Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Raising a Bilingual Child

There's a great discussion on the New York Times Motherlode blog about raising bilingual children. Obviously, you want your child to learn whatever languages you and your partner speak. But how to go about it is not as simple as it might seem at first glance:

My husband and I are both bilingual (Spanish/English) and are trying to raise our daughter to be the same. We’re taking the same approach our parents used: all Spanish at home until she’s two or three and then start teaching English.


The differences this time around, though, are that we live hundreds of miles away from our families, our bilingual friends are either childless or live too far away to make weekly visits practical, and we live in a predominantly English-speaking suburb. The local playgroups and mommy-and-me classes are all English speaking, so our daughter (10 months old) never hears other children speak in Spanish. On top of that, she hears us speaking to other people in this strange other language.

I think that most of us here on this blog find ourselves in similar situations. Maybe if you live in Chicago, where there's a large Bulgarian community, things are different, but for most of us... speaking Bulgarian outside of Bulgaria is a mostly domestic activity.

How do those of you who already have kids go about passing it on to the little ones? Do you even try?

P.S. For those of you who are wondering, Kyle and I do not have kids yet.


  1. i feel disappointed that my kids are not bilingual. My six year old kinda' understands and will ask for certain things in bulgarian like "iskam vodichka ot cheshma" (LOVES the taste of tap water?!), "iskam cherverni chushki", "eto go" i t. n. but that's about it.. My hubby does not speak Bulgarian so when all 4 of us are finally home at night, it seems unfair to him for me to speak Bulgarian to them. My hope is that our summer visits to BG will become a regular thing sometime soon and then it will happen a little more naturally.
    my daughter thinks it is super cool to speak bulgarian and she tries to show off to her friends but doesn't know enough to actually do it :(

  2. ooooh... emma reminds me of myself when i have a little too much to drink. i want to speak russian, even though i don't. ;)

  3. I have a few friends who are in this situation and the well established method for teaching the child to speak both languages seems to be to have each parent speak to the child ONLY in his or her mother tongue. When speaking to each other, the parents will use just one of the languages. This way the child will differentiate from a very early age "mom's language" from "dad's language". Such a child may learn to speak just a little later than other kids but in both languages.

  4. Don't worry :). Children "absorb" languages quite naturally and rarely have difficulties distinguishing them, especially if they started early. Just two examples:
    1. My (late) grandfather had a cousin (also late now) who emigrated to Canada in the 40s. Married to a Hungarian. Both their children - a daughter (Julia) and a son (Dimiter, or Jim), were perfectly trilingual. They were always talking Bulgarian with their dad, Hungarian with their mom and English they learned anyway, being born and raised in Canada (and Canada being a bilingual country, they also spoke French :). What's even more interesting was the granddaughter Christina (Julia's kid) whom I met when she was about 3 (I was 10 myself at the time) and who was speaking a most delightful hodge-podge of hungrian-bulgarian-english-serbian since her dad was from Skopje :). Without any problem at all. She's now a grown-up woman, still living in Canada and this early childhood language mix did not hurt her in any way.

    2. During a flight from Sofia to London, I was sitting next to a family of English dad, BG mom and two kids - a boy of about 10 and a baby girl. During the flight the boy chatted freely with his dad in perfect English. He didn't seem to have any accent at all, nor seemed to experience any difficulties expressing, searching for words, etc. Logically, I concluded that the family probably lived in England. That's until the boy addressed his mom across the aisle in... perfect Bulgarian, with no accent at all and just as freely as he was chatting with his dad. I never actually understood where exactly they lived. :)

  5. My husband and I are both Bulgarian but we've lived for several years in Norway and Sweden and we know a lot of international couples here (and we're linguists too). We've noticed that if only one partner is Bulgarian and the family lives in Scandinavia it's nearly impossible to get the children to speak Bulgarian. They may learn a litte during their stays with grandma for the summer but if the parents always speak to each other in another language then kids won't really have much motivation to speak something that only mom will understand. Especially when they start daycare or school and want to fit in with their environment as much as possible. Most kids are conformists and they adjust almost too well linguistically too. So, Petya, I think if you and Kyle are thinking of raising bilingiual kids one day, you will have to speak Bulgarian to each other at home some of the time.

