Archive for January, 2010

Great Quote

“Americans who travel abroad for the first time are often shocked to discover that, despite all the progress that has been made in the last 30 years, many foreign people still speak in foreign languages.”

Author and former Miami Herald humor columnist Dave Barry

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“She’s not talking yet??”

When I talk to parents who are raising bilingual children from birth, the most pressing concern is often language delay. Either they’ve heard from friends, or read a story somewhere about a bilingual child speaking much later than a monolingual child. I want to make it clear that there is no scientific data that confirms that bilingualism causes language delays. But when it’s your child, and she is not expressing herself well at playdates with kids the same age, it’s incredibly hard not to question your actions and ask yourself that crazy question – “Should I stick with one language, until she’s communicating well?”

I’ve read all the research (ok, not all – but let’s just say I’m running out of storage room) both U.S.-based and international – and I still had moments – with my little Sofiya – when I questioned what was best for her. Because her twin sister – Natasha – spoke early and clearly and has now, at age 4, the most incredible vocabulary (She can talk to you about a car’s head gasket and she’ll have you asking questions!) it made it easier for me to realize that bilingualism has nothing to do with language delay. If Sofiya is taking longer to develop her language skills, she’s developing other skills, and growing at a mind-blowing rate; she’s been off the pediatrician’s charts since her first visit and we’ve been informed that she’ll probably be 6 feet when she’s done! But I worried nonetheless, because no mom wants to feel like she’s doing something wrong, or hurting her child somehow. And I just felt bad that Sofiya was not getting the same attention, as Natasha was so quick and captivating with her stories. Going through the research and talking to other parents helped me to stop doubting myself. As the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association reminds us, “Children all over the world learn more than one language without developing speech or language problems. Bilingual children develop language skills just as other children do.”

If you’re still worried, here’s what you can do:

  1. Monitor how much exposure to the home language your child is receiving. If the parent who speaks the home language is also away at work most often, it will take much family and community support and resources to make sure the child hears and speaks that language enough with other adults and peers to reach the desired level of fluency. Try to provide your child with daily opportunities to learn and repeat a rich and varied vocabulary.
  2. Try not to switch languages (Not the same as “mixing languages”) This often happens following a relocation, or because of pressure from school officials to drop the home language. The language we use to identify the world around us, and to communicate our feelings, our beliefs, and our values, is difficult to change without causing damage to the emotional bond we’ve created with our children – and oftentimes, will cause a delay in their language development.
  3. Since one of the most influential factors in our children’s bilingual development is how much language they hear every day, we need to talk! Try to narrate every single thing you do around the house! When it starts to feel awkward, remember that, according to the research, the number of words a child hears throughout the day is directly linked to the child’s intelligence and vocabulary size. I love this one because I’m all about free resources!

I hope together we can build a network – to encourage each other, support each other, and find creative ways to keep our children bilingual! A bientot!

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Maybe I should start with Hola! since we’ve just returned from Mexico – and Spanish has now taken over. Basic Spanish, I’ll admit, but nevertheless it’s all very exciting. Our 4-year old twins, Natasha and Sofiya, quickly learned “la playa” and “ahora!” (It seems the attitude is the same in any language for them!) 

As for me, I just love to pack and I love to get on an airplane. Probably why I married a pilot. I’ve relocated 20 times in 39 years – some exotic, some not-so-much – but since relocation is the 2nd most stressful experience you can have, after losing a loved one, I probably should take up yoga or meditation, just in case. In our family we like to call ourselves global nomads and trips are always on our minds. Whether it’s taking our VW bus to the White Mountains of NH or flying to Guayabitos, Mexico, to play on the beach. Naturally, I wonder what will happen to all that when our girls start preschool in September. I’m curious to see how we handle the school years, after all that freedom… Is homeschooling in our future??

For now – here’s what I’m working on. Finding ways to keep our children bilingual while living in the US. I started researching the topic 4 years ago, both for personal reasons and for my Master’s (in Intercultural Relations). I also interviewed other parents who successfully raised happy, bilingual children. I eventually wrote a book on the topic that just came out – it’s titled Bilingual By Choice: Raising Kids in Two (or more!) Languages – published by Nicholas Brealey Publishing. You can check out their website at or for more information.

In the book I talk about both sides of the growing-up-bilingual journey, as a child and as a parent. I’m considered a “late” bilingual. I moved with my family to the US from France when I was 12 years old. I remember standing in the principal’s office trying to put a complete sentence together, but all I could muster – with my head up high – was “I…France!” That’s how limited my English was. But my sisters and I eventually learned it the way many children do when they need it to survive!

One common obstacle we face when trying to keep our children bilingual is to stay motivated and find fun and creative activities to keep our language relevant. To help parents, I list 100 activities in the book, to use both at home and in the community to expand our children’s vocabulary and their cultural knowledge. I’ll discuss them here so stay tuned!

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