Bringing up baby bilingual
As the world grows smaller, many parents want their children to learn a second language or to retain the family's ancestral tongue.
As a child living in Portugal for a year with his Portuguese father and American mother, Jayme Simoes became fluent in the language. But when the family returned to Chicago, English prevailed. For three years he lost his second language entirely, regaining it only after spending summers in Portugal with relatives.
Now married and a father, Mr. Simoes is determined that the couple's toddler son, Marcus, will grow up bilingual, learning the ancestral language he and his wife, Laura, share.
Even before Marcus was born, the Hillsborough, N.H., couple played tapes of famous Portuguese poetry for him, hoping to instill - even in the womb - the cadences of the language. From the child's earliest days, Mr. Simoes began teaching him Portuguese. The family has even traveled to Portugal twice with Marcus.
"At bath time, we speak in Portuguese, read him stories in Portuguese, listen to Portuguese folk music together," Simoes says. "In Portuguese, he can count, say 'hello' and 'goodbye' (olá and adeus), 'up high' and 'down low' - para cima and para baixo."
As the United States grows more culturally mixed,more parents share the Simoes's desire to raise bilingual children.
According to the US Census, 11 percent of the population was born in another country. That marks the highest percentage since 1930 and the largest number of immigrants in the nation's history. At least 10 million school-aged children live in homes where family members speak a language other than English, the Department of Education reports.
When some family members speak little or no English, teaching children a second language is a necessity. In other cases, parents simply want to pass along their family heritage.
"There is a growing appreciation of retaining one's home culture," says Carey Myles, author of "Raising Bilingual Children" (Parent's Guide Press). "There's a recognition that you can be an American and still have associations with another culture." That represents a sea change in attitudes from earlier generations, when the goal was assimilation and Americanization as quickly as possible.
Whatever the motive for maintaining a bilingual household, linguists emphasize that parents must understand the long-term commitment it requires. That includes having clear goals.
"You must have specific ideas about what you want your child to be able to do in both languages," says Ms. Myles.
Parents must devise strategies for achieving their goals, she adds. And they must be consistent, using a particular language at a certain time, with a certain person, or in specific situations. Myles also advises parents to avoid mixing languages, so children will hear each tongue in a pure form.
Some families follow a pattern Myles calls One Parent, One Language. One parent speaks only the minority language to a child, while the other speaks English. Other families use the minority language at home and English everywhere else.
Myles knows firsthand the challenges and rewards of living in a bilingual home. Her husband, an Iranian, speaks Farsi to their third-grade daughter. Their original plan to spend summers in Iran, near his parents, changed when the couple decided the political situation there is too unstable. That diminished their daughter's need to learn Farsi.
For Michael Cohen and his wife, Alison Hill, of Manchester Center, Vt., the decision to rear bilingual children came when their first child, Roi, was a year old. Rabbi Cohen wanted him to learn Hebrew. The couple decided Cohen would speak only Hebrew to their son and Ms. Hill would speak English. That pattern continues today for Roi, now 11, and his sister Shirah, 9.
Emblazoned in Cohen's memory is a day when he was reading a Disney story in Hebrew to Roi, then a toddler. Explaining that the Hebrew word for "kiss" is nisheeka, he says, "When I read the word, Roi kissed with his lips. I realized he was getting it, and getting both languages. It was a really sweet moment."
But there are other not-so-sweet moments when some parents or children, or both, wonder whether the effort is worth it.
Several times over the years, Roi has asked, "Why are we doing this?"
Cohen explains to him: "In terms of Jewish identity, knowing Hebrew is very important."
Every three years, the family spends a year in Israel, which strengthens the children's second-language skills.
Like other English-speaking parents who know little of the minority language, Hill can occasionally feel left out. "Sometimes Michael will say something and I won't know exactly what he's saying. But since they respond in English, it's not as though I'm missing portions of the conversation, usually."
When friends visit their home, Cohen continues speaking to the children in Hebrew. He translates so the friends will understand.
But privately, if he gets angry at the children, he addresses them in English, not Hebrew. "It's easier for me," he says.
Similarly, Yin Chang of Astoria, N.Y., recalls that when her Malaysian mother was upset, she reverted to her native Mandarin, instead of using the mix of Cantonese and English the family spoke at home. "I knew I was in trouble when my mother was calling me in Mandarin," she says with a laugh.
Many bilingual families face common challenges. When parents speak to children in the minority language, the children often reply in English. This can become a source of contention. Or they do what linguists call mixing or scrambling, patching together hybrid sentences with words from both languages.
Noble Goss, assistant professor of Spanish and German at Harding University in Searcy, Ark., has four children who speak both English and his wife's native Spanish. "When they are speaking Spanish and they can't remember or think of the word, they'll put in an English word, but often modify it grammatically to fit," he says.
To parents concerned that dual languages will confuse children, he offers reassurance. Children, he finds, "have an uncanny way of separating languages."
Still, as they grow and spend more time at school and with friends, some resist their second language. "English is a language of power," says Kim Brown, an assistant professor of linguistics at Portland State University in Oregon. It is also easier for American youngsters to speak, since it is their native tongue.
