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The Languages We Speak

Forget music and gymnastics. The big "is-my-kid-keeping-up" trend these days is all about language; that is, how many languages your child is learning.

The New York Times jumped on the trend in an article earlier this week: "If It's Tuesday, It Must Be Spanish."

While no one knows how much is spent in total on games, books, DVDs, online tools and foreign-language baby sitters, the amount can easily reach thousands of dollars a year per toddler. That counts tutors who charge $70 an hour, classes for $50 a week, foreign au pairs who can cost $16,000 a year and annual tuition at private immersion schools that charge $20,000 for nine months of study, writes The Times' Hillary Chura.

Clearly, learning languages has benefits for anyone young or old. According to the Multilingual Children's Association, learning two languages from birth is easier than learning language at a later age. And once a person speaks two languages, it's easier to pick up rhythm, sound and grammatical differences in even more languages later on in life, the association says. Plus, speaking multiple languages increases a child's comfort level around people of other cultures.

But bilingual households aren't all fun and games. The parents I know who have bilingual households have children who talked a little later than those in single language households. And children don't always want to speak the same language that an adult wants him to speak.

When did you introduce multiple languages to your children? In infancy or later? Do you send your child to a language-immersion school or specialty language classes outside of school? What are the pros and cons you've experienced with your choice?

By Stacey Garfinkle |  February 7, 2008; 7:00 AM ET  | Category:  Babies , Child Development , Elementary Schoolers , Preschoolers , Teens , Tweens
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Comments


We didn't choose bilingualism in our house. It is here because one speaks English and one speaks Spanish. Our step-children just arrived from Peru and only speak Spanish. The little boy started kindergarten a couple of weeks ago and is already learning words in English and understands more and
more English. It is actually incredible. Even the little girl (at 3) is learning English words just from listening to me read to them or speak to their father. It is pretty amazing how fast they are understanding English. Their mother only knows Spanish so they are still exposed to a lot of Spanish. Our hope is that they will grow up completely bilingual.

Unfortunately, the whole bit about how hard to learn a new language is very true. Both of us are somewhat bilingual. We are probably sitting at an intermediate level in our second language (me at low intermediate and him at high intermediate) but it doesn't stop the continuous problems we have with communication. It can be quite frustrating to discover that the other person didn't really understand when they said ok. They thought they did but then you discover they really didn't.

Learning as an adult (both of us were in our 30's when we started) makes for a difficult and long road in acquiring a second language. If there are two languages in your immediate or near immediate family, I highly recommend that you teach your child the second language. As the world becomes more global, that second language could become useful in their future professional or personal life.

Posted by: Billie | February 7, 2008 8:37 AM | Report abuse

We have a daughter who started full French immersion in Pre-K and is now in 2nd grade. We speak English at home. The private school attends is a "no-frills" type which is high quality but only cost $8000 this year.
The advantages of starting full language immersion so early are amazing because the kids develop perfect accents and learning another language at a pre-literate age is not stressful for the child. Also, we've all benefitted from the larger cross-cultural opportunities available at the school, such as getting to know the French teachers and their families.
But there are some thornier issues: language-based learning disabilities often don't present until the child is in 1st or 2nd grade and if that occurs in your child you have to figure out whether its best to keep them in immersion or switch to English-only instruction. We're dealing with a mild version of this problem. There seems to be very little research that could be helpful to parents on this point.
Then there is the fact that to remain committed to the language immersion experience of one child, the family has to continually invest in it, sometimes above and beyond the cost of tuition (i.e. trips to France). And I have some big concerns about the opportunity cost to the child of not spending more time learning English. In DD's school, children get 45 minutes/day starting in 1st grade. They are sort of keeping up, but we don't know what will happen when the kids trasition to a regular school. Finally, there is the issue of what do you do whent the child gets old enough to voice his/her own opinion about being in a language-immersion school? In 1st or 2nd grade, the child will discover that other kids get to go to English-only schools.
Of course, my comments pertain mostly to English-speaking households with children in "foreign" language immersion programs. And I have to sum up by saying that language immersion has been a wonderful experience for our family but we do wonder how far we'll be able to go with it.

