The Challenging Path of Bilingualism

Every day I read comments written by parents worried about their children’s refusal to speak the native language at home. Somehow moms and dads out there feel admiration for my three offsprings who speak English, Spanish and German willingly and happily. The reality falls far away from what it is projected in social media.

My kids’ dominant language is English while German comes in second place and Spanish is a desperate cry for keeping mom’s culture alive. Don’t get me wrong. Things have gotten better with Spanish lately, but it wasn’t until their teenage years that my children understood the importance of communicating with relatives and friends from Venezuela using their mother tongue. 

Those first years and people’s expectations 

Baby and toddler years were challenging for our family. We were raising our offsprings in the United States and even though I spoke Spanish to them the whole time, they continued to choose English as their preferred channel of communication. 

No, it wasn’t my fault. 

Yes, I only spoke Spanish.

No, it wasn’t our intention to raise them monolingual. 

Oh those years… and oh, those comments! Every time we traveled to our home country, relatives would want to evaluate the children’s Spanish skills and would highlight their inability to build a full sentence without mixing languages. Friends and teachers in the States weren’t silent either. They were always worried about my kids and the state of confusion and ambiguity we were raising them in. How would their English be good enough for elementary school if they just hear Spanish at home? 

Thanksgiving Feast, NJ Elementary School, USA

Reality is simple. Their brains are awesome

So years passed and the three little Nómadas (not so little anymore) continued to show dominance in one of the two languages: English. And this was normal. Our kids had a greater exposure to English and needed it more to communicate with people in the immediate environment. 

Please rest assured that this is normal.

The main effect of dominance is that the stronger language is more developed than the weaker one. Therefore, my children learned more sounds and words in English, they had more grammatical structures at hand to communicate and started to transfer English morphemes into Spanish. 

Then came grandma to tell us that the children didn’t speak Spanish nor English, but a dialect composed by a mixture of codes from both languages. Ha! 

The future would include bratwurst and sauerkraut

Little we knew that our life plans would be altered by a job offer and a sudden move to Germany. Our dynamics changed to open the door for a new language. Priorities had to be rearranged to support our children to learn German as soon as possible. They were already in elementary school and enrolling them in an international school wasn’t an option. 

Since we knew that not all bilingual and multilingual children acquire their languages in a simultaneous manner (hello first semester of Language Masters), we weren’t surprised when our kiddos started to acquire the German language naturally by interacting with teachers, classmates and other members of the majority language community. It was fascinating to see them flourish in such a challenging language while their English continue to be superb and their  Spanish started thriving as well. 

Enjoying the German summer months in Nuremberg 

The more languages, the better

Eager to find the right way to support their bilingual upbringing I decided to deepen my knowledge about the human brain and the way kids learn foreign languages. I reviewed all the material from my Masters years, enrolled in many seminars about diversity, expats and bilingualism. Tons of information and talks to experts about the bilingual brain reassured me that as long as we promote exposure to their three main languages, our children will be fine and multilingual. 

Please grandma, trust us! Your grandkids will be able to communicate and strive! They don’t speak an unknown dialect, they are using code mixing as strategy to produce and balance their weaker language. 

Things that you need to keep in mind

Raising bilingual children is a rewarding experience that can be challenging and exhausting to pursue. You need to stay strong, confident and believe in the reason why you are supporting your kiddos in this path. Languages are excellent tools to communicate cross-culturally and raise diversity awareness. To me, giving my children the chance to live overseas and learn other languages is an invaluable gift. This is the inheritance we are leaving for them. (Do you think that with all that traveling we have money left in the bank? Lol) 

So I did the homework for you and listed the things to be aware of when bringing up bilingual kids:

  • Children can become bilingual at any age. The long-standing myth that the earlier a language is acquired, the more fluent a person will be in it is just that: a myth. What it really seems to influence their capacity to acquire a second language is the learner’s attitude toward the other linguistic group. My children started to develop their Spanish skills in depth when spending time with grandparents and other family members during holidays in Venezuela and Mexico. They began to identify themselves with the Spanish speaking group, enjoying long walks with grandpa, dinner at their favorite Mexican restaurant, the freedom of being able to order their own meals at the local Venezuelan bakery, and so on. They were motivated and their Spanish began to flourish fluently and meaningfully.
  • Forcing your children to speak your mother tongue won’t help. Threatening, grounding and screaming at a child because he or she didn’t answer in your native language will not give you positive results. Language learning has to be a process of joy, fun, and motivation. If the only reason for your children to speak French is an upset mom or judgmental uncle, language acquisition won’t be fruitful, but resentful and hateful. 
  • Create an effective strategy and stick to it. Does you son refuse to speak Spanish with his cousins? Then create a healthy and fun environment where they can play together. If your child is having fun with his cousin, soon enough he will be more motivated to communicate using the cousin’s language. A detailed but flexible plan of strategies will be your best tool. Think about resources, tools, trips, native speakers, games and opportunities to expose your children to the target language and be consistent. Watching a movie in Russian every four months won’t be of much help to encourage your 5 years old daughter to communicate with grandma in Moscow. Follow a daily routine. 
  • Build a network system. Working alone sucks. Languages are all about communication and interaction. Start by following blogs, IG accounts and other social media outlets of families going through the same process. You need to build a sense of support and belonging for you and your family to stick to your resolutions. Additionally, search information in specialized journals and magazines. There is also the possibility to visit bilingualism workshops and seminars to acquire more knowledge and meet people in the field. 
Proud mom of a German speaker. Zurich, Switzerland 

Just remeber, whatever you do, do it with passion. Believe in what you are doing and don’t hesitate to let others know about your plans. Avoid comparisons and trust your gut. Raising bilingual children has been an amazing experience for our family and many others out there.

You will not be disappointed!

Embrace bilingualism and its many benefits and become a motivator for your children. They will thank you for it in the future. 

Published by Little Nómadas

Mother, foreign languages educator, expat, intercultural relations coach, and travel addict.

6 thoughts on “The Challenging Path of Bilingualism

  1. loved your insight on this! My son is 1 and I am trying to research the best ways to introduce language (other than English) to him. My mom started teaching German to me at 8 but by 16 I forgot most of it. I think if my mom would have started younger more would have kept.
    Thanks again, great read 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

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