She and her husband have maintained a bilingual home since the birth of their daughter, Nina, now a fourth-grader. A native of Iran, her husband speaks Farsi to Nina, and Ms. Brown speaks English to her.
"It's been quite an up-and-down path," Brown says. She describes Nina as a passive bilingual. "Her comprehension is quite high, but the times she chooses to use [Farsi] are decreasing." She adds, "We're just doing what we can to keep her with a positive attitude, supporting her and pushing her as much as we can." She hopes Nina will study Farsi later.
Rather than letting a child's linguistic rebellion create tension at home, Myles suggests a calm approach. "At a certain point, if they're not interested, and they don't have much opportunity [to use the second language], what can you do?" she asks.
Even though Myles is a professional language teacher, she and her husband originally did not discuss what kind of proficiency they hoped their daughter might develop in Farsi. He expected the girl to become bilingual; Myles was content with her developing lesser skills.
Myles urges parents to consider their motives for wanting a child to be bilingual, the resources available to them, and the amount of time their child can realistically spend learning another language.
She also warns against unrealistic hopes. "Everybody expects that if you start from birth, [children's] development should be even in both languages. The fact is, unless you have opportunities to do both languages equally, it's not going to happen."
Even in today's multicultural climate, attitudes about raising bilingual children can be colored by issues of class. "If you're a middle-class family and one parent speaks a language and can enroll a child in an immersion program, that's seen as a great thing for your kid," Myles says. "But if you don't have as many resources, and you insist on keeping the home language, there are people who feel you're making a mistake. Then it's seen as standing in the way of your child's opportunity to learn English."
Whatever a family's situation, obstacles can loom. Jeannette Stefan-Ozga of Aurora, Colo., grew up bilingual in the Dominican Republic. After moving to Miami to attend culinary school, she met her American husband - "a white boy from Connecticut who didn't know a word of Spanish," she says affectionately.
When their daughter, Isabella, now a preschooler, was born in Miami, it was easy to be bilingual, because of the pervasive Hispanic culture there. But now that they live in Colorado, her environment is American and English-speaking. That makes it hard to speak only Spanish to Isabella. Ms. Stefan-Ozga gets "a lot of grief" from relatives and friends, who tell her she is denying her daughter the chance to learn Spanish.
Still, when they ride in the car, Stefan-Ozga repeats the Spanish words for colors and numbers. At home, she reads to Isabella in Spanish, and they watch Dora the Explorer on Nickelodeon.
Parents who lived under repressive regimes may hold different attitudes about bilingualism. When she lived in Miami, Stefan-Ozga met many Cubans who refused to speak Spanish. "Some wanted to leave everything behind," she says.
Others, like Ana Flores of New York, who came to the US from Cuba as a toddler, want to preserve their heritage. Her husband emigrated from the Dominican Republic in his early 20s. They have hired a Spanish-speaking caregiver for their daughter, Alexa. Next month the girl will attend a preschool with a bilingual staff.
"She'll say to me, 'I want juice - that's jugo in Spanish,' " Ms. Flores says. "My husband will ask her in Spanish, 'What do we speak at home?' She'll say 'Español.' She gets it that we really want her to speak in Spanish."
Creative parents find other ways to turn small moments into learning opportunities. When Kristina Mueller, a high school senior, was growing up in Boston, she spoke English with her Canadian father and German with her German mother. One of their favorite language games involved plurals. "I would give her a singular noun and she would tell me the plural, such as Baum, tree, and Bäume, trees," recalls her mother, Helga Hoffmann, who now lives in Munich.
When adults lose the second language of their childhood, some experience a sense of loss. Thais Austin, a public affairs consultant in Austin, Texas, moved to Italy with her family as a preschooler. She attended an Italian school and became fluent in Italian.
But after the family returned to California several years later, her Italian faded away. "I was still dreaming in it," she says. "Losing it was sad. Italian was such a gift. Living in two cultures, even at a young age, blows open your mind in terms of understanding diversity and other kinds of people."
Ms. Austin also regrets that her mother, who is Mexican, never spoke Spanish in their home. "Just like any first-generation American, she wanted us to be successful, so speaking English was important for us. Back in the '60s, bilingualism was looked down on, not promoted. She didn't want us to face the racism she felt she had to face growing up."
For some families, even two languages are not enough. Ms. Chang grew up in New York speaking three Chinese dialects and English. When she and her husband, whose family is German, have children, they plan to send them to Chinese school.
"If we can squeeze it in, we'd like to get German in there, too," Chang says. A number of her friends also want to raise their children in trilingual homes.
"It definitely is different," Chang says. "Our parents were immigrants. They wanted us to be American and to fit in. Now we're trying to recapture our culture. We want our children to learn their culture. We want them to be able to go back to wherever their homeland is and be able to communicate."
Simoes agrees. "I see so many people of Italian heritage, Polish, Portuguese, Asian, Latin American, and they don't know anything about where their family came from. They don't speak their ancestral language; they don't know anything about their ancestral country's literature or culture. But it's not their fault. No one ever taught them."
Which is why, every bath time and every bedtime, Simoes can be found reading, singing, and counting in Portuguese with little Marcus. "Um, dois, três, quatro, cinco, seis, sete..."