Posted by: MC | February 7, 2008 8:46 AM | Report abuse

Oh boy is this an issue for us! Maintaining a bilingual household has been a constant struggle surrounded by a culture that is very intolerant of differences. Ironically, all that money spent by the upper middle class is wasted if the message to kids is that the really important people--hollywood types, politicians, etc--do not speak one iota of another language! Spanish, our home language, is the language of the poor, the illegal, the people forced to do the really tough jobs, Our kids are more sheepish than proud that they speak Spanish and have expressed an interest in better languages like ..French. Talk about a knife to the heart.

Remember how "funny" the Dad is in My big fat greek Wedding with his emphasis on maintaining greek language and traditions in his family. How eccentric! How quaint and deluded!

Wouldn't it be nice if some of the really glitzy people (other than Antonio Banderas and foreign film stars) spoke more than one language, treasured their ethnic roots and didn't have a cute accent in English? Our kids have attended weekend spanish schools, bilingual public school programs, and we travel abroad frequently but it is a real battle to keep them comfortable if not fully fluent in a second language. A little cultural support may have made it a bit easier.

Posted by: samclare | February 7, 2008 8:55 AM | Report abuse

My parents both are native french speakers and that was my first language though born in the US. By 4th grade I was deep into vocabulary drills at school and not wanting to feel different than my peers so I staged a rebellion and we became a single-language household from that point as my immigrant parents wanted for their children to assimilate and have a successful experience in the American school system. As a result, my vocabulary and french speaking skills are stalled at the 4th grade level despite taking some french in high school and college.

Now, as a mother of a 19-month old toddler, I am conflicted, much like my parents were, wanting to give him the best push forward and despite my husband wanting me to teach the baby french I have resisted. The baby is highly verbal for his age and I have chosen not to add a second language into the mix at this point.

I am investigating language immersion programs for preschool and grade school. I do believe in bilingualism in theory but to this point have not been able to apply it in practice which has created an ongoing issue for my husband and parents who wonder why I am not teaching the baby french.

Posted by: RBB | February 7, 2008 8:56 AM | Report abuse

I started speaking in two languages to my daughter since birth. Since she had a speech delay we were advised to stop. Now my daughter lives and goes to school in an English only enviroment. She picks up some Spanish from Dora and seems quite comfortable with hearing two languages. I would like to take her to Vietnamese school when she starts elementary school. Not so much for the language acquisition as much as cultural enrichment.

Posted by: foamgnome | February 7, 2008 8:57 AM | Report abuse

A woman my parents know through church has adopted two infant girls from China over the course of about five years. She speaks only English, but she hired a housekeeper from Guatemala who speaks fluent Spanish so that the girls would learn it. Plus she takes both girls to Chinese school on the weekends, for both language training and to appreciate their heritage. It's worked well, both girls are fluent in Spanish and English and have a good understanding of Chinese.

Posted by: popslashgirl | February 7, 2008 9:49 AM | Report abuse

MC's post is exactly what my thoughts are. I am a French Immersion 'grad' (I left the programme early to go to a specific high school, but continued to be immersed in the language in the summers (at camp! :)), and attended a bilingual university).

For me it's been a professional advantage quite a few times, but I also believed it opened up my mind in ways it wouldn't have been otherwise. I do find I'm able to learn other language structures pretty well but I do not have a good 'ear' and I think had I not learned early, I would only be fluent in my mother tongue. It's been such a joy to me that I wouldn't have it any other way and hope to educate my son bilingually, although we are a little bit stuck in terms of what local schools offer.

However I also taught in a learning centre (special ed) in a FI school and I agree that if there are learning difficulties sometimes it does mean a hard decision - you don't want to give the child the impression that he or she was "too dumb" to learn the language, but some LDs (auditory discrimination, for example) really are a significant barrier. But that's not most kids.

I don't personally consider the slight delay in bilingual toddlers to be a big deal at all. I didn't speak french to my son exclusively but I have a fair amount from birth, and all our dvds miraculously only work in french, except Signing Time which doesn't come in that language. As a result my son is really only fluent in english but he's doing well in the 2 hrs of french he has at his daycare and has a high level of comprehension, and he retains a smattering of sign too.

And I got my kitchen cleaned while that "instruction" was going on ha ha ha. :-)

I do think that parents need to know their kid and their family's ability to commit and go from there. There's no one-size-fits-all solution.

