“We’re in la nostra casa,” 2½-year-old Olivia informs me in English and Catalan, a full hour after I turned out the light and laid her and her twin sister Clara in their beds.
“Yes. Yes, we are,” I answer through gritted teeth, tired of 60 minutes of steady chatter in the dark.
“Y Vivi?” she asks, inquiring about a friend who lives down the block, “Dónde está Vivi’s house?” Now it’s Spanish. “Down the street, sweetheart,” I answer, hoping my exasperation isn’t creeping into my voice.
Two sentences, three languages.
Clara tosses her life-sized cloth doll – Anna, from “Frozen,” and life-sized if you’re a toddler – into my lap. “Under the cape, Anna s’ha trencat,” Olivia tells me: “Anna is ripped." The only thing that keeps me from snapping “Go the f*ck to sleep!” à la Samuel L. Jackson is my amazement both that she can see in the dark well enough to know that the doll is now in my lap and that she doesn’t miss a beat as she switches from English to Spanish to Catalan to construct a grammatically complex sentence.
My husband grew up in a bilingual family in Alicante, the southernmost of Spain’s Catalan-speaking provinces. At home his family spoke Valencian, the local dialect of Catalan; Spanish was spoken at school and in the street. Sociolinguist Anthea Fraser Gupta writes that learning more than one language simultaneously from birth is how many children learn to speak, and not just across much of Spain: "[A]cross the world it is probably more common for children to be raised in a bilingual family than in a monolingual one. Bringing up a bilingual child is ordinary, not unusual. My own experience of child bilinguals has been mainly in Singapore and India. In these countries (and many others, especially in Asia and Africa) speaking more than one language is taken for granted. Most children grow up in families where two or more languages are spoken, in communities where they hear many languages every day. Most parents were also brought up with two languages."
Force of Majority Language
One estimate sets the number of bilingual Americans at 20 percent, mostly English-Spanish, and describes American bilingualism as mostly a transitory phenomenon limited to immigrants, as in the case of my Yiddish-speaking great-grandparents. That 20 percent contrasts sharply with the estimated two-thirds of the population worldwide that uses more than one language every day (linguists say an exact estimate is nigh-impossible, but believe the number is between 50 and 70 percent).
So why, in a nation of immigrants, are the numbers so low? The reasons are complicated. Even when parents want their children to be multilingual, the force of the majority language can be hard to resist.
Marc Loeb, 37, and husband Wolf Ehrblatt, also 37, live in South Orange, New Jersey, and are encouraging their 4-year-old daughter Eden to learn Hebrew, Ehrblatt’s first language.
“His family is still in Israel and his mother doesn’t speak English very well,” said Loeb. “We go back to Israel at least once a year. He also wanted to have a secret language with Eden.”
But secret languages bring their own challenge: they’re secret. Aside from Wolf, everyone around Eden speaks English.“I think that given her situation, she understands Hebrew pretty well,” Loeb said. If she doesn’t understand something, she will ask what it means. She does resist speaking back in Hebrew when asked to.”
Still, a study of children in multilingual households in already multilingual Belgium found that having at least one parent speak the language exclusively was essential in teaching a child a second language. However, contrary to the “one parent, one language” rule frequently cited as the best way to raise a bilingual kid, the study found that if the second parent also spoke the second language, even part time, the chances were much greater that the child would learn the language.
Desire to Conform
Another force working against bilingualism is the desire to conform.
Like my great-grandparents, many immigrants, especially in the past, discouraged their children from speaking their native language in favor of English, so they would “fit in.” Fitting in is still a common reason that children, especially teenagers, resist speaking their parents’ language.
Herndon, Va. resident Linh Nguyen, 30, understands that. The Vietnamese immigrant speaks English with his Cambodian-American husband, 40-year-old Kong Chhour. Chhour doesn’t feel confident enough to speak to their 4-month-old son, Landon, in Khmer, and while Nguyen does plan to speak to him in Vietnamese, language is not a top priority.
“Definitely, you don't want your child to feel different among his friends,” Nguyen said. “If he knows the mother language, it is good but it is not a demand. The language he speaks is not as important as the culture he will retain.”
But they may be one in the same. A 1991 University of California study found that the loss of their first language in favor of English left many children of immigrants alienated from their families: "What is lost is no less than the means by which parents socialize their children: When parents are unable to talk to their children, they cannot easily convey to them their values, beliefs, understandings, or wisdom about how to cope with their experiences."
Benefits of Bilingualism and Multilingualism
In addition to the drawbacks of losing a language, the benefits conferred by remaining multilingual are many. Besides the obvious competitive advantages of speaking a world language such as Spanish or Mandarin in an increasingly globalized economy, numerous studies suggest that speaking more than one language from an early age actually can change the way the human brain is wired.
Children who speak multiple languages have been shown to perform better not just where one might expect, in reading and language skills, but across the board academically. Bilingualism appears to help with spatial reasoning, focus, problem solving and creative thinking. And in 2013, a widely reported study found that it may forestall the onset of various types of dementia.
Loeb is jokingly skeptical: “Wolf is trilingual and continuously loses his wallet, keys, and glasses, so that puts a big question mark on that study.”
Toddlers learning multiple languages simultaneously may show language development delays of several weeks or months, and may have slightly smaller vocabularies in each language than monolingual children. But any delay is still within normal developmental limits, and the combined vocabulary of multilingual children has been shown to be equal to or greater than that of children who speak only one language. Not surprisingly, multilingual children grow up to be adults with larger-than-average vocabularies.
And contrary to what some parents may think, children are not confused by hearing multiple languages. Researchers say that children as young as two are, like Olivia, able to “code switch,” that is, intentionally change language mid sentence when they know the listener is also bilingual, yet be able to correctly speak English with her American grandmother or Catalan with her Spanish grandfather.
Keeping Your Child Bilingual
Researchers say that parents can employ three potent antidotes to the pull of a majority language to keep their child bilingual: consistency, reinforcement and motivation.
Whatever the pattern parents choose, whether each parent speaks to the child in a different language or in each speaks both, clear situations should be established where each language is to be spoken. Educators say this is especially important after the child starts in an English-language school.
Also important is reading and singing to your child in your language and the opportunity to speak it outside the home; in a language school with other children, in a community setting, or with family overseas.
“I know that when he goes to school he won't want to speak Vietnamese, said Nguyen, "A lot of kids, they understand Vietnamese but they don't want to speak. I will try to send him to Vietnamese school to learn to read and write and also send him to Vietnam for the summer to practice."
Loeb has noticed the difference that reinforcement from outside makes: “We are thinking of getting Eden private Hebrew lessons when she gets older. The foundation is definitely there. It is amazing how much better her Hebrew is when we are in Israel and everyone is speaking it around her.”
And finally, children need a motivation; to understand why speaking the language is important. In the words of linguist Deborah Ruuskanen, "[A] multilingual environment is also a multicultural environment, and ... it is very difficult if not impossible to separate language from culture. Without a context (culture) for the language, the child will have difficulty making sense of the meanings underlying the words.
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“No quere … dormir,” mumbles Olivia as her breathing deepens and her eyes finally stay shut. She means “no quiero dormir,” “I don’t want to sleep” in Spanish, but her conjugations haven’t quite come in yet. I don’t care. It’s been an hour and a half, she’s finally asleep in any language, and I tiptoe out.