Raising Bilingual Kids in the USA – 7 Lessons Learned
The United States is a country like no other. It is vast, populated, a melting pot, and though it functions as one country, each of its states is its own entity with their own governing laws, slight variation in accent, food, and culture.
Understanding this helps better understand why there’s such a difference in collective attitude across the country toward bilingualism.
As a trilingual parent trying to raise my kids as bilingual in the USA, I couldn’t help but compare my experiences to that of my children’s. I noticed certain situations that are just beyond my control, and situations that are.
Here are 7 lessons I have learned raising bilingual kids in the USA.
1. Linguistic opportunities are limited in the US compared to other countries
Most public elementary schools in America do not offer language classes for children. Not until they go to middle or high school could they then take a language class, which is quite different from attending an immersion school.
My 9 and 7-year-old came home one day talking up a storm about artwork they created, friends they played with during recess, and new things they learned in class. It’s always exciting to listen to them and watch their eyes light up. But secretly, I wish more for them.
Don’t get me wrong, their school is fantastic. The teachers are dedicated; the community is tight. They receive so much support in every aspect. And yet, I still find myself wishing for more.
Schools in America are not like the schools I attended in the Philippines or Norway.
In the Philippines, most schools use English in most of their classes, while in Norway, all schools offer language classes starting in elementary age.
In fact, in certain schools and certain grade levels, kids can have the opportunity to travel to the country of their language choice for a few days to a week and be fully immersed in that culture.
There’s an immersion school near us, which unfortunately, our family is not zoned for. So if we wanted to send our kids there, we’d have to apply and we’re not guaranteed a spot.
According to the Center for Applied Linguistics (CAL), there are currently over 1000 immersion schools in the country. But with about 56 million K-12 students, one thousand schools don’t seem enough to provide linguistic opportunities for all.
Fortunately, it seems that immersion programs are gaining popularity, and more and more parents are opting to enroll their children in one. Based on the data gathered by CAL in 2011, there were only about 538 immersion schools in only 38 states, so the numbers are undoubtedly growing.
I just wish it grew faster.
2. Spanish is by far the most popular language offered in the USA
Spanish is by far the most popular second language in America. Out of the roughly 1000 immersion schools scattered throughout the country, Spanish immersion schools have more than double the number of other languages combined.
Even job opportunities that look for candidates who are bilingual, specifically look for Spanish-speaking.
Over the past decade, immersion schools have spiked in numbers; so, collectively, more and more Americans are wanting their children to be exposed to other languages, and inevitably other cultures.
But even with the increase in immersion language programs, the opportunity to attend is not equal across the board.
States, counties, or cities with more resources and more demand for bilingualism have better access to the programs than places with less people, and less diversity among its population.
States such as Hawaii and California that truly embody diversity, where one can see a myriad of skin colors, hear different languages, taste multicultural food, and meet people with varying ethnic backgrounds, have more languages offered in their immersion programs, compared to others that might only offer Spanish.
It’s also not very easy to find language camps or classes, and they can be quite pricey.
3. Americans want bilingual kids, but they worry
Here’s the thing: American parents would love for their children to be bilingual. The idea of their children being bilingual is something to be proud of, and something they truly want for their own kids.
Though this delay is but a small sacrifice compared to the much larger benefit in the long run, many parents would still prefer to avoid it.
When enrolling children in schools, parents need to fill out a question asking whether their child has a different first language or if they speak other languages. If so, the kids end up going to an English as a Second Language (ESL) class, which is almost an academic obstacle to the kids who are fluent in English.
Though it seems there’s a shift to this mindset among parents, unsurprisingly, this shift is more popular among military parents, parents who can speak more than one language, parents who grew up in other countries, or parents who were also raised by bilingual parents.
With so many Hispanic families in every corner of the country, it’s not difficult to find little children who could translate so seamlessly between English and Spanish, speaking Spanish to a non-English speaking family member, and English to a non-Spanish speaking stranger.
Yet, many parents are still reluctant and worried.
There’s almost an unspoken stigma that parents do not want their child to not hit their developmental speaking milestone and bilingualism would be one of the perpetrators.
The problem seems deep-rooted, historical, and social.
There’s so much to go into to provide a more accurate in-depth analysis, but the bottom line, there just isn’t enough support or information for parents to see the benefits of bilingualism.
For example, other than bilingual children being able to communicate with more people around the world, they also have educational, social, and career advantages, better memory and problem-solving skills, and are more open-minded and creative.
