Should children be raised bilingually?
01 August 2018
This is an edited version of a Monash University assignment for Sociolinguistics from 9 June 2014
Note: In Sociolinguistics, the age of a person is represented in years and months separated by a semicolon. Eg. Luca (7;2) means Luca is 7 years and 2 months old.
We should drink a certain amount of water a day, we should exercise three times a week, and we should always be kind to each other and treat every person equally. We shouldn’t smoke, hit, swear, definitely not kill and we shouldn’t force our values onto others. The word ‘should’, in general, carries a sense of ambiguity. Do we want to know if it is our duty or a collective expectation, or is it used in order to moderate directness in a statement that is dependent on certain conditions?
Most people will grasp instinctively that raising children bilingually would benefit them, in one or multiple ways. Yet, having delved deeply into endeavouring to answer the question, ‘Should children be raised bilingually?’, it seems there is no straight answer. I argue that the way we raise our children is a deeply personal choice, which carries our own ideology and internalised values. In this essay, I will therefore present four (including my own) personal experiences with raising children bilingually and, consulting a variety of academic literature, I will arrive at my own answer to the question at hand.
The interviewees for this case study are as follows. Eske is a german/english bilingual from Westerstede, North Germany, who lives in Cheltenham, Victoria, with her Australian partner and their two children, Klaas (currently 10;6) and Felix (currently 7;9). Claudia is a german/english bilingual from Mödling, East Austria, who lives in Beaumaris, Victoria, with her Australian partner and their two children, Lukas (currently 9;6) and Ben (currently 7;6). Andrea is a german/english bilingual from Kirchberg, West Austria, who lives in Sunbury, Victoria, with her Australian partner and their two children, Hannah (currently 11;2) and Amber (currently 9;10). Daniela (the author) is a german/english bilingual from Kirchberg, West Austria, who lives in Cheltenham, Victoria, with her Australian partner and their two children, Isabella (currently 8;9) and Luca (currently 7;2).
Eske has grown up speaking Hochdeutsch (standard German). Claudia has grown up in an Austrian speech community near Vienna, where the variety of German, Niederösterreichisch, is common, but Hochdeutsch (standard German) is spoken predominantly. Claudia claims her choice to speak standard German was not due to prestige but ease. Therefore, both Claudia and Eske already knew they would speak standard German to their children. Both also feel a tremendous pride in their Germanic cultural background and identity. Andrea and I grew up in a diglossic (Fergusson in Bell, 2014, 110) part of Austria, speaking Tirolerisch (a dialect variety of German, lexically very different from standard German) at home and with friends, and Hochdeutsch at school. Andrea spoke Tirolerisch with her girls. Daniela started out speaking this dialect with Isabella, but felt concerned that Germans would not be able to understand the children’s Austrian dialect and that, once the children start official German education, the educators and the children wouldn’t understand each other. She then switched to standard German when Isabella was approximately 2 years old, only to find that the effort and dedication required to speak Hochdeutsch (words formed towards the front of the mouth) was a lot higher than Tirolerisch and Australian English (words formed more towards the back of the mouth, which is more relaxed).
All four families decided to raise their children bilingually from the moment the children were born. Eske and Claudia still primarily speak German to their children, whereas Andrea and Daniela discontinued once their first-borns started kindergarten. Andrea decided to switch to English, not because her children refused to speak German, but because she found it easier and more appropriate, considering they live in Australia, where English is the official language. When Isabella no longer wanted her mother to speak German, Daniela eventually discontinued, for much the same reasons as Andrea. Daniela also didn’t want to force her identity onto her children and eventually realised that the only reason she spoke German to the children was so that they can communicate with their grandparents in Austria, whom they saw only every few years.
Myers-Scotton (2006, 146) argues that ‘teenagers choosing L1 [language 1 - English in this case study] over L2 [language2 - German in this case study] could be indexing a social message about their persona’. Even though Isabella was far away from being an adolescent, Daniela believes she wanted to ‘disassociate from her ethnic group identity and associate instead with the mainstream culture and its values’ (Myers-Scotton, 2006, 146). She didn’t want to be an ‘other’ and wanted to fit in. Barron-Hauwaert (2004, p34-40) claims that children employ “language avoidance techniques” in order to show their refusal to speak L2, usually because they lack the necessary vocabulary. This includes the child refusing to speak L2 and only answer in L1, which was the case with all of the participants in this study and still happens for Eske and Claudia.