Posted by: Shandra | February 7, 2008 9:52 AM | Report abuse

Ha! I wish we had these problems. I'm struggling to get my son even unilingual. I had great plans to speak French to both kids regularly, but given the difficulties that DD has with language in general (pragmatic speech delay, social skills delays) and the complete lack of language skills my son has (autistic), throwing French at them just doesn't seem fair.

Posted by: Sarah | February 7, 2008 10:00 AM | Report abuse

For American children of non-English speakers, knowing 2 languages isn't some elite luxury but a necessity of life, in order to interpret for the parents.

Posted by: Pittsburgh | February 7, 2008 10:06 AM | Report abuse

Coming from India most of us are naturally multi-lingual and speak at least 2 or more languages including English. I was very particular about my daughter learning her mother tongue and was bilingual in our communication with her from the start. Luckily she did not have any speech delays and now in 4th grade is quite fluent in her 2nd language. This is of tremendous advantage when we visit family back home as there is absolutely no communication barrier and gives her a much better understanding of her culture. I am also teaching her to read and write which has been much more of a struggle but I am sure with enough time and patience she will master it. It is not easy but can be done - the trick is to keep the child interested and to reinforce the value learning a 2nd language brings.

Posted by: Multilingual | February 7, 2008 10:10 AM | Report abuse

Pittsburgh,

Unfortunately that is true. I say unfortunately because I think it places too much of a burden on the children. I know of a family in which the mother and father speak almost no English and the children (about 12 or 13) are brokering financial deals on behalf of their parents.

Children should not be responsible for things of such import. What if they make a mistake in the translation because they don't understand the context of what they are interpreting? Speaking from experience, it can be difficult to interpret when you DO understand what you are talking about. It makes it much more difficult if don't understand what you are dealing with and can only interpret the words.

Posted by: Billie | February 7, 2008 10:15 AM | Report abuse

My son is in a language program at school and it's no picnic. He has no interest in learning Spanish, but all the nice kids with the dedicated parents got their kids into this program. So whenever people talk to him in Spanish, he answers them in English. He can spell a little bit in Spanish and write a few Spanish words, but I've never heard him utter anything in Spanish. I just want to toss out there that the bilingual programs are far from perfect and good intentions are no match for your child's personality and interests.

Posted by: DCer | February 7, 2008 10:29 AM | Report abuse

I have considered sending my DD to one of Fairfax County's language immersion programs, but I think it's too early to make that decision. I know people with kids who were miserable in those programs. If the quality of instruction is no good, or of the kid just struggles a bit with picking up the new language, it can make school really miserable.

My frustration is that there is no way to tell how well these schools are doing. There aren't any test scores to look at or anything like that, so it's a real leap of faith. I have also known people who were teaching in immersion programs and were not native speakers, and I don't think that's a good idea if you really want the kids to learn an authentic accent and so forth.

Posted by: reston, va | February 7, 2008 10:39 AM | Report abuse

English is the language used in the United States. If you came here from another country, learn English. If you are an American by birth, learn another language. But by all means, learn English......My great grandparents came here from Germany and spoke German around the house; their kids learned English in school and spoke both at home while the Grandparents eventually learned English and assimilated into the American culture. None of that 'tutors and au pair' crap. Jeez, give me a break.

I do not intend to learn another language to communicate with all the illegal immigrants moving here to take advantage of free schools and free health care for their anchor babies.

Posted by: Anonymous | February 7, 2008 11:47 AM | Report abuse

How do you handle the child's interest? I remember taking French (the only language offered) in an after-school program in 5th grade and being incredibly bored. You can guess how much French I speak. However, when I started junior high and got to pick my language, I took Spanish--which I then pursued through college.

I also have friends who were told they would take French, regardless of their preference, and my husband and his sisters were told that they were taking Latin.

Posted by: Kate | February 7, 2008 11:54 AM | Report abuse

My parents immigrated from Hungary and didn't want to teach us their "bad" English, so we learned English from the neighborhood kids and when we started school. Both brother and I are still fluent in Hungarian, and since I really loved learning languages, I took on French, German, and Japanese later (brother was not so interested and stuck with the two). We still speak Hungarian with each other and I'm grateful to have a linguistic connection to my heritage.

