About a month ago, I was invited to be interviewed for a podcast with Marianna Du Bosq at Bilingual Avenue. She asked me to talk about raising my daughter bilingual in Portuguese and English, with English being the minority language. (Jargon alert! In the bilingual community, minority language is any language not spoken by the majority of people in the community.) I was flattered and excited. In preparation, I visited her site and pulled up previous podcasts. As I listened to the PhD experts and trilingual parents, the researchers and published authors, I began to suspect that I would be the least helpful person ever interviewed for Bilingual Avenue.
Well the interview is up, and I’m certain that I’m the least helpful guest ever.
Of all the issues that come with parenting my daughter, raising her bilingual is one of the last I think about. In terms of energy usage, reflecting on her bilingualism comes just after flossing her teeth and ahead of which hand she writes with.
I don’t have a favorite book on bilingualism. I don’t have tips or special strategies to share. I can’t list the names of prominent researchers in the field or site the latest journal article making waves. I don’t have a “biggest fear” or “primary concern”. I’m not visiting online forums and sharing my struggles with other parents.
Before my daughter was born I did buy two books on raising bilingual kids. I read enough to know the common strategies: One Parent One Language (each parent speaks his/her native language to the child) and Minority Language at Home (the child learns the majority language at school/in public and speaks the minority language with both parents at home). Our pre-birth strategy session went something like this:
Me: “Since she’s going to be getting Portuguese at school and with all her friends, we should probably speak English to her at home, right?”
My Husband: “Absolutely.”
And that was that. Marianna asked me during the interview how my Brazilian husband feels about speaking English to his daughter. Not to spoil the interview, but I considered revealing my suspicions that I married a robot. He speaks English fluently and wants his daughter to be fluent in both languages, thus the logical choice was to speak English at home. Period. I realize this story is not helpful for the majority of people who also consider feelings when making decisions. I personally would not be able to say “I love you” in Portuguese and feel it the way I do in English, but my husband didn’t give it a second thought.
It’s possible we would have talked about it more, but then my daughter was born seven weeks early. We spent a month in the NICU. She developed a severe food allergy that caused bloody stools until she was 8 months and left me, the breastfeeding mom, only able to eat fruits and vegetables handpicked by fairies and meat that hadn’t been cooked in anything remotely tasty. Her breastfeeding feeding schedule was every two hours, so I didn’t sleep for almost a year. She has severe separation anxiety which has allowed me one night off in over four years, and that night was such a disaster it will take years for everyone to recover enough to try again. When she started throwing tantrums, they included biting, scratching, spitting, kicking, and screaming until she lost her voice. Two years later, we’ve managed to reduce the tantrums to only screaming and throwing toys at doors instead of people. She refuses to try new foods. Iran is more flexible over nuclear policies than my daughter is on the subject of vegetables. And she has recently decided she is done with both school and sleeping.
Truly my daughter speaking two languages is the least of my concerns.
Her teachers report no problems with communication. She has lots of friends she speaks to in Portuguese. She enjoys speaking in English to my parents via Skype. She might have in total fewer words in English than a monolingual her age but so, what? I’m a native English speaker and still regularly have to look up English words I’ve never seen before. With every piece of writing, I learn new ways to use and manipulate my native language. Learning a language is a lifelong activity, not something you need mastered by 18. My kid can identify an armadillo in both English and Portuguese. I’m not worried.
When I do consider her bilingualism and her place in the world as a bilingual, I remember that the idea a child should only have one native language or risk never being fluent in any has been totally and completely debunked. Linguists estimate 75% of the world’s population speaks more than one language and about 20% of the U.S. population. She’s far from alone in her bilingualism. In fact, compared to the many families passing on three or even four languages, our two-language family is pretty straightforward.
I think about these facts for two minutes and then go back to finding a way to make applying sunscreen less traumatic. Which is why, I’m the absolute last parent to ask about raising a bilingual child.
Because when someone says “You’re raising her bilingual. How’s that going?” I say, “Fine. Hey, do you have any suggestions for getting her to not hate carrots?”
*Here is the link to my interview with Marianna at Bilingual Avenue. Episode 87: Learning Language from our Kids with Brynn Barineau
If you have any questions or doubts about raising multilingual kids, Bilingual Avenue is a great resource!!