Raising a Multi-lingual Child


    A couple years ago while working at the shelter I helped a mother and her two, young daughters choose an adoptable dog.            They were all Caucasian-looking, blond and clear-eyed; they 
were Italian. The mother spoke English perfectly and didn't even have an accent. 
    And with her daughters she spoke exclusively in Italian. She would translate everything I would ask or comment to Italian. 
    Her diligence impressed me
    I've known dozens of multi-lingual parents to multi-lingual children and most, in similar situations, would go ahead and speak English when dealing with a native English speaker that doesn't speak Italian. -Not this mamaShe wouldn't budge on her Italiano with those sweet girls. 
I relished the moment. 
I love language. 
I love different cultures. 
I love hearing other languages and speaking the ones I know (English, Spanish and Portuguese). 

    In the presence of this Italian mother I knew I'd want to be equally diligent with sharing the languages I know with my children... if I ever were to have any.


    Now I do have a child. He's 16 months old and I speak exclusively Portuguese or Spanish with him. His father is Brazilian and speaks solely Portuguese with him. But when we're with my family, or out in public we'll often repeat some of what we say in English, not for my son to understand, but for my family or those around us to understand.         
    Making other people feel uncomfortable can make you feel uncomfortable, and sometimes the feeling of discomfort or unease coming off people is downright tangible. Sometimes people become awkward or quiet, as if the 'cat's got their tongue,' when they hear you speak another language with your child, and other times people encourage and admire the multi-lingual approach.

    I shouldn't let the outside world influence the way I feel, we feel, about speaking other languages with our son. Why should I care if other people don't like or approve of it? 

It's our choice to embrace languages!


    My family is accustomed to hearing me speak another language since I've done so for 13+ years now. 
    And they typically doesn't seem to feel uncomfortable with us speaking Portuguese or Spanish with Sam, but I know and understand it can be confusing, and even frustrating, for them at times.

    However, I have A LOT of anecdotal knowledge and firsthand experience with how children of multi-lingual parents 'turn out' in regards to their ability and willingness to be multi-lingual themselves. 
     And... it's grim. 
    Once kids start attending school English takes over. That's fine and to be expected since we do live in America after all! What's not necessarily fine and expected is that children will oftentimes outright abandon their 'other' language upon starting school. 

    I have several friends with multi-lingual-children that end up refusing to speak the 'other' language upon becoming fluent in English. They abandon their multi-language skills, sometimes with disdain for the other language. 
    Kids want to be like their friends. They even want to dress like, run like, eat like and of course talk like their friends. That, in my opinion, is primarily why little ones are so quick to abandon their other language upon entering school. They don't want to feel different.
    Children of two parents from another country (be it Bosnia, Russia, El Salvador, Brasil, etc.) are more likely to continue using and enjoying their 'other' language than children of only one bi-lingual parent.  
    God forbid our son gets older, goes to Brasil once/year and has no idea what's being said by family or friends.We will not let that happen. That would be sad and represent the loss of a culture.              
Language is Culture!

    Language is part of culture and culture is meant to be shared 
and live on.

    Knowing another language allows you to see the world differently. The context changes, emphasis changes- does that make sense? You're exposed to a different way of thinking, a different way to see the world and everything in it. 
It's beautiful. 
It's a gift, one I'm proud to share with my child.

    Back to 'how multi-lingual children turn out:' 
    There are many children that fluently understand the 'other language' but refuse to speak it. I have several friends that speak only Spanish with their school-aged children but the children consistently respond in English. Sammy may end up doing that to us one day too. That's sad but it may happen.

Be Proud to Be Multi-Lingual!

    And are we contributing to that happening? 
    When we 'give in' and say things in English just because we don't want to feel awkward or make others feel awkward, aren't we teaching our kids to appease those around them by 'giving in' and speaking English once and for all?
    We are sending that message on some level.

    A dear friend of mine, Yamile, is diligent about speaking Spanish with her children; her son is 13, her daughter is 4 (about to enter preschool). When our families were out together last month an American man asked her 4-year-old-daughter something and her daughter responded in English, "Yes."
    Her daughter doesn't know much English yet but has picked up a word or two and is eager to start using English. 
    Well, when Yamile's daughter answered, "Yes," Yamile quickly said, "Dile que si."
    She insisted on her daughter answering in Spanish.
    Most people would call that extreme. 
    And most people have zero experience with attempting to raise a bi-lingual child! 
    Yamile does have experience with it. She raised a bilingual son  that still uses Spanish on a daily basis and still enjoys speaking it! I admire my friend's diligence. She knows once her daughter hits preschool keeping Spanish as a loved, and util language will become a real challenge.

What's the Big Deal Anyway?

    And why does hearing another language make some people uncomfortable?
    When I worked at the Brown Hotel years ago (where I began learning Spanish) a group of us consisting of Latinos, Hungarians, Polish and I don't even remember what all else- would all go out- together. I recall several nights being in apartments or vans all together and hearing several languages spoken, not having a clue as to what was being said, but having a blast just the same! 
    I could have cared less that I didn't understand all the languages- I loved hearing them. 
    We always had fun together and we had other ways to communicate- laughing, dancing, smiling, sharing.

    As important as language is I think people put too much emphasis on it at times. Don't get so 'caught up' in what someone is saying... just be present, feel the person's energy. And, if you feel up to it, what not try to learn a word or two from that person in his or her language, that is after all how learning language begins... by sharing.