Plant a Seed and Hope it Grows: The Best Way to Help Your Child Become Bilingual

This month we published Household Perspectives on Minority Language Maintenance and Loss by Isabel Velázquez. In this post the author talks about her research on bilingual household dynamics in Latino families. 

¿Qué no haría uno por sus hijos? – What wouldn’t you do for your kids? This rhetorical question often comes up in conversations with Latino families in the community in which I live and conduct research. Regardless of ethnicity or cultural background, the narrative of parental self-sacrifice runs deep. In conversations with my university colleagues and other middle-class professionals, it often takes on the shiny packaging of meritocracy. In the kitchens and living rooms of the first-generation working-class families that have afforded me the privilege of learning about their experience, it comes with stories of geographical, social, and economic dislocation. Many of their themes are shared with those of other immigrant and refugee households in our city.

Separate one’s family, leave one’s country, learn a new language, start again, risk life and limb, work three jobs, brave the Nebraska cold at 5:00 am, deform the tendons in one’s right hand from the repetitive motion of cutting meat in an industrial line, make ends meet, make do, find a way. I want them to have an education. I want them to have more opportunities. I want them to get ahead in life.

Because I’m interested in how a minority language is lost or maintained in communities with low ethnolinguistic vitality for that language, most of the conversations I have with other Latino parents eventually arrive at the topic of intergenerational transmission of Spanish. Over the course of the past decade, I’ve yet to find a Latino mother or father who does not hold positive attitudes about their children’s development of bilingual skills.

And yet, in this, like in many other communities, positive attitudes toward Spanish are necessary, but insufficient to guarantee children’s development of their family language. Neither are parents’ level of education or economic standing.

In professional presentations and informal interactions, I am often approached by parents interested in finding the best resource to help their children become bilingual. A CD? An app? A book? A television series? A video game? As it happens, the best device to transmit language is an adult in possession of that ever-scarce commodity: attention. Attachment, nurturing, belonging, such are the fundamental ingredients of intergenerational transmission.

In my ideal world, every newborn would come with a four-word instruction: Forgive yourself; try again. Like all other dimensions of raising a healthy human, transmission of a family language happens at the messy junctions of everyday parenting.

Despite different circumstances and life experiences, analysis of bilingual household dynamics has allowed us to learn that families that are able to transmit Spanish to their children share three features: Quality and amount of exposure to the family language, opportunities for use, and relevance – the management, planning, and evaluation of the first two, it must be said, overwhelmingly falling on the mother.

No gardener plants once and expects results. Relevance of the family language for our children will only bloom years later, once they’ve formed their own networks away from the household. As parents, we plant, we weed, we water, and wait. We do not know if the seed of linguistic transmission will bear fruit. Do we ever?

 

For more information about this book please see our website.

If you found this interesting, you might also like Bilingual Childcare by Victoria Benz.

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