Raising a bilingual child - first decisions

language, parenting, books

Maria and I both share the same first language, so we have been considering the same strategy many immigrant couples adopt in our less than extraordinary situation. To speak our native Russian at home and then at some point to start teaching English to our son... but while appearing simple and logical, the latter part was never clear enough.

At which point are we supposed to start introducing the majority language? How to keep the balance between them two so that the child would still be able (and willing) to communicate in their heritage language, and at the same time not feeling held back by it?

A search on Amazon predictably revealed more than one title, but it was easy to decide between the top ones: it wasn't the first time a negative review helped me to make up my mind with less hesitation as 'too scientific' and 'too many facts' actually sounded like a positive feedback to me.

So today I have finished reading Raising a Bilingual Child by Barbara Zurer Pearson (my clippings, if you fancy just a quick digest, are here), and since it has provoked some thoughts I feel like I need to write them down.

My main discovery, of course, was that the 'natural' strategy I mentioned above isn’t the only solution we have to follow for the lack of any sensible alternatives. Minority language at home or simply mL@H, as it is called, is easy for parents given they both speak the same language, but poses some hurdles for the child.

The first one is what I was worrying about before, a shock caused by a sudden introduction of another language. While according to referred studies kids do well even if they first start in a relatively late age of seven, it is still an opportunity for an unwanted isolation of the child, if not for bullying. Less likely in a such a multicultural city as London, I guess, with about a third of its population born abroad, but still somewhat concerning.

The second potential problem is that once a child copes with the initial shock successfully, the second language tends to overshadow the first one, often to the point of it perceived as truly secondary in every aspect affecting relationships in the family, especially with members only proficient in the minority language (grandparents).

It isn't that we weren't aware of these risks - we even know the families experiencing the above problems in exactly the same way as predicted, but we used to consider that an unavoidable evil.

Turns out, it isn't the only possible way of the bilingual upbringing. mL@H's strategy closest competition is one parent, one language or OPOL which implies that parents speak to their child in different languages each providing a less steep learning curve and showing that two languages can co-exist from the very beginning, thus relieving the child from the problems typical for mL@H.

I used to think this is only suitable for mixed couples where parents speak different first languages - naturally, OPOL looks just as logical for them as mL@H does for immigrants of the same origin. That being true, apparently it is not the limit. Some of the numerous case studies the book is based on show that with enough dedication OPOL is quite possible even when language chosen by a parent isn't their first one, and even if it isn't perfect. Provided there is a majority language environment, kids do not pick up parent's mistakes and accent, and there are also various ways to get over the gaps in vocabulary:

Saunders’s books have practical advice on some problems that might be unique to the second-language speaker parent. For example, when Saunders and his children did not know a word they needed, they would agree on a paraphrase to use until they could check it out in a dictionary or with a native speaker. Then, if necessary, Saunders would use a conscious teaching strategy to correct the wrong word.

Another advantage of this method is that it boosts parent's own level by extending the number of possible contexts she or he is familiar with.

It is hard to tell for sure which out of these two approaches is more effective - in the long run, they're roughly the same:

The “batting average” for OPOL appears to be about 78%; 58 out of the 75 children were reported to be actively bilingual, if not trilingual. However, because more than half of those are zero to three years old, it’s too early to grant them “success.” Without the children under age four, the percentage drops to 63%.

Using the same logic, taking away the one child under four in the mL@H group, there appear to have been around five children who became at least bilingual of the eight mL@H families, or 62.5%.

The figures might not seem very representative (being used to big datasets at work, 'eight families' doesn't exactly work for me), but I probably trust them because of the a whole chapter the author has dedicated to problems of measuring bilingual kids' achievements against monolinguals (in brief, there are very few properly conducted researches, and the ones listed were picked out more or less carefully).

I personally don't feel comfortable with OPOL - I tried to talk to Anthony in English, but didn't succeed much so far. Since I have never done that before, I struggle to form parentese versions of words (which - something I also learned from this book - some researchers consider an evolutionary mechanism important for baby's development), but that is something I can clearly overcome with enough efforts put in. What is more important, it simply doesn't seem natural and distances me from the child. I understand this simply means my English needs to be improved and that is exactly what OPOL can help me with, but nevertheless it remains a major blocker of emotional nature for me.

Another sign OPOL should not be pursued by all means is that people who have experience with both strategies (say OPOL in childhood and then mL@H with their own kids) favour the latter more. Overall, it looks like we will end up with the same thing as if without any research, but it's good to know it is going to be an informed decision.

As to the 'scientific background' of the book that reviewer was unhappy about, I am not an expert, but I thought that LAD and Chomsky references in general appear a bit outdated for 2008 when the book was published. That doesn't undermine, however, an whopping number of relevant facts, real life case studies and explanations it provides.

Despite its Amazon description, this book won't really give you a clear step-by-step guide to raising a child fluent in at least two languages, but it will definitely supply you with enough of verified information to make your own decision or to understand what else exactly do you need to clarify before making up your mind. That's a time well spent.


P.S. It's a long shot, but if anyone who was facing the same question, made a decision and now regrets or is happy with it comes across this post, I'll appreciate a couple of words in support (or otherwise) of the chosen strategy. Thanks!