Bilingual is Better

“My wife and I have four wonderful sons ages 18, 16, 13 and yes, 2 years old. Both my wife and I are native English speakers, however, I also speak at a high intermediate level of Spanish due to my own language learning studies as well as being the son of a Colombian father and hearing the language a great deal through family.

We raised our three older boys in a monolingual English environment. However, with the birth of our youngest son, Tomas, I decided that it would be wonderful to try to raise him in a bilingual environment using the One Parent One Language approach: I speak Spanish to him and my wife and older sons speak English to him. Well, this grand experiment has been quite interesting and not without its challenges.

The good news from a language development standpoint is that Tomas is learning very well, he speaks a great deal of Spanish, and understands even more. In fact, my wife believes that he speaks more Spanish than English.

Now comes the hard part, it appears that by trying to raise one child, our youngest, bilingual that I may be alienating my other children. One of my older sons has blatantly stated that he is sick of hearing Dad speak Spanish to his brother. In fact, he has no interest in learning Spanish as he looks ahead into what his high school foreign language of choice may be. I think the difficulty stems from the fact that I am treating their own sibling in a way that is different than how I treat them. Also, by not understanding the language, they are of course not privy to understanding my verbal interactions with their brother. It really is a problem.

The challenge is not isolated to just my sons though. At times my wife feels that we are not parenting as a team, but rather as two individuals. Since I am bilingual I can participate in conversations that she has with Tomas by simply interjecting my opinions, thoughts, comments to him in Spanish. However, when I am speaking to Tomas in Spanish, if my wife does not understand everything that I am saying, she feels like she cannot provide the same two parent fluid interaction in these situations.

Finally, my wife has some serious concerns that raising our son in this environment, and contemplating a bilingual school that will focus 80% Spanish/20% English (in Kindergarten) moving to 50% Spanish/50% English by 3rd grade will result in his falling behind academically.

Phew! I know that was a lot but I would love some expert advice on how to handle these familial and academic concerns!” – Ludwig Munevar.

Hi Ludwig,

You should not feel discouraged by this challenging situation, but remember: raising a bilingual child is a family affaire!

Parents should discuss aspects of raising a bilingual child together on a regular basis because it is a parenting decision that has to be made, planned and executed together. Ideally both parents recognize the importance, but it is important that the planning be agreed upon together so that each one’s role is defined and agreed upon. The “other” parent should not feel that the bilingualism is being forced upon them, and the “bilingual” parent should not feel that they have to do all the work.

If one parent does not fully understand the language, or even does not understand the language at all, in my experience, it is usually the fact that they do not feel part of the experience that leads to discontentment.

Additionally, your family dynamic has another level of complexity. As you report one of your sons feels as if the youngest is being treated differently and is reacting to this. In my experience the bilingual element easily becomes the scapegoat for other issues or concerns going on in the family.

Part of your discussion with your spouse should include how to discuss the situation with the older children, and both parents should be present during this discussion and present a unified front.

Remember that when talking with a teen explaining where you are coming from is important but perhaps even more importantly your teen should be given time to express himself. The best way to get through to teens NOT for you to say what you think, but to ask them questions, for example: “what are your thoughts about the bilingualism?” “if you could choose a language to learn which one would you be interested in?” “can we help you?” “we don’t want you to feel that we are treating you unfairly compared to your brother, is there a language course or an area of study that you have been interested in that you would want us to encourage you in?” When you start asking teens what they think, you might hear some anger coming out first; but, if given the time, you might hear a lot of thoughtful suggestions too.

Remember raising a child bilingual is a “family affaire”. Good luck with reconnecting your family.

Naomi Steiner

Naomi Steiner, M.D.– is a developmental-behavioral pediatrician and clinical researcher at the Floating Hospital for Children at Tufts where she is also an assistant professor in pediatrics. She is interested in how children develop awareness to cope with their emotions, behavior and learning. Dr. Steiner has a longstanding interest in bilingualism and multiculturalism, which is a topic that she enjoys teaching and discussing. After more than a decade of working closely with families around these issues she has written a book, with Susan Hayes, called 7 Steps to Raising a Bilingual Child. She is multilingual and is raising multilingual children. You can read her answers here.

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