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A Summary of My Presentation at FIGT 2010

What a fantastic Families in Global Transition conference we had in Houston, Texas! Everyone had something valuable to offer, from personal experiences to useful research findings. Meeting new friends and catching up with old ones. I’m motivated to finish my Master’s now and get to work!

Here’s a summary of my presentation at FIGT 2010 – titled Keeping Our Kids Bilingual.

As parents we ask ourselves so many questions as we try to raise our children bilingually, it’s easy to start doubting our choices. In addition, we live in a society where monolingualism is still the norm and where our information sources sometimes perpetuate myths and misconceptions about bilingualism that we constantly have to fight against. The topic of speaking more than one language quickly becomes an “Us” vs. “Them” debate. Professor Francois Grosjean, who wrote a book called Life With Two Languages 27 years ago, wrote the following, “It is difficult to forecast at this time whether this country will one day accept its cultural and linguistic diversity and whether the monolingual majority will finally realize that being bilingual and bicultural in the United States does not mean being “Un-American.” Although we might still speculate today, I hope we’re at a turning point now as more and more families hold on to their heritage languages and understand the economic, cultural, social, and cognitive benefits of learning more than one language. However, it is extremely difficult to predict how well children will acquire – and more importantly, maintain – a second or third language considering the long list of external factors that influence the process.

We have to consider:

1. The consistency and variety in language input

2. The parents’ motivation (patience, creativity, and determination!)

3. The child’s motivation, personality, self-esteem, aptitude for languages

4. The status of her native language in her new community

5. The support of friends and family

6. The resolution of conflicting values at home and in school

7. Access to academic support to promote biliteracy

8. Access to books, resources in both languages

9. Integration of mixed cultural background

10. Power conflicts – discrimination and racism in school and in the community

But let’s not give up! During the research for Bilingual By Choice, what became very clear to me is that even if we are surrounded with English-only policies or communities that still don’t encourage bilingualism, as parents we still have the greatest influence on our children and there is a lot we can control to help our children stay bilingual well into adulthood.

Based on research findings and parents’ stories, I came up with a list of 10 things we can do to successfully raise bilingual children.

Make your family’s languages relevant in your daily lives.

The community language is very powerful, so we have to find ways to increase the importance of our heritage language as a way to make it as appealing and relevant. Very often I encounter parents who are disappointed that their children are not bilingual but who also readily admit that they themselves speak more English to them than their native language. If that’s the case, the child simply concludes that if her parents don’t speak it, she doesn’t have to either. It’s important for parents to keep speaking their native language to their children every day. It’s important for parents to ask other relatives, like grandparents and aunts and uncles, and cousins to endorse bilingualism in front of the children, and to remind them how much easier it is to learn a language at a young age. The attitude of the people around them, whether it’s family or friends, will play an important role in sustaining their native language.

Expose our children to a variety of activities in their heritage language.

Children need to hear and interact in their native language beyond the basic vocabulary we use at home in our every day conversations. You can start with what their current hobbies are, what they’re interested in and find material that they would want to read in that particular subject. We need to strengthen their vocabulary. Because sometimes, when a child decides to switch to the community language, it’s not necessarily because he prefers that language or because he’s rejecting it on purpose, it can simply be because he’s more comfortable with it and he can’t find the words in his native language. In the book I’ve included a list of 100 activities to do as a family at home and in the community to practice our language skills. The idea is to give children opportunities to hear and interact in the heritage language in fun and engaging activities to build up their confidence and self-esteem, and to develop a rich vocabulary.

Help your children find peers who speak the same language.

When they’re young, that can mean starting a bilingual playground in your town. When they’re older, it can mean inviting a close cousin or friend from back home to stay with you during the summer months. Personal relationships provide a way for children to maintain and progress in their native language, but also bring a sense of pride in their cultural background. Their native language has to be socially relevant for them to keep speaking it. It can’t just be a language that your child shares with you and no one else. That’s almost never enough. If children – especially young teenagers – feel like they’re the ones making a choice to speak their native languages – they will be motivated and they will keep up with it. It’s very important for them to have friends their age who share the same cultural and linguistic background.

Be consistent with your language choice – & keep speaking your native language, especially when your children decide to speak the community language.

For the first part – Most researchers agree that with young children, a change in the family’s language system can be risky. They’re especially vulnerable emotionally if they suddenly have to communicate with one parent in a different language. Especially before the age of 6. When you’re faced with these difficult decisions during relocation, it’s important to remember the link between language and culture. Even at a young age, a child’s languages are linked to his cultural identity, and suddenly discarding one can have serious ramifications. They might become more assertive or less confident depending on the language. One researcher Professor Fred Genesee at McGill University who has written extensively on the subject, always reminds parents that: “Young children often react badly to inconsistent or irregular exposure to language; they like consistency. Thus, if parents decide to raise their child bilingual, they should do so only if they can provide continuous and extended exposure to both languages…Children need long term exposure to language if they are to develop full competence.” If your family relocates, it’s good to keep speaking your native language with your children, and let them learn the community language on their own. It’s easy to add a dominant language to a minority language – never feel like you have to speak the community language with your children to help them catch up! You and your child risk losing much more if you let go of your native language. Just to give you a summary of the possible ramifications – when a child loses her native language, it can damage

