A lot of our ideas about bilingual children are total myths

Students play with their iPads at the Steve Jobs school in Sneek August 21, 2013. The Steve Jobs schools in the Netherlands are founded by…
Students play with their iPads at the Steve Jobs school in Sneek August 21, 2013. The Steve Jobs schools in the Netherlands are founded by…
Image: Reuters/Michael Kooren
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“What’s that music?” my three-year-old asked as we listened to a song in a foreign language last December.

Could my toddler be showing an interest in her Russian heritage? Maybe this would be a chance to tell her about the revered winter holidays of my childhood in St. Petersburg, Russia—calling up images of the falling snow as schoolgirls in black-brown uniforms and giant bows in their hair sang carols about solidarity.

“That’s a Russian holiday song!” I exclaimed. “Aren’t you a Russian girl?”

“No,” she said. “I English girl. My daddy sings another ‘Jingle Bells.’ Can we listen to that?”

I wish that raising a bilingual child was as simple and breezy as many books and articles suggest. But in practice, many foreign-born parents struggle when it comes to passing on—and preserving—their linguistic roots.

The cognitive advantages of bilingualism

Beyond the desire to pass one’s native language on to a new generation, there are other reasons to bring up bilingual children. I spoke to Ellen Bialystok, a professor of psychology at York University in Toronto. Her groundbreaking research has shown that compared to children who speak only one language, bilingual children are better at executive-function skills like focusing, multitasking, and weeding out unnecessary information.

“[Executive-function skills] predict long-term academic success and lifelong well-being,” Bialystok says. “There’s just nothing more important in terms of how this person is going to do in life.” (Compare that to the first half of the 20th century, when speaking a different language at home was thought to cause mental retardation.)

Another bilingualism perk, Bialystok’s research has revealed, is that older multilingual adults can stave off the symptoms and diagnosis of dementia by four years.

Balancing two languages is all the more impressive because it’s a complex process. “Bilinguals are always having to solve a problem of attending to the language they need to be using right now and not getting distracted by the other language that is, unfortunately, also active,” Bialystok explains. “That’s a crazy way to build a brain.”

The myth of the sponge

But bringing up a bilingual child is hard—even more so due to a number of myths about language acquisition.

First, kids aren’t sponges. It takes a lot of work to get the child to speak and actually need a second language. Although it’s common to expect that someone who is bilingual has a perfect grasp of both languages—the kind with no accent, ginormous vocabularies, and no jumping back and forth between languages in a conversation—perfect bilingualism is pretty rare.

“There is nothing magical in the child’s brain that allows them to learn any language they hear without lots of environmental support,” says Erika Hoff, a professor of psychology at Florida Atlantic University and author of books on language development. “Parents who want to raise their children to be bilingual are swimming upstream because the environment in the US is not supportive. You’re not going to have a child who is two monolinguals in one.”

Moreover, it takes longer to learn two languages than to learn just one, adds Hoff. So infants exposed to multiple languages from birth may have a slight speaking delay, although even they catch up quickly.

I wish I’d known that when my daughter was younger. I worried when she would only babble and point at things, while her peers already seemed to be debating the comparative merits of broccoli. This was also a concern for Sarah Luneau, an American public-health educator from Alameda, California, whose husband is French. At one year and five months old, their son speaks just several words, primarily in English, she says. Meanwhile, Luneau’s nephew of the same age, living in a monolingual household, has more advanced speech.

“My mom is always asking, ‘So, does he have any words yet?’” Luneau says. She was finally reassured by her pediatrician, who told her bilingual kids may not start talking until around 20 months.

The linguistic survival battle

Another big myth of raising a bilingual child is the parents’ mistaken belief that it will be easy to make a second language the default one at home. A lot of kids would rather just speak English—particularly if it’s the primary one they use for interacting at school and with their friends.

Aihua Kralovic, a management consultant from Napervile, Illinois, came to the US as a graduate student and speaks to her sons, who are 8 and 12, in Mandarin. But they respond in English, and opt for hockey- and baseball-league practice over academic tutors and Chinese classes.

“Foreign language, they feel, is an extra burden compared to their friends,” Kralovic says. “I’m definitely not a tiger mom, even though I tried. I have no way to force it.”

Anya Dashevsky, a clinical psychologist with a practice in Lexington, Massachusetts, and a mother of four, also had to make compromises. She noticed that as soon as her children started preschool, their native Russian ebbed.