Claudia, Eske and Andrea had never been explicitly asked by their children to discontinue bilingualism, however, all the children in this study had always replied mainly in English when spoken to in German. Eske also finds that her children often use non-verbal communication such as grunts instead of words in order to state displeasure. Caldas (2006, 126) claims that ‘once children enter pre-adolescence the child searches for and constructs his or her own identity apart from their parents’. Claudia and Eske wish to persevere with German, even if their children openly refuse in the future.
One reason Daniela discontinued raising her children bilingually was an uneducated concern that they will be confused which language they are using and that they will lag behind their peers in their ability to communicate. Claudia, Eske and Andrea, however, do not share this concern, and have not found their children code-mixing (mixing of two or more languages or language varieties in speech) excessively in the early stages when the children still spoke more German. Barron-Hauwaert (2004, p2) states that several studies in the 1920s and 1930s showed bilingualism to be negative because it risked overloading a child’s mental capacity. These studies have been disqualified, however, due to dubious research techniques. In 1928, Reynold (in Caldas, 2006, p12) claimed that language mixing and confusion resulted in decreased ability to think clearly. In 1966, Weisberger (in Caldas, 2006, p12) claimed that ‘humans are basically monolingual and that being bilingual was like trying to belong to two religions at the same time’.
Caldas’ own 14-year-old son declared, “I have twice as much stuff in my head as everyone else. I have to remember twice as much as everyone else. Jeeez, it isn’t fair” (Caldas, 2006, 12). Although this is more likely symptomatic of an adolescent's homework pressures than the inability to cope with speaking two languages.
King and Mackey (2007, p26-27) argue that ‘there is no scientific evidence to show that hearing two, three, or more languages leads to delays or disorders in language acquisition and that language delay is incorrectly blamed on bilingualism. They (ibid) further state that ‘code-mixing results from lack of mastery. Code-switching is not a sign of incomplete mastery, but a rich linguistic and cultural resource. Code-mixing describes how language learners combine two languages due to incomplete knowledge of one or both language(s)’. Code-switching, in contrast, is common among highly proficient adults and children, and a sign of mastery of two languages’ (King and Mackey, 2007, p192-194).
Apart from early code-mixing and lack of vocabulary, which is usually sorted by the time children enter school-age (King and Mackey, 2007), there are many benefits of bilingualism. Eske entertains the possibility of moving back to Germany one day with her family, and therefore wants to continue raising her children bilingually, as they would find it easier to attend university and enter the job market. I agree with King and Mackey (2007, p13-14) that ‘with our increasingly globalised world, our children will need a second language much earlier and at a much higher level of competence than we could have imagined twenty years ago… may as well start them young to give them an edge.’ Claudia continues raising her children bilingually, not particularly because of her pride in her German/Austrian heritage, but because both her partner and her believe that it is beneficial for a child’s cognitive development. Andrea and Daniela have discontinued raising their children bilingually, not because they disagree with bilingualism conceptually, but because they have found speaking English more suitable.
However, since regretfully discontinuing raising her children bilingually, Daniela now understands some of the benefits of bilingualism to be the following. The children and their grandparents would be able to communicate better and therefore be able to connect on a much deeper level. Speaking another language is good for the child’s future in regards to career and business opportunities. The bilingual child is more able to appreciate otherness and different cultures. King & Mackey (2007, p4) assert that knowing two languages gives children a cognitive edge and they are able to use language more creatively. They (ibid, p3-5) further argue that ‘bilinguals are mentally more flexible, have increased test scores, improved literacy skills, greater cross-cultural understanding, adaptability and have an increased pride in their own heritage… Bilinguals also have greater metalinguistic awareness (awareness of language as an object or system)’. Bialystok and Majumder (1998, p70) state that ‘bilingual children understand that the name of an object is arbitrary and could be changed under certain conditions’. According to Peal and Lambert (in Caldas, 2006, p12), bilinguals outperform monolinguals in both non-verbal and verbal IQ tests.
Considering the vast body of research finding bilingualism beneficial in so many ways, the following questions then remain. What is the best strategy? When is the best time to start? Can I expect success if I re-introduce bilingualism now? Firstly, let’s look at the level of bilingualism achieved of the participants in this study to gage how successful one might be in re-introducing bilingualism.
