Why should it be so hard?

iVillage Member
Registered: 04-14-2003
Why should it be so hard?
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Thu, 04-10-2008 - 9:42am
I'm reading another bilingual parenting book ("The Bilingual Edge") and I've just gotten past the chapter on bilingual parenting myths. It seems to me, though, that in too many bilingual parenting books there is this fatalism, "it's so hard to be successful at making bilingual children"... across the world, the norm is to be fluent in more than one language. The US is the one big stand-out on this. So is it just some sort of cultural normative, going on about how difficult it is to be bilingual or are these studies that are reported in these books really accurate? I have a tendency to distrust "expert opinions" so maybe I'm showing my own biases, but it irritates me to see parents being warned about the difficulties of bilingual parenting.
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iVillage Member
Registered: 08-06-2004
Fri, 04-11-2008 - 4:43am

Where were those studies made? Only in the US (which part of the country?) or also elsewhere? I usually don't fully trust any results that come from research done in a limited area in the country (unless it's about an issue specific to the area).

Our parents learnt several languages without worrying about bilingualism. It wasn't a choice for them. They had to, in order to go on with their daily lives. They are not eloquant. They can't give a great speech. But they can manage chatting casually with people.

Then, they just passed on their knowledge to us. They weren't aware of the possibilities of obstacles. They just taught us what they knew and expected us to learn more as we grow.

So maybe it's a more cultural/"living environment" thing? There might not be many foreigners, or people from different background, or any practical need for bilingualism in the majority part of the US - and hence, the common belief that bilingualism is hard?

I think results of researches conducted within multicultural families would be interesting. Whether the families are bi/multilingual due to their ethnicities, or their cultural environment, or their parents' backgrounds.

Sophie




Bilingual Families


iVillage Member
Registered: 06-17-2004
Fri, 04-11-2008 - 6:44am

I think it is strange, especially if you look at countries in Europe and even some in Africa. In Europe I know Dänmark and Sweden they speak their native language and at least English. They start learning it in school very young. In Belgium there are two different languages for one country a large majority speak both and then some. I have met several Africans who were taught their native language along with English or the old language from Colonial times, like French.


I have never understood the US's unwillingness to learn another language. Even in school they start so late in teaching another language. The earliest I could take a language was in 8th grade, 13 years old then. I think that is too old and heck we are teenagers there is a lot more that we care about other than some language. Oh and languages are only required if you want the advanced diploma, and that is needed to attend college.


I don't think it is difficult to raise a billingual child if you have the right tools and matierial. Obviously those of us who are already in billingual relationships have an edge but with the right teaching materials and resources it is not too hard. The biggest difficulty, I think, in teaching a language is the opportunity to use it. Which is why I don't remember any Spanish. I never used it and never needed to build on what little I learned.


Now with German I am being difficult and stubborn...I am also realizing what little I learned about grammar in school, which sometimes can make learning another language difficult.

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Lilypie Zweiter Ticker
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Registered: 08-29-2002
Fri, 04-11-2008 - 8:07am

I'm coming at this from a slightly different perspective since my kids are older, so I've had quite a bit of experience with this issue at this point. Based on my experiences and that of many multilingual families I know, a lot depends on how one defines "bilingualism". It isn't particularly hard to raise children who good passive comprehension in more than language and/or who can carry on fairly reasonable conversations in more than one language. As long as the parents are fairly consistent in their use of the other languages, this can be fairly easily achieved. This level of bilingualism is just fine for most people (it's the level of bilingualism reached by most Danes and Swedes who are not forced to use English on a daily basis, btw). It's the level of fluency most German-speaking Swiss reach in French and English and vice versa.

However, if the aim is to achieve equal (and complex) fluency, as well as literacy (i.e. the ability to read and write at the expected adult level) in more than one language...yes, it is quite a bit harder than many realize. That level of fluency in multiple languages requires a lot of time, patience, determination and home education. It also requires a fairly balanced amount of input in all of the languages, not just in the form of casual conversation, but also in the form of formal education in grammar and spelling, mathematics etc..

Neither goal (with regard to level of bilingualism) is better, but people should be aware of the kind of work it can take to reach the latter level of fluency in another language. Many parents let things slide by, only to end up frustrated that while their kids understand the home language reasonably well and can speak it decently when necessary, they don't really have a full adult vocabulary and/or are not very literate in the home language.

iVillage Member
Registered: 04-14-2003
Fri, 04-11-2008 - 2:27pm
hm, I can't recall any specific studies mentioned in books with mention of where they were done; I would guess in the US for most of them. Although "Growing Up Bilingual" actually seemed to have studies from many different countries (the author is Australian); however that was one book I've read recently that didn't go on and on about the difficulty of raising children bilingually.
I do think that your logic is sound though on why US studies, and maybe people in general here, look at bilingualism as something hard to create/maintain.
Love and Light, Joelle
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Registered: 04-14-2003
Fri, 04-11-2008 - 2:34pm
yes, the unwillingness to learn irritates me. I had to have a conversation with my son the other day to tell him absolutely not to say "hola" to our roommate; he has a huge chip on his shoulder about people using any language other than English in the US.
the late start is also frustrating. Like you, I didn't have the opportunity to learn a second language in school until I was 13. I took French because everyone else was taking German or Spanish and I wanted nothing to do with a class "everyone" was taking; well I don't remember any French. Now as an adult, sheer willpower is helping me to work towards fluency in German, but it has been a slow process nonetheless.
One thing that I noticed, and don't agree with entirely, is this book's ("The Bilingual Edge") talking about books/videos/etc and learning a foreign language; sure they don't work by themselves to produce fluency but I believe they are a very important part of language learning. Finn's German pronunciation is getting amazing just listening to Rammstein concerts.
I've been struggling on the opportunity to use it part. I have a prior commitment on the night that my local "International women's club" meets. I keep reaching out to the German speakers in my church, but I haven't managed to set up anything social with them. Then Finn I'm fighting just to keep him from thinking of German only as "mom's language".
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Registered: 04-14-2003
Fri, 04-11-2008 - 2:39pm
part of the problem is that too often people don't enter the conversation about what level of fluency, true, and alarmist admonitions are made without specifying this. It's the alarmist comments that really upset me. Like has been said in this thread, bilingualism (of some level) happens in many countries without a lot of discussion, struggle, and fuss... I guess my vent largely comes about the mixed, alarmist, defeatist point of view that too much of the US comes from
Love and Light, Joelle
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Registered: 08-29-2002
Fri, 04-11-2008 - 3:34pm

