A Guest Article by Nadine Lichtenberger
Parents considering raising their children to be bilingual face many questions. What does the research say concerning bilingual children? Is one method better than another? Is learning two languages simultaneously too difficult or “confusing”? Will their peers see them as “different” and tease them? Is it ever too late or too early to begin?
These were questions also faced by the author of the following article. Nadine Lichtenberger is an American who has lived in Linz, Austria since 1989 with her Austrian husband and their two children. Below she offers a personal account of her efforts to ensure that her children can communicate in the two languages spoken by their parents: English and German. Although there are some differences, the problems encountered in doing this in a German-speaking country largely mirror those in an English-speaking country. Nadine shares her personal concerns, methods, and resources used to help in the sometimes daunting task of raising truly bilingual kids.
Part One: Why | Research | Methods
The decision to raise our children to be bilingual in German and English was a rather easy one to make. Our personal reasons were fairly clear: I not only believe that the gift of language is priceless, but they will have the ability to communicate with a broader range of people. I want my children to be aware of their American (and Caribbean) cultural heritage since they will be raised in Austria. To me, this means complete fluency and knowledge of the English language. It is very important for me that my children be able to converse in English so they can feel connected to family members in southern California. I also want them to feel comfortable in an English-speaking setting. Perhaps they will be more open-minded, accepting and tolerant of other cultures. Perhaps their bilingualism will open doors for them in the future and offer them a wider range of options later in life. Perhaps they will develop a love for languages and acquire additional languages more easily. There is no way of knowing what the future holds, but I know that I cannot imagine not speaking to my children in my native English tongue. My goal is not just a passive knowledge of English, but fluency and active use so they can feel at home in Austria and the U.S.
After we made a conscious decision to be a bilingual family, I began to search for information on raising bilingual children as I had many concerns. For example, what are the results of research concerning bilingual children? Which method is best? Would learning two languages simultaneously be too difficult or confusing? Would peers see them as different and tease them? And would they perhaps refuse to speak English to me when they were older in an effort to conform with peers? What would it be like to raise them to speak English in a German-speaking environment?
My initial research revealed that children raised in bilingual or multilingual families have not been studied in numbers great enough to predict how certain conditions will or will not affect language acquisition. But despite what may seem to be an obvious assumption, I have found no research to back up the idea that “if language learning is difficult, learning more than one language must be even more difficult.” Researchers still do not know how to predict later outcome with monolingual toddlers, much less bilingual or multilingual youngsters.
The research that has been done on the subject does indicate that bilingual and biliterate children outperform their monolingual peers on standardized tests. Bilingual children also seem to possess better conceptual abilities because they are exposed to a greater number of concepts (i.e., concepts existing in one language and not in the other, or vice versa). If a child is diagnosed with a disorder such as problems processing the language, a delay in expressing speech, or a localized disorder in productive/receptive or auditory/visual areas, etc., any disorder present in one of the languages will also be present in the other(s). A language disorder that impairs the ability to acquire an initial language is very rare and most commonly associated with severe mental impairment, such as retardation or autism.
There are many different methods of raising a bilingual child. A very popular method is known as “One Parent, One Language” (OPOL) in which one parent speaks exclusively to the child in the minority language, while the other uses only the local or majority language. Another popular method is “minority language at home”—using the minority language exclusively within the family with the idea that the child will learn the majority language by living in the country. My personal advice to couples would be to decide early on what your goals for your child and your family are. Should the child be completely bilingual or just possess a passive knowledge of the minority language? A spouse who does not understand the minority language may not be too happy or supportive of the endeavor. The family should make a conscious decision to be a bilingual family, as I strongly believe consistency is the key to successfully raising bilingual children. However you choose to communicate with your child, I believe it is important that the interaction be pleasant and natural for everyone involved.
Be prepared to face difficulties and problems. The majority language is almost always dominant and it takes some courage to insist on speaking a foreign language when no one else in the outside environment understands you, and especially if the child does not seem to need this language in his/her daily life. I would suggest starting as early as possible (right at birth is best!) and to have faith in your own instincts and gut feelings. Don’t jump to conclusions when problems arise. Many professionals, doctors, and therapists have good advice to offer but some may not have been deeply involved in the area of bilingualism. Of course you should listen to the advice of doctors or professionals—especially if speech disorders or chromosomal disorders are diagnosed—but keep in mind that you as a parent are also a specialist. Parents are the only people in the world who know their child best. It is unfair to make sweeping generalizations about language ability based on a few children. No two children are exactly alike and the range of outcomes varies. Studies have shown that two sets of families can use the OPOL method in the same way and yet the children of one family are better at simultaneous language learning than the children of another family. But isn’t that also true of children learning a first, single language?
NEXT > Part Two of this article
Nadine Lichtenberger does not claim to be an expert in the fields of special education, speech therapy, or linguistics. She’s just a parent interested in raising bilingual children. She welcomes comments, opinions, views, advice, additional information and research results on the subject of bilingual parenting. You can contact her at: firstname.lastname@example.org
NEXT > Part Two of this article
Web content ©1997-2009 Hyde Flippo
Bilingual and Expat Connections
- Part Two of this article
- Expat Interview with Nadine Lichtenberger - A three-part interview from the German Way.
- The GW Expat Page
- The German Way Forum - Join our forum, where we share info and tips about life in German Europe.
- See part Part Two of this article for bilingual family web links.