Posted by: Silver Spring | February 7, 2008 11:57 AM | Report abuse

Kate, for us my family is Canadian-American (with francophone extended family), so French is our choice for cultural reasons, while my son's really too young to make huge distinctions. But if he wanted to take another language once he's old enough to have strong opinions on it, that'd be fine with me.

My sister did FI to a point and then she went to an English school, and then did an exchange year in Spain, and then pursued Spanish via university, so she ended up trilingual. I don't think it's an all or nothing proposition.

My caveat would be that I think a child should commit to a term or a year of instruction, whether immersion or not, and then after that you evaluate it. If the kid hates it, they're not going to love the language anyway. But they also need some time to get over learning hurdles, and to make the commitment to class.

Posted by: Shandra | February 7, 2008 12:03 PM | Report abuse

My aunt moved from NYC to Paris, where she married and had 3 children. When the kids were young she spoke to them in English only, while their father spoke to them in French. As a result, even at a young age, when the kids came to visit they understood all of their American relatives. And usually, after a day or so, were speaking English pretty comfortably. I still remember her oldest at 5 years old (now 21) saying "teach me words". Her kids all speak pretty fluent English, and have made different choices and efforts regarding immersion, reading, and writing.

On the plus side, all of the cousins in the US chose French as our foreign language, having that connection. Which was also amusing because once in a while the French cousins (the youngest in the family) would remember that their cousins would understand them in French, when the adults did not, and would tell us it was time for us to practice instead of them.

I guess my point is that having a connection and interest makes a big difference. I don't think any of the American cousins are fluent in French, but we can all get by. And my French really helped me in Barcelona, since I don't speak any Spanish or Catalina.

Posted by: JB | February 7, 2008 1:05 PM | Report abuse

Dear Anon at 1147 AM:

You wrote -
"If you came here from another country, learn English."

AND

"I do not intend to learn another language to communicate with all the illegal immigrants moving here to take advantage of free schools and free health care for their anchor babies."

Please, go troll somewhere else. This was a pretty interesting topic today as it relates to my current parenting situation. I was looking forward to reading people's experiences with teaching two languages to children at once. Then I saw your comments. Please.... Your comments have nothing to do with the topic at hand and only prove your ignorance.

I'll go see if there's a topic in one of the other blogs about illegal immigrants that refuse to learn English who want free health care and the Americans who won't speak to them. I'll post the link here for you as soon as I find it. Till then, please go bother someone else or sit in the corner quietly.

I pray that no one else feels the need to respond to you and sidetrack this topic any further.

Posted by: Pete75NJ | February 7, 2008 1:16 PM | Report abuse

"English is the language used in the United States."

There are many languages used in the United States. The United States has no official language.

Posted by: Anonymous | February 7, 2008 1:19 PM | Report abuse

We use the OPOL (one parent one language) method) in our family (we are a dual cultural and bilingual family.) I speak American English (my native tongue) to our child and my husband speaks his native German to our child. (We live in my husband's German-speaking country.) I speak German sometimes with my husband and in interactions with other people in this country but our child would need to learn English anyway, plus it wouldn't feel natural for me to speak German with him. He's around enough native speakers, goes to German-language preschool, etc. My husband speaks flawless English-- some days I think it's better than mine!-- but he wouldn't feel natural speaking to our child on a regular basis in English.

Our child's dominant language is German, although slowly more English words and phrases are creeping into his daily usage. We live in a German-speaking country so exposure to German isn't an issue. As for English, we've been a part of an English-language playgroup, we use lots of DVDs and books and various resources, and are always on the lookout for scnerarios where our child can interact with other English speakers, especially native speakers.

Sometimes my husband and I will use the "other" language with our child when in a situation where the second language isn't understood. For example, most of my American relatives don't speak a word of German so my husband will sometimes speak English to our son at family events in America just so that the relatives can understand what's being said (that they're not being talked about or something.)

There's a big push in my host country for children to learn English at an early age. Although I want to move back to America sometimes (for reasons that have nothing to do with language), I do think that it is probably easier for our family to be bilingual here, as English/learning English is seen as a major priority here, whereas I don't think we'd have so much access to native German speakers in many areas in the U.S., nor is there a particular push for the German language.