  • the child’s self-esteem
  • her sense of belonging
  • the nurturing and emotional bond with her family across the generations
  • her identity development
  • her chances of succeeding in their second language
  • her potential progress in her native language
  • the ability to achieve high levels of literacy in both languages

When you relocate and the community language changes and your child was already very proficient in it, it’s normal to want to keep it up and not waste it, but you also have to be realistic that the new community language will take center stage now, plus the languages you speak at home. A child won’t simply keep speaking a language because we as parents think that language is valuable. He or she must actually need this language to communicate. That’s the only reason he will keep speaking it. So if you organize a language playgroup, yes, there is a social benefit, and there’s a good chance he will keep speaking it during those playgroups, but don’ t expect that to be enough to sustain his language. The community language will eventually take over. But the good news is that whatever languages your child has been exposed to have created all these incredible brain connections and they will be valuable later on, when he decides to learn that language again, probably in college!

Let’s look at the second part – to keep speaking our native language. It’s perfectly normal for a shift in language development to occur when children start school. Whether your child is starting 7th grade in a new country, like I did, or your child is starting kindergarten – after having been in a language cocoon for 5 years – it’s inevitable that the status of the community language becomes a big deal for children. We have to keep an eye on the big picture. The key is to keep speaking our native language regardless of what language your child answers you in. It sounds easy but for so many of us parents who are bilingual, it’s also very easy to switch to the community language. I catch myself sometimes, but I tell myself that soon enough, when the girls are older, I’ll be able to speak both languages to them, the way I do with some of my relatives. Many parents who have been through this phase warn us to be ready for a temporary rejection, whether it’s the home language or the culture. There will be a time when our children will not see our native language as very important, when they will want to be like everyone else around them and it’s very natural. Some of us have been through it as kids. The idea is not to take it personally and to remember that if we keep making our language and our cultural traditions relevant, and keep using it in our everyday lives in fun and creative ways, the rejection is often temporary. The key is not to get lazy at that point, but to find ways to make our native language even more relevant. Taking a trip to your home country at this point is probably the best remedy, but that’s not always feasible. I included 100 activities in the book to do at home and in the community to keep you motivated.

Remind your children of the benefits of speaking two languages.

They have to discuss the cultural, social, and educational benefits of bilingualism and the importance of understanding the cultural nuances of two countries. To remind them of what they will be able to accomplish later on in life with their language skills. And you can have this conversation many times, and change it over time as your child grows. For us at the house, we like to remind the girls that with French, they can Skype their cousins, or they get to watch T’choupi, a French cartoon on YouTube, and that when we go back to France this summer they’ll be able to understand everyone. It’s important for children to understand – and be reminded – that bilingualism opens doors.

Give children access to books in their heritage language.

A common question for parents raising toddlers with two languages is: Which language should our children learn to read first? Research shows that it is best for children to learn to read in their stronger language, whether it’s the language spoken at home or the community language. If children learn to read in English first, that doesn’t mean that parents shouldn’t be reading to them in their native language as well. As York University professor Ellen Bialystok – who’s a well known researcher in the field – writes, “There’s a lot of worry out there about other languages conflicting with a child’s ability to learn to read in English, but that’s absolutely not the case – Parents should not hesitate to share their native language with their children – it’s a gift.” I think most of us understand the importance of reading but when you look closely at the research and the statistics, it’s amazing to see how much reading can change a child’s life, his academic performance, his self-esteem, his choices later on – it makes you want to never turn down a chance to read to your children, even if you’re really tired, and all you want to do is say good-night and have a glass of wine! And it also makes you want to donate books to your local library so other kids have a chance to access books in all of their languages.

Look at school options to develop biliteracy skills (reading and writing) to acquire all the benefits of bilingualism.

Beyond having access to books at home, it’s important for families to look at school options to develop reading and writing skills in the heritage language. In his book The Care and Education of Young Bilinguals, Professor Colin Baker writes, “Bilingual children must be biliterate for their languages to have value, uses, and prospects.. Biliteracy aids chances of employment, achievement, and enculturation.” I have a chapter in Bilingual By Choice on school options but mostly for the U.S; I look at dual-language programs, developmental bilingual education programs, charter schools, and heritage language schools. Some parents choose homeschooling, or part-time homeschooling to focus on reading and writing which I’m exploring for my girls. There are many options to consider and that might be my next book – a closer look at the formal education of bilingual and multilingual children!

Elevate the status of your native language.

French didn’t feel as important as English to me at 12 and 13, but soon I came to realize that French had a high status in the U.S. and in the world and that people seemed to enjoy everything that was French. I know this made it easier for my parents to succeed in raising three bilingual daughters. Some languages in the U.S. unfortunately suffer from low status and that can make it difficult for parents and their children. At the heart of linguistic discrimination, we all know, is not a fear that English will suddenly become less relevant, but a fear of someone who sounds different, someone whose beliefs, behaviors, and assumptions might not match ours. The ignorance hurts parents who are trying to elevate the status of their native language so it’s important for parents and communities to work together. As the authors of a great book titled Coming of Age in a Globalized World write, “We need to confront our fears and adjust to new realities. And we must shape our institutions and the systems in which we operate to reflect these new realities.” There are more than 38,000,000 foreign-born individuals living in the U.S, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, so there’s strength in numbers. In more global terms, according to the United Nations, there are more than 185 million of us who are living in a country other than the one we were born in, compared to 70 million three decades ago.

