Thursday, June 18, 2009

Becoming bilingual Julia Alvarez reports that hearing the English 'Julia' prompts her to extend her arm for a handshake in greeting, while the Spanish pronunciation, 'Hoolia,' prompts her to proffer her cheek for a kiss. (Pearson, 292*)

I don't know about you, but I find this a fascinating observation on how being bilingual extends to behavior and emotions, not just linguistics.

Bilingual children in our midst

Growing up, I had a friend whose mother was French and father was American, and she was bilingual. Then my friend spent some time in Mexico and became fluent in Spanish. She picked up some other languages in school and college, and most recently has been using her Mandarin skills in China.


I have also met some children in Russia who are bilingual. I don't mean they just speak both languages well. They speak both (English and Russian) as their mother tongue.

One example is a girl whose parents are both Russian. In childhood, she went to English immersion school and her father spoke English with her at home. When I met her she was a confident 15 yr old, easily conversing with people in either language. With not a hint of an accent.

I also met a girl whose father was American and mother Russian. I listened carefully and it seemed that she too conversed in either language without an accent. She could be in both places and no one would ask her where she was from. She could think, live, breathe both identities.

I have written before about my observations of language acquisition. But honestly, I don't know much. It's just speculation.

A book review

Then I was at the library the other day, and a book caught my eye. It's called "Raising a Bilingual Child (A step-by-step guide for parents)," by Barbara Zurer Pearson, Ph. D. And I decided to check it out.

If I had a complaint about the book, it would be that it has TOO much information. For example, there is a whole chapter ( 30 pages) devoted to explaining how a child learns his first language, complete with charts and diagrams. I'm not raising a child, nor am I writing a thesis, so I didn't necessarily need all the details. But at the same time, Pearson's research gives credibility to her practical advice.

In fact, in general, I would say that the subtitle of the book is misleading. You can break down language learning into different topics and issues, as she does. But to describe it as a "step-by-step" process is oversimplifying a bit. I think "guidelines" would be a better word.

What I liked about the book was that it answered certain questions I had pondered. For example:

-Does learning two languages at an early age "confuse" a child and make it harder to develop normally?

-Is it possible for a child to be raised bilingual even if the parents have the same native language and are less than fluent in the second one? (Pearson says yes)

-How do the parents interact with each other in front of the child if they are presenting themselves as monolingual?

-How much exposure to either language does a child need in order to be bilingual?

These and other questions are addressed in the book. At the end there is a table directing the reader to the page where they are addressed. This is closely followed by a table listing common "myths and misconceptions" with Pearson's response. These are my favorite parts of the book, and I almost wish that there were a shorter version of the book just answering these FAQ's for those who aren't looking for scientific explanations.

The other part of the book was a short (unfortunately) chapter on "bilingual identity," which I quoted in the beginning of this post.

Bilingualism, for example, has a physical aspect.

"There is, in fact, a tiny physical realignment in the posture of one's mouth in one language as compared to another, which may be reflected in a more general whole-body sensation. For example, we can compare the neutral filler vowel in English, which is a low, lax 'uh' ('I...uh...don't know') to the French pause filler, 'euh,' made higher in the mouth with more tension in the musecles. So the 'resting position' for each language is different. "(Pearson, 292)
I find this actually to be true even with a second language. My mouth, jaw, even eyebrows, feel different. Sometimes I feel that if I just contort my face the right way, the Russian will come out flawlessly.

And another aspect worth mentioning is the chapter containing several case-studies of bilingual families. Pearson presents a chart in each case listing factors such as parents' native languages and proximity to extended family who speak the minor language. The factors are assessed and their weaknesses examined. It is hard to draw conclusions as each situation varies greatly, but it is helpful to at least note which factors are important.

I don't know how applicable it is to life, but it seems that this would be a good reference book to have on the shelf.

*Pearson, Barbara Zurer. "Raising a Bilingual Child." New York: Living Language, 2008


  1. For a person, who didn't grow up speaking English, my pronunciation is, actually, very good. I even can fool people in the States if I speak in short, precise sentences.

    In my early days I did the following (it came to me naturally, and I see, from what you have quoted, there was a reason for that).

    I would put two crumpled sheets of paper behind each cheek and try to read in English out loud. I did it to retrain my mouth to move in the way, I thought, English-speaking people were talking.

    Funny, but I did it.

  2. Yes, I think that particular section of the book concerning identity would be applicable to adults as well. It's interesting how many unseen effects there are.

  3. I'm so glad I didn't miss this post! Fascinating and I wish I had the book with me here, right busy as I am, I might well forget to locate it, then probably won't be able to afford to buy it but.... you never know.

    The "putting the muscles just right" - that's the way I think of doing accents when acting.

    A favorite memory was the house where my HS Russian teacher lived with her husband (one of my college Russian professors). They lived with her parents who were Greek, and spoke only Greek as far as I could ever see. Also living in the home was her sister, and the sister's husband - both of them were French professors. And they had children. I would go in for a little extra help with Russian and watch with astonishment as the children would speak effortlessly in Greek to the grandparents, in Russian to the aunt and uncle, in French to their parents and in English to me. I may have related that before - but it made a huge impact on me!

  4. I'm glad you had something to say too! I find this topic really interesting.

    About books: there are others out there on this topic, which might make for better reading. Who knows? And I am a fan of the library. I'm very selective of what books I buy.

    After reading the book, I am still impressed by multi-lingual kids, but I also am aware of how much work goes into creating the right environment...and into convincing the kids that it is worthwhile, especially if everyone speaks English...why bother?

    I think that as a parent, one of the best things you can do is instill a LOVE of languages. Maybe you can't send them off to French immersion school, but you can at least teach them the value of learning a second language, so that they will eventually seek those opportunities for themselves.


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