Posted by: American mom abroad | February 7, 2008 1:23 PM | Report abuse

I think DC'er is right that a child's personality, skills, and interests are very important to consider before enrolling him or her child in an immersion or near-immersion program. Our older child's school is full language immersion (Spanish, in her case) during preK and K, and then half-day in English and half-day in Spanish in grades 1 through 12. Many children add in third or fourth languages later on, and some of her classmates are learning the immersion language as a third language, even as preschoolers.

The school has been a terrific fit for our child. Just a few year into it, she reads and and speaks fluently in both English and Spanish, with no trace of a second-language-learner accent in her Spanish. If my child did not appear to be naturally inclined towards languages, though, I would think quite carefully about an immersion program. I would also think twice if my child were not at least academically "on track," and if he or she had any difficulties or delays in (English) speech, language, or reading/pre-reading skills. I certainly believe that kids with those characteristics can learn a second language, but with elementary school being increasingly rigorous and with kids' and parents' schedules already stressed, I'm not sure I'd add to the pot at such a young age.

Posted by: dc mom | February 7, 2008 1:34 PM | Report abuse

With my stepson, our goal is to try to get him to learn English as soon as possible since we want him to do well in school and not fall behind. I generally speak to him in English and then repeat it in Spanish if necessary. His father tends to speak to him in Spanish because it is easier although he tries to remember to speak to him in English. His mother knows limited English because she just moved here and is learning. Naturally, they speak in Spanish. Of course, both of them have concerns that his English learning comes from me as I am a native speaker and not from them because of their accents and potentially incorrect grammar.

My stepdaughter is just three. She isn't going to school so her acquisition of the English language is much slower and we need to speak to her in Spanish for the most part. I am never sure what to do with her when it comes to teaching her words for the things she asks me about. Do I teach her just English? English and Spanish? I am not sure at times if she understands that when I repeat a word she says in Spanish that I am not 'correcting' her but trying to tell her what the word is in English so she knows both. For the most part I say the word in one language and then say "en espanol" or "en ingles" and repeat it. Obviously, her parents speak to her in Spanish.

She needs to learn English for school but we don't want her to lose her Spanish either. And of course, I am a little worried about confusing her.

Posted by: Billie | February 7, 2008 1:36 PM | Report abuse

What do you do when only one parent is bilingual and you want the child to be bilingual as well? My SO is from Germany, and he and I would both love for our child to speak both German and English. Unfortunately, I don't speak a word of German! I'd like to learn, but for the time being it's been pushed to the back burner because I'm also working on completing my bachelor's degree. Will it make a significant difference if we start introducing German when the child is 1 or 2 years old (after I've had a chance to learn some) versus starting from birth? Has anyone else had any experience raising a child with a language that one parent wasn't familiar with?

Posted by: Mom-to-be in TX | February 7, 2008 1:50 PM | Report abuse

I haven't even started to think about 2nd language for my son. I had a few years of Spanish in high school and college, so I'll use certain Spanish words (like colors) when we're talking.

The thing I haven't been able to adequately explain to him (and he keeps asking) is why people speak other languages. If anyone has a good answer that would satisfy a preschooler, I'd appreciate it. My attempts at explanation usually lead him to give me blank stares and asking if he can go play now. :/

Posted by: MadisonMama | February 7, 2008 2:14 PM | Report abuse

MTBITX- I'd say the younger the better, but it's never too late! :)

Also in TX

Posted by: Liz D | February 7, 2008 2:16 PM | Report abuse

It's way in the middle of northern Minnesota, but this is supposed to be an excellent summer language program (ages 7-18).

I've known a few people who attended as kids and they learned an incredible amount in a relatively short period of time.

Concordia Language Villages offers German, Spanish, French, Italian, Japanese, Korean, Chinese, Russian, Swedish, English, Arabic, Norwegian, Finnish and Danish languages in immersion programs.

http://clvweb.cord.edu/prweb/summer_youth_programs/default.asp

Posted by: MadisonMama | February 7, 2008 2:21 PM | Report abuse

Concordia lists Arabic, Chinese, Danish, English, Finnish, French, German, Italian, Japanese, Korean, Norwegian, Portuguese, Russian, Spanish, & Swedish.

