Bilingual family: The pros and cons

My wife is pregnant and we have been considering the advantages and disadvantages of raising our child in a bilingual household. I speak only English, but my wife speaks English and her native Japanese. We would like our child to have the advantage of two languages, but we are afraid of confusing her. What do you think?

Question:

What a wonderful opportunity your child has to become bilingual. There are many obvious advantages to being bilingual and many specific benefits to learning two languages from birth or a young age. While raising a child bilingually requires additional planning and awareness, the advantages are numerous. Being bilingual offers children the ability to better bond and communicate with extended family members. This offers them an essential link to their cultural identity.

Research by Dr. Kenji Hakuta from Stanford University demonstrates that people who speak more than one language have a greater ability to understand and analyze concepts because they have more than one language system to rely on. Being fluently bilingual increases our access to multiple perspectives and ways of life in an international, multicultural society.

Research shows that the languages children learn before the age of three can be considered "native" languages. Recent brain research shows that the human brain is much more capable of learning language before the age of ten. It is ironic that we usually don’t teach foreign language in school until middle or high school. There has been some research that shows some children who are learning two languages from birth speak a little later than children who are learning just one, but their language development still happens well within the normal age range -- and when they do speak, they are capable in two languages.

Here are a few guidelines for helping children become fluently bilingual:

1) The earlier the better. Children are equally capable of learning two languages as they are of learning one language, right from the beginning. There is no confusion; they are not even aware they are learning two languages. It is the easiest way known to humans to learn language: right from birth.

2) Languages should be presented intact. While it is sometimes tempting for bilingual people to mix their languages together as they are speaking, it is important that children hear a relatively pure language, so that they can learn to distinguish the languages from each other. In your family, this could be accomplished if your wife spoke only Japanese to your child (even if she is speaking English to someone else in the same room or the same conversation) and you spoke only English to her. This is probably the most effective system for helping a child become fully bilingual. Even if you are speaking to her "at the same time," if each of you is speaking just one language, she will learn easily which words go with which system. While it might be tempting for the Japanese-speaking parent to occasionally speak English to the child, this can give the child the idea that this is an acceptable language to speak with that parent. When this happens, the child might forgo speaking Japanese altogether, particularly in the face of a culture that overwhelmingly prefers English. To minimize the chance of this happening, it is best if the mother only speaks Japanese to the child. In instances where the child chooses to speak English to the mother, the mother can continue to reply in Japanese.

3) Provide varied experiences for a child in her "second" language. Because we don’t live in a culture that values being bilingual, there is not a lot of support for languages other than English. This can make it difficult for children to understand that both of the languages they are learning are equally valuable. If children have opportunities beyond just their one parent to hear their language, it will help them understand better the universal value of their language. Are there extended family members, friends, other children, Japanese school, community groups, cultural events, children’s books, and/or tapes that your child can experience which will reinforce her learning Japanese? Is there a childcare center where Japanese is spoken? English and monolingualism are so strongly reinforced in all of the media and institutions surrounding our children that we need to make a concentrated effort to teach our kids that there are other useful languages in the world.

4) Creatively address problems of communication that may arise. One English-speaking dad we know said he sometimes feels left out when his Spanish-speaking wife and daughter converse, because he can’t always understand what they are saying. It is useful if a family can develop sensitivity and creative communication strategies to deal with this issue. Sometimes the monolingual parent can make the effort to learn the second language, right along with their child. Even if he doesn’t learn the language Dad may get good at reading the nonverbal communication clues. Other times, the bilingual members of the family might take turns filling in the parent (who doesn’t know the language) on the conversation.

5) Encourage your child’s identification with all of her cultural heritage. Your child will be fortunate to have rich cultural traditions from both sides of her family. The more access to and information about all of her family’s traditions she has, the stronger her sense of identity will be. Bi-ethnic and bicultural people don’t have to choose one or the other of their heritages. They are fully entitled to all of their family history, heritage and cultural traditions. Language is one of the rich components of her cultural connection and identity.

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