Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Raising a Child to be Bilingual Without Being a Native Speaker

Today is the first day of school! My kids are both now officially immersion students and I'm excited to see what this year holds for all of us. Although my youngest has been hearing Hawaiian language for many years now and has used it himself on occasion, I didn't hear him utter one word of it today. My oldest had an insatiable appetite for English this summer and, since the last thing he wants to do is fumble his way through relearning Hawaiian, math is the only thing saving his enthusiasm (mahalo ia math)! I also realized today that in two years, I haven't finished even the first two chapters - let alone the entire book - of Na Kai 'Ewalu (Hawaiian 101).

I always think this (way of raising my kids) would be so much easier if I just spoke Hawaiian. Sure, I can learn it, but that's not the same as being bilingual right now. If I really knew a second language then I could just choose it over English without having to wonder whether or not I'm making any sense. I could stop constantly asking myself "do I know how to say this?" I could stop resorting to English for the sake of clarity. Sounds so great, huh?

In lieu of it being easy, immersion parenting without fluency is at least possible. Raising a child to be bilingual when you can't even speak another language is often like groping around in a dark room. You will eventually find what you are looking for, but you shouldn't expect to find it right away and you will probably feel ridiculous in the process. Here are a few points that might be helpful if you are in a similar situation.

  • Learn the language! I should have finished Na Kai 'Ewalu a long time ago. Taking my own studies seriously models to my kids that there is value in bilingualism.
  • Use what you know. It sounds so simple, but I have to really force myself - first languages are first for a reason. Even if its just a phrase a day - use it!
  • Don't speak English when everyone else is speaking Hawaiian, even (especially) if they are okay with it. Every time you fall back on the comfort and safety of English, it becomes that much harder to potentially embarrass yourself next time.
  • Do homework with your kids - and use their vocabulary. Counting, reading books, asking simple comprehension questions, these are all possible with super-basic language skills. 
  •  Delegate. Any good leader will tell you that the best way to finish a big job is to farm out the little ones. Books, movies, internet, teachers, friends, Meet Ups, playgroups, etc. ANYONE who is willing to speak to/with you or your child in the target language should be on speed dial. 
  • Look for encouragement, but don't look in the direction of your kids. My kids are the first to correct, criticize and comment on any and all errors. And they aren't tactful like teachers/adults! 
  • Recognize the small victories. Every once in awhile I will overhear my kids talking to other people and when they say something like "yes, I speak Hawaiian and so does my mom" it provides me with that much more reason to plug on. 

What about all those folks who are bilingual and chose to only speak English with their children. Why do they do that? Is it because of America's generally crappy attitude toward bilingualism? Is it because they figure their child won't be able to "use" that language? Is it for the sake of others in the house (spouses) being able to understand? Feel free to explain this one to me in the comments.


  1. Love this! Yes, you need to speak to bilingualism and its merits more because a LOT of people just don't get it. I had a friend the other day tell me that it was detrimental to my daughter to be teaching her more than one language because she would be behind all the other kids in English once she entered school. I also find that each language is slower to come and she mixes it a lot to compensate. But, it's amazing to me her ability to retain all this information and to know the same word in multiple languages (English, Korean, Japanese and even a little Mandarin thrown in). I have to say though, her ability to imitate any sound and pronounce these languages perfectly is incredible and I have to admit I'm more than a little jealous.

  2. The quality of pronunciation in multilingual children never ceases to amaze me. I struggle with what I'm told is a super thick American accent - my French teacher in high school used to cringe when I would speak! Kids on the other hand are able to recognize and pick up those subtleties so easily. Its just flows over their brains and out their mouths. In fact, I was watching that John Oliver clip today and Koa said "mommy! he sounds like Harry Potter!" Maybe I'll write a post about this later...