Posted by: To MadisonMama | February 7, 2008 2:45 PM | Report abuse

Well, Pete, you can just blow it out your *ss. If you knew how much illegal aliens were costing taxpayers in BILLIONS of dollars you wouldn't be such a bleeding heart.

Next time there's an arrest for drunk driving, murder or armed robbery, look at the name of the perp and see if it's hispanic. I know of several drunk driving arrests where the IA was driving drunk, without a license, couldn't speak English, and killed innocent people. One incident near my home killed a veteran of the Iraqi war and his girlfriend on Thanksgiving Day.

Why don't we just give all those IAs a military weapon, send them over to Iraq to fight for their place in our country, and bring our own men and women back home.

Posted by: Anonymous | February 7, 2008 3:07 PM | Report abuse

I didn't see Portuguese and I was typing from memory, not attempting to list the languages in any order of importance or relevance.

When I was a kid I had to choose between science camp which was comparatively cheap and the language village which was extremely expensive to my working class parents. I went with science camp so I wouldn't have to ask my parents to pay for something I was pretty sure they couldn't afford. I still wish I could have gone. I would have loved to learn French and/or Italian. :(

Posted by: MadisonMama | February 7, 2008 3:10 PM | Report abuse

Your question makes no sense. Why would YOU need to speak German to the child for it to become bilingual? Just address it in English and have your husband speak German.

My husband doesn't speak a word of German. I am German. Both our kids are perfectly bilingual.

One can overthink these matters. Just speak your language(s) to your kids, people, and it'll be ok. And for all those two-American-couples - chill, your kid doesn't HAVE to be "immersed" in a different language to become a successful, happy person. All these people hiring Hispanic nannies or signing up for language immersion schools freak me out.

Posted by: to momtobeinTX | February 7, 2008 3:18 PM | Report abuse

Next time there's an arrest for drunk driving, murder or armed robbery, look at the name of the perp and see if it's a cracker, just like you, and send y'all back down South.

Posted by: To anon | February 7, 2008 3:24 PM | Report abuse

Maybe I would simply like to learn a second language to speak to my legal immigrant husband and his legal immigrant children?

There are many reasons to learn a second language to communicate with people from another country without dragging illegal immigration into the fray.

Posted by: Billie | February 7, 2008 3:36 PM | Report abuse

Let's all turn our heads in the other direction when it comes to bait that Anon is putting out there for us. Don't give him what he wants by reacting.

Bye Bye.

Posted by: Pete75NJ | February 7, 2008 3:39 PM | Report abuse

This is a good question. My husband is from Poland, and we have always said that we want our son to be bilingual. When he was a toddler, his language development was a little behind. My mother-in-law and I are both speech-language pathologists, and we agreed at that time that he should first develop his English better before we really started teaching him Polish.

He is now 3 and has great speech and language skills in English. I think it would be a great time to start teaching him Polish, but I feel that my husband should be the one doing most of that since he is the native speaker. I did take an intensive summer class last year and can speak a little Polish. MIL has sent us tons of wonderful children's books in Polish, and I can even read some of them now. But my husband hasn't been very consistent about speaking Polish at home.

Recently, he has made a few comments that revealed that he is concerned about our son feeling different by speaking Polish. The one Polish word our son uses is "tata," which means "dad" or "daddy." My husband was worried that our son might not understand why he has a tata when all the other kids have daddies.

Posted by: Wioleta | February 7, 2008 3:54 PM | Report abuse

fr anon:

>...I do not intend to learn another language to communicate with all the illegal immigrants moving here to take advantage of free schools and free health care for their anchor babies.

1. Grow UP.

2. Get a life.

3. Learn respect for others and their cultures.

Posted by: Alex | February 7, 2008 5:29 PM | Report abuse

My husband is Russian and I'm American but speak Russian very well, probably fluent by most standards (no roots, no Russian major, I learned it myself). We speak 95% at home in Russian and to the kids only in Russian except when we do specific English language building exercises with books (which I start from the age of 3).

My son (4 1/2) speaks Russian as his native language. He started speaking a lot at a pretty average time, around when he turned two. He now reads and writes Russian and can sound out English words pretty well also. He is behind in English at preschool, but making progress and I'm sure will have few problems after his first semester in kindgergarten full time next year.

