Recently a question in the Ask an Expert column really grabbed my attention since the writer wanted to know if she should speak a language to her child that was not her mother tongue. The main concern being that her daughter would not be getting much native input in this second language.
This article really made me stop and think because I have been speaking to my sons exclusively in Spanish since the day they were born, and I am not by definition a native speaker. The more I thought about it, I wondered, who exactly is a native speaker?
After reading a variety of different definitions, I was still confused. Wikipedia states, “a first language (also native language, mother tongue, arterial language, or L1), is the language(s) a person has learned from birth or within the critical period, or that a person speaks the best…” Clearly, I am not by definition a native, speaker but my husband, who speaks to our children in German, is. His mother is German and that was his first language. So he does fit the definition of being a native speaker, but he will be the first to admit that since he grew up in the United States, English is his dominant language.
I must admit that prior to embarking on the adventure of raising bilingual children my main concern was that my husband and I would both be using our weaker languages to communicate with our children. While I have been studying and speaking Spanish for over twenty years, I did not start learning Spanish until I was sixteen. My husband grew up speaking German with his mother, but English is his stronger language. To allay my fears, I did a lot of research on the topic of speaking to children in a non-native language. My biggest concern being that by not speaking to our children in our more dominant language, we would be hindering their linguistic development.
Fortunately, I read many books and academic literature on the matter and found supportive websites such as SpanglishBaby.com that have helped me see that I would not harm my children by speaking to them in a non-native language. We have been using Spanish and German with our boys since they were born. Now that the boys are older, it is obvious that we made the right decision. Both boys are trilingual. The children can effortlessly change languages and will even translate for me. It has sometimes been a challenge, but hearing our sons speak fluently in different languages has rewarded the efforts.
The benefits have not just been for our children though; my husband and I have discovered that we greatly improved in our own language skills. With all of the recent research showing the advantages of being an active bilingual, it is clear that the benefits have been for all of us.
If you are not a native speaker, or if your English is stronger than your second language, don’t be afraid to pass on the gift of another language to your children. It might be awkward and challenging at first, but with time and practice, it will much be easier. Giving your child the ability to speak a second language is one of the best gifts you can give to them and yourself.
Share: What has been your greatest challenge in teaching your child a minority language?