Eske, Claudia, Andrea and Daniela had naturally followed the One-Parent-One-Language approach (Barron-Hauwaert, 2004), mainly because their partners only have limited knowledge of German. Initially, they immersed their children in German books, DVDs and audiotapes and socialised with German-speaking friends. Before kindergarten, Eske attended German playgroup for two years and Klaas attended German-speaking language school for two terms. Eske still plays German audiotapes to her children every day and they watch a 30-minute German television series six times a week after dinner. Eske has always made an effort to purchase German toys and books of their current interests, such as Lego Ninjago. If the children need explanations she will provide these in German. Eske and Claudia speak German to their children at home, even with their partner present. Claudia has not shown a German movie to her children for nearly 12 months but still tries to read a German book to them once a week. Claudia speaks German to her children at home but if her partner is present at dinnertime she will often speak English so that he is included.
All their children were, and still are - even in Eske and Claudia’s case, passive bilinguals (Barron-Hauwaert, 2004), in that their replies are in English only. Eske and Claudia’s children will speak some German when in Germany or Austria (Eske’s children more so), when necessary. Caldas (2006) found that they followed the One-Parent-One-Language approach initially, but found that this was not enough for the minority language to develop, once English-only childcare commenced; they then decided to only speak L2 at home. King and Mackey (2007, p107) note that in a study by Pearson et al, it was shown that children could actively speak their second language (active bilingualism) if they were exposed to it for one-fifth of their waking hours. For example, a 2-year-old who is awake for 12 hours, at least about 2 ½ of those hours should be spent interacting in the second language. In order to switch from passive to active bilingualism, King and Mackey (2007, p109) suggest the ‘Hot-House Approach’-protecting the minority language at home by using it more often, say 80 percent of the time.
King and Mackey (2007, p58) suggest that it is never too late to start learning a second language and that it must not be started in the critical period of language learning. They state that ‘scientists now talk about “sensitive” periods rather than a “critical period”, for different abilities such as accents, collocations of words, morphology and syntax, with phase-out periods, some at age six, and some in the mid-teens.’ In a neurolinguistic study using functional magnetic resonance imaging, Wartenburger et al (2003) found that age of acquisition affects the neural correlates of grammatical judgment, whereas proficiency level seems to play a larger role in determining the neuronal substrate for semantic processing. In other words, learning a language in early childhood (between 1-3 years) gives us an edge over syntactic processing, yet this is not the case for learning semantics.
NB. In linguistics, syntax is the set of rules, principles, and processes that govern the structure of sentences in a given language, usually including word order. Semantics refers to the study of meaning and the principles that govern the relationship between sentences or words and their meanings, as well as the study of the relationships between signs and symbols and what they represent.
In this essay I have examined whether children should be raised bilingually. Using four examples, I have shown that, unless one is prepared or able to put in a large amount of effort and time, raising active bilinguals can be difficult. As is the case with these examples, it seems that children will only be passive bilinguals unless they are immersed in the minority language by much more than one parent speaking that language at home. Furthermore, bilinguals will develop a smaller lexicon in each language, as they need to learn each word twice (Barron-Hauweart, 2004, p32), however this is only temporary. Nevertheless, as I have shown, bilingual children benefit greatly from being exposed to another language. Although there are some benefits starting as early as possible and making the most of the critical period, it seems it is never too late to start raising children bilingually. However, in trying to answer the question whether children ‘should’ be raised bilingually, I argue that it remains a personal choice. If there are no financial, ideological and practical limitations then it seems the answer is 'yes'.
Barron-Hauwaert, S. (2004). Language Strategies for Bilingual Families: The One-Parent-One-Language Approach. Clevedon: Multilingual Matters.
Bialystok, E., & Majumder, S. (1998). The relationship between bilingualism and the development of cognitive processes in problem solving. Applied Psycholinguistics, 19 (1), 69-85.
Caldas, S.J. (2006). Raising Bilingual-Biliterate Children in Monolingual Cultures. Clevedon: Multilingual Matters.
Diaz, R.M. (1983). Thought and Two Languages: The Impact of Bilingualism on Cognitive Development. Review of Research in Education, 10, 23-54.
King, K., & Mackey, A. (2007). The Bilingual Edge. New York: HarperCollins.
Myers-Scotton, C. (2006). Multiple Voices: An Introduction to Bilingualism. Malden: Blackwell Publishing.
Wartenburger, I., Heekeren, H.R., Abutalebi, J., Cappa, S.F., Villringer, A., Perani, D. (2003). Early Setting of Grammatical Processing in the Bilingual Brain. Neuron, 37 (1), 159-170.
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