raising bilingual.

For nearly two years now, I’ve been raising both my daughters – one a toddler, the other an infant – in a bilingual household.

I speak only Spanish to them while my wife speaks mostly English (with some Spanish words thrown in, for fun). It’s a studied and proven method known as the One Parent, One Language technique, and it’s produced bilingual children all over the world.

When my oldest, Elle, was just a cooing baby, it was easy. I would read her one of the many Spanish children books we have. She would look on admiringly, coo some more, giggle.

Now that she’s starting to take hold of language, it’s becoming increasingly challenging. And I know it’ll get more challenging as she gets older and increasingly embraces the language of her friends, daycare and home country (English).

But I’m determined. What gives me most hope is knowing their brains, though small and developing, are hard-wired for such a task. One of the most fascinating things I learned while preparing for the birth of my first daughter was this:

Baby brains start readying to acquire language at seven months — in utero.

The tiny embryonic brain at that stage starts spreading out neural connectors tasked with absorbing syntax and organizing sentence structures, even though the mouth won’t utter a single word for years to come. The connectors twitch, stretch and jerk in response to the sound of the parents’ voices outside the womb.

Equally fascinating is the fact that language is not a learned skill — it’s an evolutionary trait, a uniquely human instinct akin to walking upright or opposable thumbs. Evidence of this can be found in the whimsical utterances of children — “You giggled me!” — that aren’t taught to them by parents or learned through imitation.

The brain comes hard-wired for language.

“Language is no more a cultural invention than is upright posture,” MIT professor Steven Pinkler writes in his insightful book, The Language Instinct.

The fact that language is acquired evolutionarily and starts to develop mind-bogglingly early are important revelations for parents attempting to raise a bilingual child.

One of my goals for my cooing, smiling daughter, Elle, is to raise her speaking Spanish, the way my parents raised me. The goal is to have her retain the heritage of her Cuban ancestry and help her achieve the lifetime advantage of a second language.

Unlike my upbringing, where I heard only Spanish at home and learned English later in school, the principal language spoken at our house today is English.

But the books say keep talking. It’s not comprehension at this point. It’s the sound and the syntax and the cadence of the language that, believe it or not, is registering into those tiny connectors. Children learn two languages simultaneously as they do one. They sometimes take a bit longer to conquer a language, as late as 3 years or longer in some cases. But they usually catch up quick and, often, surpass their monolingual classmates in comprehension and grammar, says The Bilingual Family: A Handbook for Parents, a great guide on the subject.

Apart from parents, the bilingual child’s most important “teachers” are other children, the book says. That’s why playgroups are so important. Submerging a child for a few hours a day into a fun, nurturing playgroup where other children, led by an adult, are all speaking the foreign language will miles further to instill the language into the child.

While we toil to find the best schools and teachers and friends for our kids, let’s not forget the advantages of foreign languages. They stretch and strengthen the recesses of the human brain in ways few other things can.

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Written by Rick Jervis

Rick Jervis is the New Orleans-based Gulf Coast Correspondent for USA TODAY, covering post-Katrina rebuilding, oil spills, culture, regional oddities and the recurrent hurricane. He was on a team that won the 1999 Pulitzer Prize for Investigative Journalism and spent two years as USA TODAY’s Baghdad Bureau Chief. Born in Miami to Cuban parents, Rick developed a keen interest in the effects of media on a child’s brain development and is raising his two young daughters in a bilingual home with his wife, Elena.

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Comments

  1. Maria, thanks for your thoughts and kind words. Roxana Soto is a good friend and a real pioneer in making bilingual more mainstream first with her website, SpanglishBaby, and now her book. Both are great resources for parents in bilingual homes. Incorporating music as you’re doing is a great idea. I know it gets tough as they get older. But stick with it! rj

  2. I can relate & appreciate this post. I have a 3rd grader & a 6th grader. My older daughter has better comprehension of Spanish than my son does, but both have vocabulary in place. We have a multicultural family, but I find as the children get older our Non-Spanish speaking family (in my case, my husband for one) are outside the loop. Our daughter’s piano/voice instructor is also Spanish so she adds the musical heritage which is a huge advantage for us. It is definitely a work in progress for our family, but we are getting there and my children are also having obtaining elements to our heritage which is very important to us. I read Bilingual is Better by Ana Flores & Roxana Soto who are also creators of a website called Spanglish Baby. They have been a big inspiration & knowledgeable. Kudos to Rick for giving his children an amazing gift!

  3. Rick Jervis says:

    Thanks Melissa. Always good to hear of other multi-lingual families. Good luck.

  4. Loved this article. We too are a bilingual household, my husband speaks only German to our boys while I speak English. The “one parent, one language concept” has really helped our 5 year old to determine the true dialect of his speaking. As you mentioned, both languages were delayed for him but one day they both clicked and his fluent in both, to a 5 year olds standards. That being said..keep speaking. The challenges will continue, but your determination will overcome them. The playdate idea would be fabulous, sadly, German is not prevalent here in NOLA…Luckily, we did find a German speaking Nanny/Sitter who has really helped out as she too speaks only German to the boys. Your a good Papa for giving your little pnuts the gift of language!

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