Sunday, August 3, 2014

Raising the Multilingual Child

Are you doing your child a disservice by raising him or her multilingual? This is the question I’ve been asking myself lately. We’ve all read the research, probably even cited some scholarly papers, but how much of the day to day makes you question whether in fact it is in his or her best interest. There is a ton of information on how to raise a bilingual child; many articles list the steps you must take as a family to ensure its success. If you don’t speak a second language, fret not, many major cities and some not so major ones have recognized the importance of polyglots and incorporated immersion programs into their curriculums. You can send your child off to a Spanish, French, or Cantonese language school, many even public.

Our family’s process was a bit more organic. My native language is Spanish; my husband’s native language is Italian. We didn’t have any formal conversations about it, but we both instinctively knew that we would each speak our own language to our future children. Inevitably, people always have something to say, concerns were raised on how confused our children might be, the potential detriment to learning and communicating effectively, and the possibility that it would result in mediocrity of all three languages.

We didn’t take our approach lightly; I did extensive research that could support our trilingual approach. Neither my husband nor I had experience in this, perhaps I more than he since I had been raised in a country that spoke a different language from my own; but he was raised in a monolingual family, society, country. When I was pregnant, I found a single article on trilingual children; the vast majority focused on bilingualism.

Nonetheless our daughters became our guinea pigs. My first daughter was a natural observer, not too much of a talker. Her pediatrician never thought it an issue, and neither did we. But when she started preschool at 2 her lack of English words became painfully obvious. Some of the kids were so verbal they seemed to already recite Shakespeare with the confidence I at 30something still lacked. Mind you their parents were working professionals, many in the field of law and business so it’s not surprising their children would be so cognitively advanced. But at each school play, each event, no matter how minor, our fears were manifested that perhaps raising a trilingual child was not so well thought-out. She always got the wallflower role, whatever non speaking contribution the teacher could come up with.

I know I shouldn’t compare kids; it’s not healthy however way you look at it. But it’s a natural human habit. We thought a Spanish immersion program would really highlight her strengths, and at 4 she started kindergarten. In retrospect it was an incredibly young age but it was the law in California at the time. Regardless, the Spanish immersion program had a pretty even distribution of kids in the classroom, 1/3 were monolingual in Spanish, 1/3 monolingual in English, and 1/3 in both languages. What became evident to me then was her English wasn’t that great, but neither was her Spanish. Wow, am I messing this one up I thought.

We continued our language immersion at home and luckily our families supported our efforts and sent us books, CDs and other materials in our respective home languages. This helped us fill the gaps the school left.

There is an important concern parents of multilingual children have, and that is whether their child will perform as well in school, particularly whether they will test as strongly in English. This is not an essay denouncing the evils of standardized testing; there is no escaping its eventuality. Whether your child takes them now or as part of the college entrance process, sooner or later he or she will be confronted with vocabulary tests, reading comprehension, and other testing paradigms. He or she will have to demonstrate their mastery of the country’s dominant language irrespective of their capabilities as a multilingual child. And those scholarly papers? They all agree that bilingual kids’ vocabulary size and accuracy are impacted.

There are many factors that can influence how well your child performs on these types of tests, but primarily a child who has been fortunate enough to grow up in an environment that uses rich English vocabulary and is exposed to diverse experiences, benefits and typically performs above average. If your child attends public school this is great news because he or she will be tracked into a higher achieving class. Their results might even offer them an opportunity to be tested and placed into a gifted program.

When there is so much at stake, it seems a formidable path to put your child on. Is teaching them your home language instilling them with precious cultural value but negating their opportunity to excel as well as the monolingual child?

You might mention that many monolingual families believe in bilingualism and choose immersion programs for their kid, but I argue that it’s not the same. The child is getting a world of dominant language exposure and a fraction of a second language, so while they may learn the second, their first language is not compromised in the least. They have simply added to their array of extracurricular experience.

