The following is a guest post that came about after a conversation my cousin, her husband and I had over Christmas when they were visiting from Mexico. (I wrote about their visit here and here.) Anyhow, this is a topic I’ve been wanting to write about for some time—especially after having that interesting conversation last month. Well, my cousin, Magali Melgar Romero, beat me to it!
I know of two success stories concerning moms raising bilingual kids in Mexico City, where the official language is Spanish.
The first one is my sister-in-law. Julie is French, and she decided she would only speak French to her two daughters. For some time she felt embarrassed to speak in French with them when entertaining guests, or when non-French-speaking people were present, but then she realized this was silly and went ahead with her plan. Today my nieces (12 and 8 ) are fully bilingual. They can switch from Spanish to French at a moment’s notice, and they can even have simultaneous conversations in both languages without mixing them.
The other case is a friend whose mother is British and whose husband is Mexican. Becky speaks English to her kids (11 and 7). The children speak Spanish with their dad and at school. They have never mixed the two languages and they speak without an accent in both. They can pass for Mexican or British.
I have often wondered why this system has worked so well for these moms —and many others in the same circumstances in Mexico. Their kids never rejected the minority language, they were never embarrassed to speak it in the presence of friends, relatives, or strangers. And they never went through a phase of “understanding it but not speaking it.” Whether it’s French, Spanish, or English, these kids answer in the language they’re spoken to flawlessly and without mixing words.
Although this has plenty to do with the structure and inner workings of the brain, which is hard-wired to keep languages learned during early childhood in different, well-defined compartments, I believe there is another factor that helps these children accept the minority language —languages, ideas, and customs considered prestigious are easier to embrace.
Very early on, children can tell what has prestige in their community and what does not. When they see that other people neither understand them, nor are willing to make the slightest effort to, they begin to feel the general contempt in which their second language is held.
In Mexico, where speaking English or French confers status upon the speaker, bilingual kids realize that their second language gives them a considerable edge. Mom’s friends are full of praises for the little English-speaking genius. On the other hand, if the second language is one without prestige —such as native tongues in Mexico, or Spanish in the US— the children soon feel socially and culturally rejected, and develop defense mechanisms against their second language.
An effective way to lower the failure ratio is showing the kids that their second language is not an isolated phenomenon, that it is part of a whole different culture from a different country, and that it is associated with customs and traditions. The children must understand that many of their relatives speak it. If kids take pride in their roots they will not reject the minority language.