Build a strong support network with your partner, relatives, and friends.

Until we create communities that fully support our bilingualism, we can create our own support network. For example, grandparents who speak the heritage language can play a pivotal role in motivating children to keep using it. Studies show that a strong relationship between grandparents and their grandchildren can greatly influence the children’ outlook on and maintenance of their heritage language, especially when they lack direct hands-on cultural experience. Even my husband’s parents, who only speak English, are helping because they keep reminding our girls how lucky they are to speak two languages and how hard it is to learn a new language when you’re older.

We need to also find positive role models outside of the family unit, who share the same cultural background who can demonstrate how they’ve used their bilingual skills. And this goes back to elevating the status of our languages. It’s important for children to see themselves reflected in successful individuals, in whatever field they happen to be interested in. One of the activities I have in the book is when you meet successful bilingual citizens in your community – at a doctor’s office, at city council, at the airport – invite them to speak at your child’s school about the benefits of speaking two languages – it’s always helpful when children hear the merits of bilingualism from someone beside their parents!

Promote and reinforce your cultural values – help your children integrate their cultural identities.

Research shows that children have a better chance of growing up bilingual if they have a strong sense of ethnic pride. Children need to be aware of their heritage and active in the traditions of their cultures. There was one revealing study done by Hisham Motkal Abu-Rayya of Cambridge University, which was published in the International Journal of Intercultural Relations. He studied 127 mixed-heritage Arab-European adolescents living in Israel. As Abu-Rayya writes in his article, because these adolescents have to deal with enormous external tension, it was easy to assume that they would experience a confused sense of self, and high levels of anxiety and tension over their mixed ethnic identity. Through his extensive and revealing questionnaires, Abu-Rayya found that, “Mixed-ethnic adolescents who participated socially in the traditions and activities of their Arab or European group, displayed Arab or European ethnic pride and attachment, and were aware of or reflected upon their Arab or European ethnic membership, seemed to record high degrees of self-esteem and quality of life… By contrast, those individuals who expressed confusion, or a lack of awareness of their Arab or European membership reported lower levels of self-esteem and quality of life.” I think this is valuable information for us, because I often hear parents wondering if they should emphasize or de-emphasize the family’s complex mixed background to their children. But there is overwhelming support in the research that children will do better – emotionally and academically – when they’re encouraged to explore their cultural heritage. And there is a better chance that they will stay bilingual as well! An important part of our children’s integration into a new culture involves how we as parents adjust to our new surroundings. Obviously if we’re conflicted all the time, how do we expect our children to see things clearly? My parents remember how critical it felt to them to never criticize an American cultural trait or value in front of us, even as they dealt with a certain amount of culture shock themselves. The two cultures were not compared in terms of right or wrong, or better or worse, but instead the focus was on the experience itself as a way to explore a different vision of the world. Both countries had great things to offer. Even while they were struggling to figure out how things worked here, they never complained infront of us. They just saw it as more learning, so we grew up thinking we were adding another layer to our identity, instead of discarding one. We could be French, and slowly add an American layer. And eventually you end up taking the best of what each culture has to offer. Parents have to remind themselves, sometimes more than once, to accept and respect the country our children will be raised in. And that’s not always a given! We have to be ok with the fact that our children will grow up and find their own way of defining themselves and it might not match what we had in mind as parents. Which can be very painful but there’s nothing we can do about that. We can only guide them.

I think as parents we all wish for our children to find that comfort zone because it will give them a much richer life.They develop a broad definition of identity. They learn not to define themselves by a little box on a Census form but by the many layers they deem relevant. They learn to reach out to more people from different backgrounds and they instinctively develop, not just tolerance, but a sincere appreciation for diversity. Which eventually will make them better leaders, in any field that they choose to get into.

Looking forward to FIGT 2011!

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Families in Global Transition

On March 3rd to the 6th, Families in Global Transition will host its annual conference in Houston, TX. I’ll be presenting a workshop on raising bilingual children, as well as hosting a breakfast session on Friday morning, and signing books Friday afternoon. It was at FIGT 2007 conference that I got the idea to write Bilingual By Choice – so I”m excited to be back this year with the book finally published! It’s inspiring to meet other parents, mostly global nomads, from all the different sectors – military, international business, government, missionary, education – and hear their stories on crossing cultures. There are families (working for the UN, for example) who relocate with their children every 2 or 4 years and the challenges can be overwhelming. Short-term and long-term consequences. That’s why this conference is so important – you can create a fantastic support network, with people who understand what you’re going through. I’m looking forward to it. Plus I get three days at a hotel, and for a stay-at-home mom, that’s pretty sweet!

Comments (1)

Bonjour!

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 nicholasbrealey.com or bilingualbychoice.com 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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