The benefits and challenges of raising bilingual children

Life in Two Languages

  • Sophia Fetzer, 12, and Jonah Fetzer, 10, speak German and Spanish in addition to English. Their parents encourage them to read books in all three languages. P
Sophia Fetzer, 12, and Jonah Fetzer, 10, speak German and Spanish… (Sarah Pastrana )
November 27, 2012|Jessica Gregg

The benefits and challenges of raising bilingual children

Growing up in Argentina, Monica Fetzer remembers times when she wanted to speak only Spanish.

But her parents, the children of German immigrants, spoke German in their home. They sent Monica and her siblings to a bilingual school where they spoke Spanish in the morning and German in the afternoon. On Sunday, they attended a German church.

Learning and speaking in two languages was part of her daily life.

It was hard work, Monica recalls, and there were so many times when it would have been easier just to speak Spanish.

Nowadays her two children make this same argument. That’s because Monica and her husband, Greg, an American, are raising their children to speak German and Spanish — in addition to their native English.

“Sometimes they would prefer to speak English because it’s easier,” says Monica, whose family lives in Towson. “But I remind them of all the family they have in Germany.”

Her children, Sophia, 12, and Jonah, 10, have visited Germany three times and Argentina four times. Their worldview has been broadened exactly the way she and her husband had hoped.

“One of the gifts of learning a language when you are young is that you can go to another country and really communicate,” she says.

For most American families, learning and retaining a second language is enough. The idea of a third language sounds like crazy talk.

One parent,one language
Here’s how it worked for the Fetzers: Monica spoke only German to her children when they were very young. Greg, a Lutheran pastor, spoke only English. This one-parent, one-language rule is one of the most common ways parents raise children to speak two languages.

Monica made a point to read to her children in German, and found their favorite American books in German translations, so they could be exposed to the same stories in their second language. In recent years, this has included the Magic Tree House series.

Around the time each child turned 3, she also began teaching them Spanish. This was easy for her because she teaches Spanish both privately as well as part time at Our Lady of Grace School in Parkton. Her hope is that when the children go to high school, they will add to their languages by studying Chinese.

A language for home,a language for school
From the early days of their marriage, Bret and Naomi Davis, of Towson, have spoken Japanese in their home. It was the first language for their children, Toshi, 8, and Koto, 6, who learned English at school and through play dates or activities with other children.

Naomi grew up in Japan and began learning English in sixth grade. She first came to the United States as a high school exchange student and later met her husband in Europe. He began studying Japanese in graduate school.

“Bret and I never thought about mixing languages in our family,” Naomi wrote in an e-mail. “I sometimes feel fake when I speak English to my kids, and I feel my English doesn’t have the same power as my Japanese does.”

Sometimes, she says, she can spend an entire day without speaking English to her children.

From Aug. 2011 to Aug. 2012, the family lived in Kyoto, Japan, while Bret was on research sabbatical for his job as a philosophy professor at Loyola University Maryland. And the family immersed themselves in Japanese life and language. Toshi, for example, played on a local soccer team.

“We learned that we are at home!” Naomi wrote of the family’s adjustment to life abroad. Koto, in particular, has become more outgoing, she says. “She was very timid at preschool in the U.S., but too proud to play by herself. She used to stand alone and look at the other kids.”

The language barrier kept her from socializing as much as she wanted to, and Naomi admitted that she felt badly that her daughter had to experience that. But without speaking Japanese at home, her children would not be bilingual in language and culture.

“Bilingual child raising is a very slow and long process and I know we will face a lot of hardship in a near future,” Naomi wrote. “But I believe it is our responsibility to teach their mother/father’s language and culture as much as we can.”

The academic advantage
“These parents are on to something,” says Dr. Afra Hersi, a professor of literacy education at Loyola University Maryland. Her research includes work on bilingual teenagers and their school experiences.

Bilingual families need to have an “explicit goal” of bilingualism and an idea of how they will keep it up, Hersi says. Although children will learn some language if a parent speaks to them occasionally in a second language, parents need to do more if they want their children to become bilingual.

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