  6. Btw, there are certain things that Kyle refuses to say in English. He loves "ей сега", "айде" и "чакай малко".

  7. Hello guys,

    there is nothing to worry about. In fact, if one doesn't put that much thought into it, the raising of a bilingual child is not that big a deal. The problem comes when a third language appears, for example when the parents speak two diff languages and live in a country where a third language is spoken. I am a bilingual child myself, my mother is Ukranian and my father - Bulgarian. So I speak Russian and Bulgarian as mother tongues. My mom says that whenever I was talking to my dad or the Bulgarian family, I was automatically speaking Bulgarian, whenever I was speaking to her or any of her relatives, than I was automatically switching to Russian. It's the same nowadays and I must say that I speak Eglish and German fluently and do believe that this is also a result of my bilingual childhood :) So, the child associates one of the parents with one of the languages and the other one- with the other. That's how it organizes its world. Good luck to everyone on that path! My boyfriend is bilingual, too - German/Spanish, so I was wondering what it would be like raising a child together :)))

  8. This is a topic of a huge interest to me! Being a (former) philologist (I am in a totally unrelated field of work now), and being a Bulgarian married to a Venezuelan and living in the US, I want my son to speak all three languages (to begin with).
    He is 14 months old now and so far is doing great – especially in Bulgarian. The fact that my mom is taking care of him during the day helps a lot. He already speaks quite a few words in Bulgarian and knows the meaning of much more. My mom talks and sings to him all the time. He was a baby when she started telling him the sounds different animals use; and one day at about 12 months of age he surprised us all but correctly imitating dog, cat, horse, donkey, chicken, duck, hen, cow, wolf, lamb and tiger when asked about each animal in Bulgarian.
    He learned to point to different facial and body parts when asked in Spanish at 10 months of age. And he understands and says a few more words and expressions in Spanish. This accomplishment is due to the fact that both his dad and I talk to him in Spanish (his dad - all the time and I - only when his dad is around)…
    I am not worried about English at this time – he hears it on TV, in the toddler’s class at the library, I read to him his English books and all his toys talk and sing in English.
    The key to me is to keep him exposed to the three languages at all times. I read that babies are born with the ability to differentiate the sounds of hundreds of languages and only at about 3-5 months this number drops to only the language they are exposed to.
    I am also well aware of the challenges to come - he will find out that outside home not much people speak Bulgarian or Spanish… But I think persistence is the key.

  9. Thanks for the topic! I also think it's possible to raise a billingual child and of course it is. The thing which varies from family to family is the level at which the child can use the languages. It depends on the level of exposure as Deya said and it is especially important in the first months when the child learns to differentiate the sounds. I think that later it all depends on how persistent parents are, how much contact they have with relatives and friends on both sides and what languages they speak with each other. I think it is of much help if both partners speak each other's language at least to some extent (ei sega, chakai malko and aide are my boyfriend's favourites too btw :) Another interesting thing I've learned is that billingual children develop better cognitive abilities in others spheres of life too, for example they can more easily than their peers differentiate the irrelevant details and concentrating only on the important ones when dealing with some task, all this because their brains are already used to suppressing one of the language totally while speaking the other one. (something which gets almost impossible the older you get when you learn the language - I usually have 3 languages mixed in my mind when I speak with my boyfriend).

  10. i also have a friend from the uni, whose mom is hungarian and the dad is from finland. so he speaks with them either in suomi or in hungarian. he also went to an intl school, where he studied in english. the school was in austria, so he also learned german. hehehe ;) i think the only common language they have is english. ;D he is perfectly fine with all languages. i kinda envy him. hahaha ;) i wish our parents were bilingual!

  11. I am American and my husband Bulgarian. I have actually been thinking about this a lot lately because I've been spending time with a couple who are teaching their son to speak both. I have a major issue with it though. I feel like the child will not master either or learn the nuiances and deep vocab. Not that for most people this is a big deal, I guess, but as someone who is academically inclined, it worries me. I know teenagers and young adults who were raised with Bulgarian and English and they don't excell in schooling or have a mastery of either.

    Jessica Iliev

  12. My wife and stepson are Russian native speakers and I am an English speaker. He has gone to school in Russian for four years and this year started in an English language school as well as having exposure to Vietnamese and Azeri along the way. We have fallen into the habit of one parent-one language with some crossover words and phrases. He sometimes gets annoyed with us if we try to step out of our language roles. He actually speaks three languages: Russian, English and fluent cartoon! Most of his initial exposure to English was through cartoons. We've never made any explicit attempt to teach him English; he speaks and listens well but his reading and writing aren't as well developed. We expect that this will improve rapidly now that he is in an English medium school.