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Multilingual Families

Parents can only act as gardeners, showing their children the variety of cultures within each language. Gardeners can aid growth but not cause it. The language seeds sown need watering, tending and fertilizing. ... There will be many anxious days when tender young shoots do not develop smoothly, and later they are in danger of breaking among the strong winds of peer pressure. The parent as language gardener can help maximize those conditions that are open to influence, but parents cannot control the growth of language.

—Colin Baker (2007: 19, 29)


“Baby Einstein,” “Bilingual baby,” “Your baby can read!,” “Brain building games for your baby,” “50 simple ways to make your baby smarter.” .. . Children’s sections in libraries, bookstores, and Internet sites offer a dizzying array of books, software, DVDs, flashcards, and educational toys aimed at parents who want to give their young children a head start in education. Parents these days are inundated with commercial products that claim to make babies smarter, more ready for school, and better equipped to succeed in life. With so many choices and sometimes conflicting messages about the likely benefits of various products, one is often at a loss as to what really works and what doesn’t. Consider the following excerpt from the philosophy statement on the “Baby Einstein” website:

At Baby Einstein, we know that babies are passionately curious. Even the littlest of discoveries are truly fascinating to a baby. The world is a colorful place that is just waiting to be explored. This philosophy is what drives us at The Baby Einstein Company to create products that engage babies and

make discovery fun for them and their parents ...

(Baby Einstein, 2012)

It is difficult to dispute a statement like this, and many parents feel they have no choice but to get on the smart baby bandwagon. Even if a popular product has little scientifically proven benefit, one might ask, “If everyone else is making fun discoveries with these products, would my child miss out on important learning opportunities if I don’t do it as well?”

Language is an important part of child development, and in an increasingly global world, more and more parents are drawn to the idea of giving their children the gift of bilingualism. Some parents may hire a babysitter who speaks another language, enroll their children in a language immersion program, or play some foreign language videos in the hope that an early exposure to the sounds of another language will help their children learn it later on. Despite these well-intentioned efforts however, not all children who are exposed to two languages become bilingual. Why do some children become bilingual and others don’t? What kind of language exposure is necessary and for how long? What does it take to raise children bilingually in monolingual societies? There are clearly many benefits to bilingualism. But are there are any disadvantages to becoming bilingual? Could bilingual input confuse children? This chapter will address these questions.

In what follows, we will see that bilingual proficiency is very much a result of experience with the languages in question. Children need to be exposed to a language in order to learn it. Contrary to what some people believe however, having children watch foreign language DVDs several hours a day will not make them bilingual. If anything, too much media can have a negative effect on children’s development of social skills and encourage an early dependence on media (King & Mackey, 2007). What children need in order to become bilingual are sustained opportunities to interact socially with speakers of the target languages. These interactions need to be meaningful—children will not just learn another language if they know it won’t serve the purpose of helping them communicate with people.

There are two major ways in which children become bilingual: (1) by acquiring two languages simultaneously from birth, or (2) by acquiring one language first and acquiring a second language later in childhood. While the so-called simultaneous bilinguals (i.e., children who acquire two languages from birth) are far rarer than successive bilinguals (i.e., children who acquire one language first and another later in childhood), much of the academic literature on child bilingual development is about simultaneous bilinguals (Grosjean, 2010). Many of these studies are carried out by linguists who are themselves bilinguals and are raising their own children in two or more languages (e.g., Deuchar & Quay, 2000; Yip & Matthews, 2007). With detailed, multi-year data on actual language use, these studies show that young children have the natural ability to process bilingual input and to differentiate the two languages in their environment from very early on (Meisel, 2006). They show that with the right kind of language exposure, simultaneous bilinguals can acquire both languages to native speaker levels.

In contrast to the research on simultaneous bilingual acquisition however, systematic longitudinal studies on successive bilingual acquisition are so scarce that it is currently impossible to draw serious conclusions about its underlying mechanisms (Meisel, 2006). The available studies in child SLA disagree as to the developmental trajectories of children exposed to a second language at different times during childhood. We know that due to brain maturation, child first language acquisition and adult SLA differ in important respects (Gass & Selinker, 2008). The question for child bilingualism researchers is, at what point does acquiring a second language during childhood start to look more like adult SLA?

Some scholars (e.g., Meisel, 2006) conclude that initial exposure to a second language in later childhood (i.e., between ages five and ten) leads to a developmental pattern that looks more like adult SLA than simultaneous bilingual acquisition. Others, like De Houwer (2009), contend that even an earlier exposure to a second language (i.e., between the ages of 18 months and four years, or what she calls “early second language acquisition”) leads to developmental patterns that are clearly different from simultaneous bilingual acquisition. Obviously, much more research is needed to answer this question.

These difficulties notwithstanding, I will describe case studies of families that have taken different paths to achieve bilingualism. One strategy for raising bilingual children is the so-called one-parent, one-language (OPOL) approach, which is popular among linguistically mixed couples (Barron-Hauwaert, 2004). In OPOL, each parent speaks his or her strongest language (usually, the native language) to the child, providing good language models in each language. In other families, one language may be spoken exclusively by everyone at home, while another language is learned outside. This usually applies to linguistic minority families who speak the minority language at home. Still other families may mix the two languages whenever they prefer, or have the speech occasion (e.g., attending a religious service) or the presence of monolingual relatives or friends determine their language choice. Most families adjust their language strategies as children grow up and their needs for each language change with schooling or the onset of adolescence. We will see that raising a bilingual family is a journey that requires great care and effort—many families struggle to maintain a balance between the children’s languages.

Colin Baker, the author of A parents’ and teachers’ guide to bilingualism (2007), likens the process of raising bilingual children to gardening. He maintains that while parents, as language gardeners, can promote language growth in children, they cannot control it. As children progress through different stages of development, their preference and dominance in the languages will change. They will move in and out of bilingualism according to their need to communicate and identify with different people in their lives. To successfully achieve bilingualism in the family then, parents need to constantly monitor their children’s as well as their own language behavior, and modify their strategies as children grow up. They need to be mindful of the fact that a given strategy that works for one child may not work for another child in the same family. I will discuss the relationship between birth order and language experience and the role of the social context in influencing children’s language choice and preference.

First, I turn to a discussion of children who are exposed to two or more languages from birth.

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