It’s a warm sunny day in the south of England, and I am enjoying a cup of coffee with some other mums that I met at my antenatal course. We make a point to meet up regularly and so far we have managed. Our babies are now toddlers and are just starting to play together, or rather, to steal each other’s toys and throw tantrums.
As always we find ourselves marveling at how much they have grown since we last met and the inevitable comparison of our children’s milestones soon starts.
A sense of uneasiness starts to come over me as everyone begins to list all the new words and complete sentences that their, seemingly oddly talented, children can say. When it’s my turn to comment, I am frustrated to say that, other than a couple of simple words, my little one still hasn’t said much. “But it might be because I’m raising her to be bilingual”, I explain hastily; to which I receive many nods of approval and some promises that “soon she’ll be able to speak two languages fluently, how clever is that?” I smile and hope that they are right.
Surprisingly enough, the majority of the world’s population is bilingual or multilingual. But what is, in some countries, perceived as natural, in others is a resolute choice. This is particularly true for English-speaking countries, where the fact that English is so widely spread, represents both a blessing and a curse at the same time. Not having to learn new languages to be able to communicate will inevitably result in missing out many of the benefits that speaking two or more languages entails.
But what are these benefits?
As Christine, a French mother of two who lives in the U.K. says: “There are a lot advantages: my daughters took their French exam with little effort, they learn other languages with less struggle than English speakers and they are more open, I think, to other cultures.”
The benefits of bilingualism have been the subject of many papers and articles in the recent years, all aiming to discredit the out of date ideas that raising children with more than one language could be damaging to their development.
The list of benefits ranges from the more obvious and practical ones, like being able to communicate with the extended family or having more job opportunities, to more surprising ones, like the ability to delay dementia.
As Christine mentioned, bilingualism has also been linked to a higher level of open mindedness of the different. In a study carried by professors Dewaele and Li Wei from Birkbeck College, University of London, it was pointed out that “The knowledge of multiple languages and the experience of having to survive in a foreign language and culture make individuals more tolerant of ambiguity.”
This study is particularly interesting because it shows that bilingualism also affects the personality and the character or a person in a positive way.
There is no doubt that bilingualism has many benefits, but if that is so, then why do many parents give up on raising bilingual children, or decide not to try altogether?
I have often heard how the acquisition of more than one language is a natural process in the mind of a young child, but what is often not mentioned, is the hard work that parents have to put in to create the right environment for this process to take place and the second language to flourish. It’s a big commitment that often comes at great expense. I believe it ought to be acknowledged.
I asked a large group of parents of bilingual children the question: “What would you say is, or has been the biggest obstacle, difficulty or frustration in raising your children bilingual?” The number of replies was overwhelming. It was clear from the very first answers that these parents needed to express the challenges that are inevitably part of this amazing and (in the long run) rewarding journey.
I have collected some of the main ones and listed them below:
Even though the way society perceives bilingualism has radically changed in the recent years, there is still room for improvement. Many of the parents I had the chance to interview, agreed that some societies seem to tolerate bilingualism rather than actively encourage it. For example, some of them feel that speaking the minority language to their children in front of monolinguals is considered rude. Others are still the target of negative comments. These are often from people belonging to past generations, like anxious grandparents. As one of the mum puts it: “my in-laws will pass frequent, relatively harmless comments about deficiencies in the majority language, then go out and boast to all their friends how great the kids are in both languages!”.
Other parents expressed frustration at hearing preschool teachers blaming the child’s minor speech or behavior problems on bilingualism.
It takes good preparation from the parent to be able to defend their point of view. It can be disheartening and tiring, especially when one finds oneself answering the same questions over and over again, but I believe it is the part we have to play in order to make more people aware of the benefits that multilingualism brings.
Many parents complained that some pre-schools or indeed schools are not geared up for bilingual/multilingual children. For example, there are situations where a child has only been exposed to the minority language and will therefore struggle to communicate at first. Or where the child’s speech might be delayed or mixed (especially in very young children). One of the mums I have interviewed said that this lack of information on how to deal with bilingual children goes beyond teachers and caregivers: “It goes up to curriculum designers and educational policies. I think that is what causes all our practical problems and makes us parents completely responsible for working with our kids’ multi/ bilingualism. It doesn’t need to be that way.”
And indeed it doesn’t. Many organizations like NABE (National Association for Bilingual Education http://www.nabe.org/BilingualEducation) in the U.S.A. or the NALDIC (National Association for Language Development in the Curriculum http://www.naldic.org.uk) in the U.K. are dedicated to promoting and facilitating bilingualism in schools. But they need our support and personal experience in order to thrive. Our role could also be to serve as a link between them and our local schools.
Sense of isolation:
One mum said: “I am the only exposure my 15 month old son has to Swahili and I do not have enough material, [there is] not much on the Internet either to assist me.”
There are certain circumstances where a parent can be the only minority speaker for the child; this is often the case for languages that are not as widely spread. This situation will create many obstacles for the parents: it could make them feel isolated, or make them doubt and reconsider their wish to raise their children bilingual. It could also make the task more difficult in practice, as the material in the minority language is not readily available and getting hold of any type of book or media will come at a cost. Which leads us to our next point…
An expensive business:
Books, DVDs, posters, interactive toys and indeed trips to the country where the minority language is spoken all add to cost of raising a child, which is already an expensive business. And often, the less the language is spread, the higher the prices will be.
Luckily, new technology can come to our rescue. Thanks to social media, it is possible to talk to other parents of bilingual children around the world. This can lead to a good exchange of opinions, ideas, reviews and indeed materials.
Another alternative is to meet up with other parents of bilingual children. This is a good opportunity to get to know other situations, encourage each other and let the children play together in an environment where communicating in more than one language is not only normal, but encouraged.
It is in fact the way our children perceive bilingualism that seems to be the biggest source of frustration amongst parents:
The child’s refusal to speak the minority language:
After all the time, energy and money invested in teaching the minority language, the child refuses to speak it, or even asks the parents to stop speaking it altogether. Sadly this has been the reason why some parents have given up on their pursuit. This frustration is completely understandable. Besides, we are doing it for our children, and the last thing we want is to see them upset.
Professor Colin Baker writes in his book “A Parent’s and Teachers’ Guide to Bilingualism (Multilingual Matters, Third Edition) that “Children often don’t want to appear different. They want to conform to the status-giving behavior of the peer group. This may entail a temporary non-use of one of their languages.”
Starting from a very young age, children do not want to be different. They want to feel like they belong. They do not seem to realize the great potential that speaking more languages gives. When I realized this, I started to worry: I could just picture my strong willed girls rolling their eyes every time I speak to them in my native language. It was this fear that inspired me to write my book “A Fish in Foreign Waters”, the story of a little fish who has to move with her family to a different part of the sea, where they speak a funny sounding language. She will face some of the most common challenges and difficulties that being bilingual entails, but an unexpected surprise on the day of her birthday will help her to realize that doubling the languages, doubles the friends.
My hope is that this book can be a helpful tool in helping our children to appreciate their situation and help, in some way, to lighten the burden of all the parents out there who are investing so much in the lives of their little bilingual darlings.
 JEANMARC DEWAELE and LI WEI (2013). Is multilingualism linked to a higher tolerance of ambiguity?. Bilingualism: Language and Cognition, 16, pp 231240 doi:10.1017/S1366728912000570
Laura Caputo-Wickham is a mother and book author. She was raised bilingual, so was her mother and so are her two daughters. Her own experience inspired her to write “A Fish in Foreign Waters” a book to encourage and inspire bilingual children.