If you are reading this article, you are probably trying to raise bilingual children in a monolingual environment. As a speech-language pathologist living in South Florida I have worked with many children who at the age of 2 or 3 spoke Spanish only, and then when I run into them years later they speak primarily or only English. Now as a parent of a three-year old who spoke Spanish exclusively until 6 months ago and now seems to be wanting to speak more and more English I find myself worrying about how to maintain my daughter´s competence in our first language.
Raising bilingual children is all about celebration. Celebrating, enjoying , embracing and accepting our roots as well as our current environment. My suggestions come from my own experience as a speech-language pathologist, as a parent and from what I have seen work in other families.
Celebrate our culture: Children should have an understanding and pride in where they come from. "This is where our family is from". Celebrate with pride and joy what we do, without criticizing other cultures. Speak your native language. If possible have a circle of friends who speak the home language. Read to your child in your native language. Sing to and with your child in your home language. Cook traditional meals and desserts together. Look at pictures of the country you come from, if you can take trips back home!
Celebrate the mainstream culture: Remember that the country where you now live is your child's home! Our children are being born and raised in a different culture from ours, speaking a different language. Naturally they will feel drawn to the mainstream culture and language. After all their teachers, friends and favorite shows speak the mainstream language. So my advice is never reject what they bring to you. If a child feels rejected he may in turn react by rejecting you. Accept that your child is enriching your life by bringing his language and his culture to you and embrace it. If you don't speak the mainstream language ask your child to teach you something, find ways to show him that you understand both cultures are important to him, after all we don't want to make our children choose ONE culture or ONE language.
Celebrate differences: This has worked for my family. We come from a family where many members are either from a different country or currently reside in a different country. We like to talk about where all of our family members live or came from. We also talk about the different languages spoken in other countries. My daughter speaks English and Spanish but has also learned words in Portuguese, Italian, French and ASL. I strongly believe that it is very important for children to view multilingualism and multiculturalism as a normal and desired process. This may help prevent them from feeling embarrassed or ashamed about being different as they get older. They have to learn from the time they are little that differences are good. If we accept others that are different from us, our children will be less likely to fear rejection.
Match what they are learning at school: by providing them the same vocabulary at home. For example, when my three year old tells me she's learning about "mammals" I respond with enthusiasm in Spanish and I tell her that "mammals" are "mamíferos" and then proceed to ask her what she learned about mammals (all this in Spanish). Even though she speaks better Spanish than English, typically when she tells me about school she switches to English. I don't reprimand her for speaking in English, but I do respond in Spanish and I make sure I am giving her the Spanish vocabulary she needs to talk about the topic in question. Most preschools provide parents with a calendar of themes for each week or a daily log of activities. If your child does not really talk about what he did at school you can learn by looking at this calendar or talking to his teacher and then try to continue the theme at home in your native language. The language used in school is normally more sophisticated than the language used at home. For the bilingual child this means that once he starts school his home language will lag behind unless parents make sure that they are matching the school vocabulary at home.
Be specific about the joy and importance of being bilingual: I NEVER reprimand my daughter for speaking English. I know she wants and needs to practice the skills she is acquiring. However, I do tell her that when we are spending time together as a family we speak Spanish. I have even explained to her that if she doesn't , she may forget Spanish. I want her to know now that forgetting a language would be a LOSS, something sad, something to mourn. We also talk with joy and admiration about the people we know who speak several languages and about new languages we want to learn.
Do not stop speaking in the home language: Speak, read and write in your native language. Make sure that the complexity of the language used in books in the home language increases as your child speaks more. Teach your child to read in the home language. Some studies show that children with good vocabularies are better readers, but after they become readers they draw new vocabulary from books. So as your child's language skills improve get books that use more complex language (slightly better than your child's).
In addition to the aforementioned strategies the following may help: Vacations with family members who do not speak the mainstream language. Watching TV shows in the home language (I read in a blog about a mom who on certain days of the week gives her kids the choice of No TV vs. Spanish TV). Most children movies have the option to change the audio setting to Spanish, sometimes French and Italian too, so you can watch them in the home language if available.
Find the strategies that work best for your family and do not give up. Your child will continue learning from hearing you speak in the home language. He will see your pride and love for your culture, and if you show respect and appreciation for his culture, chances are he will embrace and respect yours!
Lucy Windevoxhel is a bilingual speech pathologist from Venezuela who currently resides in South Florida. She has 11 years of experience as a speech-language pathologist and is also a certified WeeHands baby sign language instructor. You can find more articles relating to bilingualism and speech and language development on her website: www.aloveforlanguage.com . Visit the A Love For Language, Inc Facebook group for great information on general child development, nutrition and literacy or you can follow her on twitter @speechmiami