“I come home tired. I don’t have the mental energy to say, ’Okay, we have to speak Russian.’ A part of me just gave up, which kind of breaks my heart,” Dashevsky says. Still, she and her husband have enrolled the older kids in weekly Russian classes. They also expose them to Russian books and movies and take them on trips to visit grandparents—where English will only get them so far.

The issue can be even more complicated for parents trying to juggle more than two cultural identities. Tatiana Vechniakova, a head of human resources in Oakland, California, moved to the US from Russia 20 years ago. She seeks to nurture the multilingual and biracial identity of her daughter, whose father is Nigerian. And so she attends an American preschool rather than a local Russian-language one.

“It’s hard to keep it all in mind, but it becomes sort of a habit,” Vechniakova explains of her balancing act of multicultural kids’ books, national foods, local events, and conversations about her daughter’s heritage. “I hope that she doesn’t have to choose, that she can accept those different parts. As an immigrant, I still sometimes feel like an outsider. I don’t want her to have the same experience.”

Learning strategies

While bilingualism is harder than it often sounds, there are steps parents can take to help their children become comfortable in multiple tongues. Experts recommend regular language exposure, lessons, trips to the home country, and, especially, interaction with native monolingual speakers.

One popular approach is known as “one parent, one language,” wherein a parent speaks to the child in exclusively his or her native language, at least at home. This can, however, be awkward and isolating to other family members. Some research also suggests it doesn’t always work. “If we’re out in public, I’m always conscious that people are ‘Oh, is she trying to be too much or showing off,’” says Luneau about speaking French to her toddler.

Many families opt for a foreign-language nanny or daycare. But this doesn’t guarantee bilingualism, either. “It’s hard to say that it’s going to be noticeably helpful,” Bialystok cautions. “How much are you willing to support this kind of exposure? If you do nothing beyond the Spanish daycare, there probably will be very little effect. As soon as you take the child out, there probably will be little evidence that there was Spanish daycare. Nobody knows for sure.”

When my own daughter was little, we’d go to library sing-alongs and socialize with American friends, all in English. But the rest of the time, I spoke and sang to her exclusively in Russian. Even when she’d waddle over with her favorite book, Good Night Moon, I’d ask my American husband to read it to her, to preserve what I figured was language purity.

But when I went back to work full-time and my toddler started at an English-language daycare center, the language rules went out the window, and her interest in Russian along with them. I tried pleas, threats, and bribes of TV and refined carbohydrates. Nothing worked.

I also yearned for the ease of conversation other families shared. It seemed so simple. To them, a cat was always a cat, not sometimes koshka. And one could darn well be sure that American dogs always said woof and not gahv, no matter who was listening.

Positive participation

I was blindsided when my child seemed to balk at the ways of her ancestors. Experts say the solution involves considering more than language.

Parents might ask themselves why their child is uninterested, says Andrés Consoli, an associate professor of psychology at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and a former president of the National Latina/o Psychological Association. “Is there bullying happening in the community in which that child is immersed? Is there some kind of a rejection?” Children very much want to fit in with their peers, and they are sensitive to negative attitudes that others might hold about their background.

Another strategy is to wait for the child to come around on her own as she tests limits and experiments with independence and maturity.

One thing not to do is to try to force a foreign language, which can lead to resistance. “It’s putting language instruction above human interaction,” Hoff speculates. It tells the child, “’You speaking [another language] to me is more important to me than my understanding of what you’re trying to say.’”

Experts also suggest embracing the child’s American world. Play together, bond over favorite American books and cartoons, and participate in school functions, despite the nostalgia about the old ways. “One of the challenging aspects of being an immigrant is we tend to crystallize our culture of origin,” Consoli says. “[But] cultures evolve. If we don’t have that opportunity of going back, we’re operating out of time and out of place. There’s really no place to belong to.”

My daughter has made me consider exactly why it matters so much to me that she be bilingual. Sure, I’d like her to one day be able to read Dostoyevsky in his purest form. But I also want her to be able to speak easily with her cousins on the other side of the globe. I want to be able to share tender memories and building blocks of my childhood with her and her brother, particularly as I come to terms with the idea that my own childhood home no longer exists.

Thankfully, after I gave up insisting that my daughter speak my mother tongue, she stopped resisting it. Soon she began to say Russian words, then sprinkle them into sentences. Now we can have entire conversations in Russian, making it seem as if our family’s past is truly linked with the future. It’s a far cry from fluency; like a watered-down borscht or a mildly spiced dosa. But that’s all right by me. Dostoevsky can wait.