Federico Fellini once said, “A different language is a different vision of life.”
As bilingual children learn new languages, their perspectives change and they gain a better understanding of life outside their bubble.
Over the years and as I continue to raise my children in a bilingual household, I have seen the benefits and faced a few challenges along the way. And though the challenges may seem such a tall mountain to climb, the rewards go far beyond.
4. More than just the household benefits from bilingual learning
When raising a bilingual child in the USA or anywhere, realize one of the perks – that the whole household will be benefiting from dual language learning.
While my eldest child learns and attempts to speak a second language, my younger children overhear and mimic their brother more than they mimic me. They grasp the concepts much faster when hearing it from someone closer to their size.
Even my non-Norsk speaking husband has picked up words and phrases just from overhearing me and the kids.
Our communication with each other further improves not only in one, but two (very slowly turning into three) languages. The emotional bond between us also strengthens as we learn to listen, be patient, and intuitive of the one speaking in a different language.
Occasionally, I would hear my daughter talking to her friends and telling them what certain Tagalog words mean.
These friends are obviously not part of our household, but even they are reaping the benefits of bilingual learning as my daughter reaps the benefits of teaching, practicing, and sharing her other languages with them.
5. Languages build confidence, increase self-worth, and help to define kids’ identity
Perhaps the absolute best outcome of bilingual learning in our home is seeing the thrill on my kids’ faces when speaking Tagalog to my parents, who are just as excited to hear their grandkids speak their native tongue.
As my children’s ability to communicate with my relatives and other Tagalog-speaking friends develops, so does their connection with their heritage and culture.
Knowing another language has truly brought my kids out of their shells. They feel more confident about who they are as individuals, as part of our immediate and extended family, and as part of more than one community. They feel a sense of belonging as they come to know their cultural background and as they recognize Tagalog outside of our four walls.
I was checking in on my son during his virtual school one day, and his teacher at the time was showing a video. I immediately recognized the language the actors in the short movie were speaking, but I kept silent.
When the video was over, my son unmuted himself and told his teacher proudly that the actors were speaking Tagalog. He was beaming, smiling widely from ear to ear.
It was just a small moment, but for him and for me, it was everything. He knew and retained enough Tagalog to recognize the language. Most importantly, he was confident in his identity as a half-Filipino, half-American child. He was proud of his heritage.
6. Learning another language leads to cultural awareness
Aside from language acquisition, growing up in a bilingual household leads to a better understanding and appreciation of other cultures. As they learn their second (or third) language, they also come to know the customs, collective achievements, beliefs, art, history, and geography of that country.
Children discover that there is so much more to life than what they are presented with in their everyday lives, and that the world is much larger than their zip code. They begin to see life from someone else’s perspective and in doing so, they develop empathy in dire situations, respect in disagreements, and detachment to see the bigger picture.
They discover similarities and differences, strengths and weaknesses, sensibility and absurdity; and, above all, they are able to address conflicts better because they understand the other perspective.
These traits make it viable for bilingual children to communicate and travel in different countries without finding themselves fearing the unknown, judging what they don’t understand, or offending the unfamiliar.
7. Ignoring unfounded comments is sometimes best
When I first started to speak Tagalog to my children, I found myself very self-conscious about it when we’re out and about and others can hear me. I felt like people were looking at me funny like I didn’t belong.
I felt pressured to show others I spoke fluent English with an American accent to boot.
But guess what? I never saw those people again, and yet I allowed myself to be bothered enough that it affected the way I wanted to raise my children.
I also heard comments about how we weren’t being inclusive because others couldn’t understand the language I spoke to my kids, or that I’m confusing my kids with multiple languages, or that they would not hit their milestones because they’d be late talkers.
The more seasoned I got as a parent, the better I became at ignoring all these unfounded, nonsensical comments.
Raising Bilingual Kids in the USA
When it comes to parenting, you can find any contradicting anecdotal truths, but ultimately, you know what’s best for your child.
In America, there are countless Hispanic families with the youngest of children able to switch from speaking Spanish to English without hesitation, without any problems, and without skipping a beat.
As for those unwarranted comments? It may seem like they are getting confused or they may not start talking early as fluently as their peers, but with consistency and perseverance, your child will be fluently speaking two or more languages in no time.
As far as inclusivity, you are raising children with a better outlook about the world and all its beautiful differences. What can be more inclusive than that?
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