Sunday, March 14, 2010

Raising a Bilingual Child

As most of my readers know, we are a trilingual family. My mother tongue is Russian, and it’s German for my husband. In other words, we have a gift of foreign language that we pretty much failed to give to our daughter so far. When we had Anna, our goal for her was to speak both English and German and to add Russian later. But here is the conversation between me and Anna the other day:

Anna: Mama, it will take me 40 years to read all the books in my room, because I have so many!

Me: And you also have to learn German and Russian first, because some of them are in German and some of them are in Russian.

Anna (after thinking a little): Well, I will read only English books then, and then I can read them faster.

It’s hard to explain why our German efforts sort of fizzled and Russian didn’t even start. When Anna was an infant, my husband spoke a lot of German to her. When she started talking, she used a mixture of German and English words, but rather quickly sorted them out and dropped German entirely in favor of English. It was harder for my husband to keep speaking German to her, and his time with her declined since she went to an English-language preschool. He definitely doesn’t speak enough German with her at the moment. In other words – she doesn’t have enough exposure to the second language to become accustomed to it and build a vocabulary. She can kind of follow directions and she can answer simple questions asked in German (she answers them in English), but this is about it.

Russian is even worse off. Anna hears me speak to my parents in Russian every day, but she doesn’t have a lot of interest in learning the language. Sometimes she asks me how to say a random word in Russian or asks me to sing a Russian song. When I try to read to her in Russian she wants me to translate for her on the fly into English. She doesn’t want to watch any movies in Russian, I had to trick her into watching a movie that didn’t even have a lot of words to start with. I tried to teach her words by focusing around one topic – for example, colors, but she is not really interested in it either.

More dedicated bilingual families make it work, of course. It helps if both parents speak the same language or if a parent uses minority language consistently. Children watch a lot more TV in minority language, have playmates who speak that language or attend a language preschool. We did discuss a language preschool briefly – we have both Russian and German immersion preschools in our area. There are also weekend language schools. But… our time is already so precious, and we don’t want to spend our weekends in language classes. We’d rather go on trips or visit friends.

So where will we go from there? To tell you the truth – I am not sure. German is easier overall – we have family in Germany, we have friends here who speak German, we have more access to German TV and programs. It will be interesting to see what happens when Anna’s German grandparents come to visit us two weeks from now – I want to give Anna as much time with them as possible and hope that her dormant German gets a boost. My husband will probably go to Germany with Anna in the summer for at least 3 weeks – it will be quite a shock for her to be in the place where everyone speaks German. I am optimistic that we can get her German going. Russian will probably be more of “maybe one day” thing even though I do want to attempt daily short sessions when I speak only Russian to her. We’ll see what develops. Any input or advice is highly appreciated.


An Almost Unschooling Mom said...

This is so interesting. I've been putting together a post on my own language teaching failures, and successes, and even though we don't have a fleunt second language spoken in the house, our experiences have run very parallel to yours, except with the older children I've also been able to introduce writing in German, but nothing seems to really stick. It's frustrating, but interesting.

Debbie said...

The only other language I know is sign language. I do know from my own experiences though that when I was around my friends in school who were deaf and used sign language as their only means of communication I spoke it fluently. Over the years, though I have tried to keep it up, with out that constant exposure to it being a prominant need, I have forgotten much of it. I still sign, but have to think about many of the signs and to read it, or understand it is even harder. I suppose exposure and the need for the second language is the true key to learning, understanding and retaining it.

Pathfinder Mom said...

We are so not a bilingual family (typical Americans!). We had a lot of early success with sign language, but as soon as we stopped using it, it went away. I had every intention of teaching (learning along with him, actually) Tornado Boy Spanish, but it just didn't happen. I know that I should do it sooner rather than later, but it never seems to bubble up to the top of the priority list.

Christianne @ Little Page Turners said...

I have no advice, but as someone who has always wanted to be fluent in another language (and never will be), I'd encourage you to keep trying. It sounds like you're already doing a great job!

BTW - I have a Russian friend whose daughter speaks Russian fluently, but her mother always complains about her deplorable American accent. :)

Christy said...

My paternal grandparents spoke Portuguese, my father spoke it to me as a child occasionally, but I can barely count to ten - even after taking four years of the language in high school. I have no advice. I hope she becomes interested.

Joyful Learner said...

I can completely relate as I speak Korean and my husband can speak a bit of Cantonese. But many children around here are learning Mandarin so I have exposed JC to Mandarin and Cantonese. I still can't tell which is which. She knows a little Korean phrases and words. I try but it's challenging because she prefers English and so do I! I'm always brainstorming ways to introduce new words to her but nothing consistent. I tried taking walks with her and pointing things out in Korean. She likes that. We've tried Little Pim videos which is suppose to be popular but she has no interest in it. I'm thinking about getting Rosetta Stone for Korean when she gets older. It's a bit pricey so I'm waiting until the charter school program can pay for it.

Best way is travel and immersion. Also watch foreign videos together. A man I met at Seoul University told me he learned English through TV! He's fluent in Korean, English and Spanish. I guess you pick up a lot of culture as well when you watch dramas. I'm waiting until JC is older for that too. All I can say is that my Korean improves every time I watch them!

But don't give up! It may be slow progress but it's better than nothing!

Oh, we introduced ASL when she was younger and she was better at signing than I was but we've lost that since we have not been practicing. So sad. :(

Adriana said...

