Raising a bilingual child is easy, really. Just speak the language you want the kid to learn and you will be all set. Or will you?
I have three children. We live in the United States, but my first language is Lithuanian. All of my children speak some Lithuanian. The oldest one has mastered the language the most, the middle one can understand a considerable amount of every day (household) conversations but his expressive ability is so-so and the youngest one, although quite adept at picking up what is being said (when he wants to), uses his favorite phrase: “Mom, can you speak normal?”, i.e. English. When we are in the States, we all like to chit chat in bits of Lithuanian, the kids like to show off in public by asking me if they could have more candy, or saying they need to go to the bathroom, and it does sound cute. Very bilingual. But when we go to Lithuania, somehow everyone expects them to have long conversations about their hobbies and life in Lithuanian, and when they don’t and sheepishly look at me for help, I feel the disapproving looks and judging comments under breath as in how can she be such a terrible mother who has not done her job?! “Speak Lithuanian”, they say. Just like that. “Try harder”. Just like when a kid from another country starts school here because his parents decided to move to the States for whatever reason – a contract with a company, a chance at a new beginning – everybody says: “Speak English!”
Somehow people do not understand that language is not a thing you can buy at Walmart and start using right away. Learning a language takes time and so many other factors that we do not take in consideration on a daily basis. Motivation, for example. Why is it that some of the people I grew up with, did not learn English, or at least not fluently enough to enjoy a comfortable conversation? We took the same English classes, for as many days a week for the same number of years. If someone sees no meaning in learning another language, the task that is not easy to begin with, will become even more daunting. For example, I have to admit and my heart bleeds at the thought, but my youngest son does not see the real need to learn Lithuanian. Everybody speaks English, and if they do not yet, they really like to practice with someone from America. Plus all TV shows and websites and other info is available in English. So why learn Lithuanian?
Another major factor (and I am going to use a scientific term here, because I can:) – is comprehensible input. It is so much harder to learn a language when the dominant language prevails all around. That is why some people who take English as Foreign Language classes in their home country, are not exposed to “live” situations and may be pros at grammar but would stall at a leisurely discussion of their weekend activities. And this comprehensible input beast is what makes me a bad mother. My friends’, whose spouses speak Lithuanian, children are much more proficient at the language. My husband and I speak English. The school is in English. Friends and neighbors speak English, all activities are American and naturally, everyone instructs in English. Now that is comprehensible input. And that is how my students, who come from other countries with varied ability, and quite often with no ability, to communicate in English, learn at least the social language, fairly quickly.
So what does it take to be bilingual? And what is bilingual? I consider myself bilingual, as you can see, I am writing a blog in English… For the longest time I thought that if a person cannot read or write in another language, then they are not considered bilingual. Until I took a course in Sociolinguistics, which made a light bulb go off in my head. Language is a tool for communication. So if you are able to communicate in another language, then heck yes, you are bilingual. And, no matter how good or, shall we say, developing, my children’s Lithuanian is, they are able to communicate in it. Because when we go visit the family, the motivation skyrockets and the comprehensible input is there.
What are your experiences, if any, with being bilingual, or raising bilingual children? I would love to hear them!