Yes, I understand what you mean. But I think that many of the "how to" books on bilingualism are coming from the perspective of raising children to be equally fluent and literate in both languages, since that is often considered to be the ultimate goal. It is often not the goal many families want to strive for, however, and people should be aware of the possible different levels of multilingualism and set their goals and choices accordingly.

However, when this ultimate level of bilingualism is discussed, it absolutely makes sense to me that it is described as rather difficult to achieve. Most of my friends are raising multilingual children. Most of the kids that attend my kids' school are growing up multilingual. So I've seen what happens over the years "up close and personal". Raising multilingual kids sounds easy but, to be honest, a large majority of the kids I know are ending up with not a whole lot more than a good passive understanding of the home language. Others manage to be fairly fluent at speaking and understanding, but can't comfortably read in the home language(s). This is despite the fact that the parents usually do continue to speak the home language throughout childhood.

There are many reasons why this occurs, but it doesn't just occur in the U.S.. In Sweden, children from immigrant families are actually entitled to instruction in their home language at the school's expense because children are expected to and encouraged to keep up with the home language(s). Nevertheless, the majority language usually becomes the main language by the time most kids hit the teenage years. Siblings almost invariably speak the majority language, rather than the home language, with each other. I can only think of a few exceptions to that rule.

"bilingualism (of some level) happens in many countries without a lot of discussion, struggle, and fuss... "

I think the key phrase here is "of some level". Yes, many Scandinavians speak English very well, without a whole lot of fuss. However, there are reasons why this is the case in Scandinavian countries and not so much in other European countries, one of the most important being (strangely enough) media content. Movies in Scandinavia are not dubbed, so most Scandis keep up with English because they have to in order to watch movies on a regular basis. The same is true for tv shows etc..

Otoh, German and Austria kids start English instruction approximately at the same time as Scandi kids, but the adult population in Germany and Austria is seriously less fluent in English than Scandis. Why? Because after school stops, most Germans and Austrians have absolutely no need to continue with English; it isn't a part of their daily business, so to speak. Movies are dubbed into German, German songs tend to dominate the airwaves etc.. All the language instruction in the world isn't going to do a whole lot of good if there is no need to use the language and not a lot of opportunity to use it in real-life situations. The only people I've encountered in Germany and Austria who are able to converse reasonably well in English are university graduates, who often need to read English for their jobs. The situation is even worse in France. I've regularly encountered PhD scientists who were barely able to read and understand English, let alone speak it (this despite the fact that English is the lingua franca for my field). I also never managed to accomplish much with English in Switzerland (which was a good thing for me as it forced me to learn Swiss German more quickly).

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Registered: 04-14-2003
Fri, 04-11-2008 - 7:14pm
good point on the "how to" books.
Love and Light, Joelle
Homeschooling mom to a 9yr old hydrogen molecule.

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Registered: 06-17-2004
Sat, 04-12-2008 - 3:42am

Maybe its the area I live in in Germany but German songs are not dominating the airwaves. 3 out of 5 or sometimes as high as 4 out 5 songs on the radio are in English. I was rather surprised by this when I first moved here.


I acutally find random people have English skills. Not always uni grads but it is random and I am not sure for what reasons they have kept up with English. Actually my SO's friend can speak some...ok not a lot but we can hold a short conversation, and he never took english in school and learned it on his own. Not sure how, maybe from music.

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Lilypie Zweiter Ticker
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Registered: 08-29-2002
Sat, 04-12-2008 - 3:56am

I watch a lot of VIVA when I'm in Germany :-). I'd say it's about half English/half German, which is kind of cool because there are a lot of good German bands out there. I have the impression that the German music scene (with songs written in German) is very much alive and well, which I think is a good thing. Most Swedish bands go straight to English, which seems to me a bit of a shame.

I have also encountered random people in Germany who can speak some English, but I'd say that "some" just about describes it. It's possible to carry on a simple conversation or purchase something in a shop, but it's not really possible to carry on a complex conversation. A lot of my Swedish friends and acquaintances have complained about this as well...it makes it rather difficult for them to get things done when traveling there.

I remember how shocked I was, when I first moved to Austria, by the fact that nearly no Austrian adult I encountered could speak English unless they worked directly in the tourist industry or had been to university. Granted that was quite a long time ago (late 80s/early 90s), but even then English was compulsory in Austrian schools, and Austrians abroad (I encountered a few in the U.S. before moving there) used to proudly proclaim that Austrians were fully bilingual, unlike lazy Americans. I've lived in 3 different countries in Europe and traveled extensively as well. Europeans manage somewhat better with a second language because English is often compulsory in schools for a longer period of time, but by adulthood a lot of it is out the window, at least in my experience. Scandinavia is definitely an exception to that, though.

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