I am sure that it is very frustrating that Anna has no interest in learning German or Russian. I think that we have it much easier since both my husband and I speak the second language. If I were you I would definitely sign Anna up for one of the immersion preschools. Since Anna already has formed her relationship with your husband in (mostly) English she is going to fight against what she is comfortable with. If she is learning German from an outsider (teacher) she does not already have that emotional attachment in English. Another bonus about these programs is that the children get to see other children using the language and "peer pressure" is a very powerful motivator. My son's English grew at amazing speed when he started playing with our English-speaking neighbor because Diego wanted to be able to play with him. I think that your plan to take Anna to Germany is a great idea too but your husband would have to be very tough about using as much German as possible.

Ticia said...

No real hints, the only friend I know who successfully did this did a form of immersion. One parent speaks only English and the other only Latvian. So, all kids are fluent in Latvian. But, they also go back to Latvia every summer for about a month.
So, not super helpful.

Katalin said...

I have a son, George, about the same age as Anna and we struggle like you with the languages. Both my husband and I are Hungarians, we speak Hungarian all the time but our son speaks English mostly. He understands everything what we say in Hungarian, he says couple of words in Hungarian but he prefers English. I spent a lot of time thinking and struggling with the idea of how can I introduce more Hungarian to him. But he gets a lot of English influence, we read in English more than Hungarian, we watch more English movies than Hungarian ones, we go to the library where there is only English story time, and since we moved to the west coast far away from my parents and sister, he has a lot less hungarian environmental influence.
On the other hand, my sister who has two children, both of them speak Hungarian fluently. She goes to a Hungarian church every Sunday, and Hungarian school on some Saturdays. Over time, however, their Hungarian became heavily English accented. Every language has its methodology, thinking procedure.
I understand your struggle. What I started doing recently is: he has to repeat the words after me, to pronounce it correctly. My son struggles saying Hungarian words because Hungarian requires a totally different tongue exercise than English. Also, we say the meaning of every object in both languages.
For a long time I did not understand why my sister succeed in teaching her kids speak Hungarian and I did not. Well she spoke only Hungarian at home and had only Hungarian storybooks, met only Hungarian friends, had more Hungarian influence.
Sending Anna to Germany for the summer is a great idea, it will help her in developing German language.
Good luck :)

龐克搖滾 said...


mermaid said...

In our family "one parent. one language" works very well. As I am Estonian I find it so unnatural to speak English with my daughter. But... I have to admit that it is not always easy to stick to my language.. as I speak English with my husband.. and our daughter speaks mainly English as well. But I force myself to stick to my language :) And I hope that one day our daughter speaks Estonian fluently. Every language is a gift!

Luckily our daughter understands both languages. We read books in both languages, watch films in both languages.. So understanding is good, but speaking is not that good. Every day I try to encourage her to answer me in Estonian. But she often says- I can`t. Well she has got problems with speaking generally.. that doesn`t help. But I won`t give up :)

MaryAnne said...

I had planned to raise our children bilingual French-English. It seemed like it would work well since my French is fluent and Mike speaks a little, but it hasn't really worked out for us so far. I spoke it almost exclusively when Emma was a baby, but then she wasn't talking at all so we tried English and seemed to have more success. She showed no interest in French for a couple years in spite of my sporadic efforts, until a friend decided to try running a French class. I put Emma in that class, and the social aspect was definitely the key. She loved the class, and is learning more every day. It's very much second language learning; she's doing colors, numbers, and a few animal names - not at all an immersion experience. She pretends to speak French when she plays, but it's just nonsense with French sounds - and she doesn't like it when I try to create an immersion environment. So now we do a mini French class every day (during which I do speak French exclusively), and we'll see if I manage to get her speaking a few sentences over the next few months.

MaryAnne said...

Oh, I forgot to say, we DID have huge success with Emma and sign language. She knew 20-30 signs before she spoke a word in any language. Johnny had very little interest in sign language (and he spoke English words very early), but he is interested and keeping up with Emma in French now.

Eva said...

Yeah we're working on teaching other languages as well. I'm only fluent in English and know French fairly well with a little bit of Arabic. My husband is fluent in Urdu but never speaks it at home so my daughter hasn't really picked up any. Out of the languages I want to teach my daughter French, Arabic, Urdu.. French is really the only one making progress... though it's really slow! I try to get french books and movies from the library, as well as let her play only french computer games, and I notice that she's starting to pick up words. I'm looking forward to see what Anna picks up after her 3 weeks stay!

Henna-Maria said...

I just found your blog so I don't know in which language you are most comfortable with yourself. Also, are you planning to live only in US?

I ONLY speak my native tongue to my children, and my husband speaks his (English). I could not imagine trying to sing lullabies or read nursery rhymes in any other language but my own mother language. I thought my children would miss so much of their cultural heritage if I gave my language up! I also enjoy word games and funny words, and want my kids to learn them too.
But it really helps that we parents both know each others languages well, so we don't miss what was said to children.

We live abroad, so our children learn yet another language from their friends. They are totally fine with it, but of course the third language is not as strong (yet).

I will homeschool in my mother tongue, but we really want them to be fluent in English too. But that will be easy...look at me, I learnt English! There are books, music, movies...tons of resources.

Does your daughter have any siblings? It would be interesting to see what language she would speak with them. Our kids speak my language together, but to their father they speak English.