Tuesday, October 1, 2019

Towards a bilingual education

Andrei and I argued about bilingualism years before we even started dating.

He wasn't convinced true bilingualism was really possible, and I was determined to have a bilingual child in order to prove him wrong. I don't think I actually expected that we would marry each other, but I guess the thought of cross-cultural marriage didn't seem so far-fetched.

Of course, I'm oversimplifying the discussion. Here are some of the issues we argued about:

-Young children will get the two (or more) languages mixed up. I've seen clear evidence to this NOT being the case. Kids do mingle languages, but this happens when they either are missing a vocabulary word in one language, or a word is just easier to say in one of the languages. There's a more scientific way to say this, but basically it's selective, not a moment of confusion.

Although our kids insert the "other" language into their speech sometimes, they also have no problem distinguishing between the two. Case in point: Both of them, when still speaking only a few words, called us Mommy/Daddy or Mama/Papa depending on who they were talking to. Sophia will call me "Mommy" in English, but complain (ha) about "Mama" to Andrei. Same with "Papa," she will call him that to his face but turn around and tell me what "Daddy" is doing.

I guess that didn't really prove my point. Another example might be when David is talking about bugs and uses the Russian name for a bug because it's one he hasn't encountered in the U.S. or English-language nature shows. He's not confused, he just doesn't know the word.

-Bilingual kids will be behind their peers. I actually use this excuse a lot to go slower with school work. I don't completely agree because I think David in on par with his peers in many subjects. Even precocious in certain contexts. However, I will admit that if you run the numbers, it's hard for bilingual kids to receive the same input. If they are conversing 12 hours a day, in two languages equally, they will have only 6 hours of language acquisition as opposed to children who are exposed to one language. That's just the way it is. And it might not matter beyond a certain age, but there certainly might be manifestations in a younger child.

When I was preparing this year's school curriculum, I was determined to have David's Russian vocabulary coordinate with English school subjects so that he could share about what he's learning in school on a given week with anyone in either language. However, it is difficult to have it match up exactly. And even if Andrei or the grandparents work with David for a few hours per day in Russian, that isn't much compared to the 10 hours of English immersion. See next point...

-One language will be dominant. I still believe it is possible to have two native languages. My kids have heard 2 languages from birth and have been immersed in both. I really wanted to argue that someone can speak two languages fluently with no accent, and seamlessly switch back and forth. I think I still believe that to be true...however, I would have to hear some testimonies. I don't have the advantage of native speaker "intuition," having only picked up Russian in my college years.

As I mentioned above, it is pretty hard to develop areas of knowledge in two languages simultaneously, so there may be discrepancies. And so it goes that there may be greater fluency in certain topics, with preference shown to the other language when the topic changes.

It would be interesting to alternate school years in each language. Time-wise, it isn't possible to study each subject each day in both languages. And maybe that is a weird idea anyway. But as we advance in Math and History and other school subjects, I'm aware of not wanting to create a gap. I don't want my son to be stuck inside his head, able to solve arithmetic problems but not knowing the correct terminology.

So, when it comes to developing bilingual literacy, it seems that it doesn't happen so easily. It seems that it takes an intentional, consistent approach.

One more thing we argue about sometimes...

-Polyglots don't exist, they simply know several languages at a basic level. I think this is hard to test, particularly for Americans who have a reputation for only knowing one language. To be honest, I don't know if Russians are well-known for their language skills either, though I'm always impressed by those fluent in English or something else.

Again, I definitely believe people can be bilingual from birth, and I also think that it's possible to reach fluency in several other languages. I also agree with the idea that knowing multiple languages provides a certain set of skills and even triggers changes in your brain that make it easier to learn subsequent languages. Then of course, each language has that level you reach where it gets easier after you've cracked the code. So, after getting over that plateau, it could be possible to keep progressing without a huge amount of effort.

However, I'm not quite ready to buy into the advice of Internet experts who want to tell me how to learn 10+ languages. Everyone's circumstances are different. So, sure...some "experts" out there might be exaggerating, or they might be blessed with genes that make it easier to learn languages regardless of technique. But genetic or not, I do think that there are polyglots out there, and I'm a little jealous!


  1. Clearly this is a topic I'm very interested in, as we're also looking to raise Cyrus bilingual in a very English-heavy environment! But as his vocabulary is extremely limited at 18 months old...I can't quite claim he is bilingual.
    To hear Angel speak English you would never guess it wasn't his first or native language (he didn't speak English until he was plopped into public kindergarten in the USA, and yes, he had to repeat kindergarten)...I was friends with him for some time in college before even realizing that he spoke Spanish (it was actually one night we were out and he started speaking to a stranger and I noticed...having spent a lot of time studying languages...wait, that isn't a couple of high school Spanish classes). But the areas of knowledge effect definitely applies. His medical and theological vocabulary is way more advanced in English, because he went to college in English....but he also has a minor in Spanish and took classes in medical translation, so he's fairly well-educated in his native language, too, just not to the same extent in advanced subjects. We speak in English to each other, always have, other than random Spanish comments, but I see the "heart-language" effect when he reads and often finds that a Spanish-language book or song or sermon comes across to him more powerfully than English language media does. He definitely laughs more at Spanish jokes, haha!
    Speaking 3+ languages at some level is very common here, but it's usually more limited to speaking than to being educated or literate in those languages. Some of my neighbors and friends are illiterate in any language but can converse in 5 or 6 languages, between Malay and English, along with a couple dialects of Chinese and either Tamil or Hindi.

    1. Yeah, the heart-language thing! And humor! It seems like most kids prefer their mother's language, at least until they go to school and are away from her more. My husband and I speak Russian to each other but the kids still prefer English. So we have to be more intentional about the Russian books and vocabulary, and even went to a speech therapist. Spanish is a beautiful language! And that's amazing that you know people who are multi-lingual despite illiteracy. I hope you will blog about language.

  2. How I WISH I could somehow have raised my children to be bilingual! Perhaps you recall as story I related (I think) on my blog one time about my Russian teacher from high school, who was married to one of my Russian professors in college. She was Greek and this couple shared a large home with her Greek-speaking parents. Her sister and the sister's husband also lived there. The husband was French, and they were both French professors. This sister and her husband had some children. I occasionally was at this house for a study group, or tea or something. I was always AMAZED that these children spoke perfect English to me; Greek to the grandparents; French to their parents and Russian to the couple I knew best. Of course I can't say that they were 100% "grade level" in all of these languages, but they certainly seemed to be. That home was my ideal living environment in every way. I can still remember how it smelled, and see the light of the icon lamp at the end of the hall.

    1. Oh, I do recall something like that. I have a high school friend who's half French and her mother made sure she could speak French fluently. In school she excelled at whatever language she studied. She spent a summer with cousins in Mexico and became fluent. Same with studying abroad in China. Some kind of Midas touch. But anyway, that's more of a gift, and the environment you described is something special, too!


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