At 8, my daughter is now impressive with her language abilities. She can speak, read and write all three. It took her longer, but she has flowered into a verbal chatterbox and expresses herself quite beautifully. Are all three languages equal? No. I don’t know whether this is even achievable, not to mention the challenges it takes to stay on top of all three when her school, her friends, her whole outside world is in English. She reads at an astonishing rate and level for an 8 year old, but these measures are in English. On our last trip to Italy we bought her age equivalent books and she complained that she could only understand half of the content. It was a tad disheartening but sort of expected. I think any of us that speak more than one language, if we are truly honest, admit to mastering one. It’s taken me years to admit that I prefer to read and write in English. I’ve become accustomed to loving in Italian and relating my strong familial bond in Spanish, but it’s really English I think and analyze in. My dreams are another variety.

I wonder whether my daughters will continue our weave of linguistic uniqueness on to their children. I suppose it is fine either way. Coming to terms with what is best for your child at that moment in his or her life is appreciating their sense of identity, and allowing them to encompass the transformative traits of a global citizen. In essence, that is the point of being multilingual. Well, that and the love for languages. 


  1. I like this very well thought out piece. Very nicely done.

  2. I, myself, am a proponent of raising our children in a bilingual (multilingual) household. I must admit that I obsess about both my children – ages four and one – absorbing language skills and learning to speak many languages at an early age. In our DVD repertoire, Little PIM from the library, both Spanish and French! In addition, I speak to both of them in Cantonese. Their father speaks English (only). Talk about language collision (!!!)… but it’s a GOOD thing. I believe our children can learn many languages without confusion. Some countries have them learning three to four languages! My efforts are not concerted, though, and with both parents working full-time, my dedication and efforts are lacking. What is that saying, “… If you don’t use it, you lose it…” But I try… even if my daughter is learning how to say all the fruits and vegetables in both Spanish and French through memorization. She is enrolled in a dual Cantonese-English immersion preschool, and we hope to continue her immersion studies when she transitions into the public school system. For me, the key is interaction and continuance. Even her teacher, who has taught in an immersion curriculum for more than 40 years, said that she has a knack for languages. I so wish I pursued fluency in the French language. Currently, I am relegated to conversational level and can only get by! Thank you for writing this thoughtful piece, Patricia. Food for thought!

    1. That is awesome your kid are getting so many languages! I imagined, but I had no idea you would be so committed. It is a huge commitment, one I often wonder about, but yes overall and in the end, it is the best thing ever. Being conversational in a language is pretty impressive too. I feel like I've lost much of my written Spanish and Italian but I won't ever lose the words I can speak, and it's exposed me to so much in terms of other ideas, people, etc. Sometimes I worry that my girls will be labeled because they have frequent pauses trying to translate it all in their heads. But in the end I won't give up teaching them their languages. I hope your kids will continue too!! PS You are lucky to live in a city with many wonderful immersion public school programs. Miami has a few though mostly Spanish, French or German so not any of the Asian languages which are also so important in today's global world. Thank you for reading and your wonderful comments. xoxo

  3. As a multicultural, bilingual teenager, I can empathise a little bit. We were forced to move to the US when I was young, because of professional reasons. I learned English quickly, and thrived in French classes. Today, I think it is safe to say that I'm completely fluent in English. However, my French written skills are below average, and I have never been able to learn Spanish, despite having tried for the past 10years. I think being able to speak multiple languages is an amazing thing, because it also opens you up to the world, it's differences, and it's complexity. However, a child can only take so much information at once.
    Congrats on the great post, and good luck with parenting! I hear it's an awfully hard task, yet very rewarding.

    1. *its differences and its complexity. So much for English mastery... ;)

    2. I always love to hear the perspective of someone who has experienced something similar and can now tell me what it felt like with the insight of some years past. Language is fluid like that, and I really wonder whether it's possible to really dominate more than one - unless you spend all your time developing them and do nothing else in life. French is a beautiful language, funnily enough I spent years studying and cannot for the life of me learn it. Maybe I will try again, you've inspired me now! Thanks!!