It is important for us personally to have the kids speak Russian because the Russian side of the family still lives there and doesn't speak English. I have witnessed than when parents aren't very proactive in keeping the other language alive at home, in the US anyway, it is pretty much a given the kids may understand the language growing up, but frequently can't put a sentence together themselves, much less hold a conversation or read or write. We plan to continue academic work in Russian at home (as well as it being a home language) plus frequent visits to Russia and from Russian relatives, all of which keep the language alive for the kids (we also know plenty of other Russian families with small children here). We may also do Saturday Russian school if time and finances permit.

I expect some resistance from the kids in the future, but eventually the effort I believe will show it's worth in the memories they have with their Russian relatives and friends as well as enhanced skills and opportunities from having the other language. As an adult, I've never heard any other adult who learned another language growing up complain about it -- I've only heard laments from those whose parents could have easily taught them another language and chose not to.

Posted by: amerikanka | February 8, 2008 10:41 AM | Report abuse

To amerikanka - molodets!

I am American but speak Russian quite well (college major, language geek etc.), as well as French; I get along in Spanish and Italian and know some German and Croatian. So I'm not freaked by other languages. My spouse is pretty much English-only. When my kids were little, I tried to get them interested in Russian, teaching them to count and say a few words. I didn't speak to them consistently in Russian, because I may be pretty good but I'm not a native speaker. In any case, they weren't interested.

Recently my son, who is now 17, said to me, "Dad, how come you didn't teach us Russian when we were little?," and my daughter (19) said, "Yeah, Dad, why didn't you teach us Russian?"

Arrggggh.

But the good news is, both of them did quite well on a recent trip to Italy. They have studied Spanish for a number of years and showed no hesitation in picking up Italian words and phrases.

My sense is, expose the kids to various languages from a young age, and that exposure will bear fruit -- maybe not right away, but eventually.

Posted by: ajsmithva | February 14, 2008 11:53 AM | Report abuse

Amerikanka -- are you from the DC area, and if so, do you know of any Russian Saturday schools around here, or any nationwide programs?

Pozdravliayu, sounds like your kids will grow up fully bilingual in Russian. I, too, have seen kids grow up only with a passive knowledge of the second language when they were not actively involved in reading, writing, movies, and social interaction in the language. This is true both of children of immigrants living in the US and expatriate Americans living abroad.

I am a native Russian speaker, came to the US as a teenager. DH is a monolingual American. One thing we found is that when one parent is not proficient in the second language, he or she may feel excluded when the kids interact with the other parent, and it has an impact on family closeness. This was a factor in our decision not to have me speak Russian exclusively with the first child. By the time he was 3, he had "categorized" me as an English speaker and refused to learn Russian words from me. And by the time No. 2 and No. 3 came along, we were reluctant to start them out in Russian for fear of excluding No. 1. The grandparents are fluent in English and we have few Russian friends, so there is no practical necessity to learn Russian.
Yet now I do regret not teaching them.

At the same time, my friends living in Israel have been very successful in raising trilingual English-Italian-Hebrew-speaking kids. The mother is Italian and speaks good English, the father is American and speaks very fluent Italian, both are fluent in Hebrew, and the kids attend regular Hebrew schools. It worked for them, I think, precisely because all sides of the family have a mastery of the other languages involved. (It did make for some funny moments: for a while, the oldest son could only understand his mother's Italian and was a bit lost on his once-a-year visits to Italy. I think he is over that now.)

I realize that the kids can grow up to be perfectly happy and successful with a non-native knowlege of a language, and that outcomes will vary not only with opportunity but with ability, and am considering starting my kids in Russian in a couple of years.

Does anyone know how good the Concordia Russian camp is?

Posted by: Arlington | February 15, 2008 9:38 AM | Report abuse

Wow! So interesting reading all of these posts. I am living/working in China. My husband and I are both American, but I am fluent in Chinese, and my husband is only basic. We employ a live in Chinese nanny who can't speak a word of English so of course I speak to her in Chinese, and my work associates in Chinese, and my husband in English. My son is 10 months old and says baba (dad, in Chinese) mama (the same in both) and bye bye! I wonder as he becomes more and more verbal what I should expect to hear from him and what I can do to help him. I don't want the little bugger to be too confused! I speak to him about 50/50. Any suggestions?

Posted by: teachinats | May 3, 2008 7:35 AM | Report abuse

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