friends (or false cognates, if you're fancy). Embarazada in Spanish means "pregnant," not embarrassed, for example, and you will be the latter if you make that mistake.
This kind of stuff happens to language learners of all ages. When I volunteered in Honduras, a friend of mine discovered that instead of saying she was hot (Tengo calor — literally, "I have heat"), she was telling people she was horny (Estoy caliente — literally "I'm hot"). Oops.
A multilingual student of mine had a case of bad translation when we read about John Henry. "Miss?" he asked, "He had an in fart?" So "heart attack" in Spanish is infarto. To be fair, "infarction" is also correct, but it's not commonly used outside the medical community. In any case, I died of the cuteness.
As a parent, I find myself saying things in English but with Spanish syntax. I tell my child, "In your mouth no!" It makes perfect sense in Spanish, but it makes me sound pretty dumb to anyone who doesn't know what's going on.
Losing A Word
Ugh. This happens to me all the time. Sometimes it's just that the word se me fue. Other times, I never learned it in the first place.
This is really hard for toddler parents because a big part of language development is labeling. If something isn't part of your daily vocabulary, it's easy to lose it in a second language. I don't know about you, but I don't need to use "meerkat" on a daily basis, but I'll be damned if I don't see it all the time in children's books.
It happens and it's sort of inevitable, so at least you're not alone, right?
In the bilingual world, it's known as code-switching. Bilingual people may switch languages because they don't know a word (with bilinguals, there's often a dominant language) or they just like the sound of a word or turn of phrase better in one language than the other. At the zoo, I heard a little girl exclaim about a giraffe, "Mami, esta comiendo un fish!" (Side note: it was actually its tongue, and gross). While confusing for monolinguals, mixing languages is actually completely normal.
Finding A Good Dictionary App
The struggle is real. I'm not a native speaker, so I need a good dictionary app at my fingertips. Not just any dictionary will do, mind you. I need something that gives me multiple meaning words, context, slang, and verb conjugations. A first-class dictionary app will make sure you know that although coger means "to catch" in Spain, in Mexico it means something you definitely don't want your toddler saying.
Texting Fluent Friends And Family
Again, I'm still learning my second language, so it's helpful to have friends on call who are better at Spanish than I am. My friend and her Venezuelan husband are raising their kids bilingually, so she's great about responding to my random requests to translate phrases I can't find in the dictionary, like, "Hold your breath" (thank you, swimming lessons) or, "Blow your nose" (thank you, cold and flu season).
I've noticed that my native speaker friends do this, too. When you've been living in the United States and speaking English for a long time, sometimes you have to text your mom to remind you how to say, "bubbles." Ah, life.
Not everyone is on board with the bilingual agenda, and it can be super difficult if your partner is one of those people. They've likely heard some of the myths surrounding raising a child bilingually, and those myths can sway a parent to make a relatively uninformed decision.
It can take some education on the part of the other parent, but it's well worth it to have the whole family on board. My husband was all about my daughter learning Spanish, but now that he's deployed he's worried he'll come home and she won't understand him. Our solution? He's working on Rosetta Stone, and I'm peppering in more English.
Weird Looks From Strangers
When people look at me weird when I'm speaking Spanish, I can only assume they're thinking, "Hey, Vaguely Asian Person, you don't look like you should be speaking that particular language."
It can sometimes lead to my least favorite conversation, which usually starts with the question "So where are you from? (Me: Washington State.) No, where are you frooooooooom?" Honestly, I just have to "whatever" with these particular people. I'll take your stares if it means my kid is going to be a bilingual badass.
I think a lot of people try to play off their judgement as genuine concern. Like, "Aren't you worried that..." followed by some ridiculous "worry" that really isn't even a thing. So, no, actually; I've done the research and I know that being bilingual is only going to help my child.
You may also have to deal with close-minded jerks who think the only acceptable language in this country is English. Shrug it off. Like all the decisions you make as a parent, you're doing what you believe to be in the best interest of your child. You can do it! I wish you suerte.