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.