Bilingual Kids

Many families raise their children to be bilingual. This might involve one parent speaking one language, and the other parent speaking a different one. Or maybe the family will speak one language at home, and the children will pick up another at school. The hope is that the children will end up speaking both languages fluently.

Recently I got talking to a Czech woman, who told me that she spoke Czech to her sons for the first year or so, while her husband spoke English to them – he doesn’t know much Czech. After that however, she switched to English, as she found it too hard to speak Czech to them all the time. This surprised me, as you’d think that speaking your mother tongue would be easier than speaking another language, but not in this case, it seems.

As they currently live in Wales, the main languages her boys encounter are English and Welsh. Maybe their mother is the only Czech speaker around – I certainly haven’t come across any others. Maybe she feels more comfortable speaking English than Czech after living here for many years.

She told me that they’re soon moving to Czechia, so her sons will have to learn Czech. They’re young (4 and 2), so will probably soon pick it up. Whether her husband learns it is another matter – it is quite a challenging language to learn as an adult.

Are any of you raising your children bilingually?

What challenges do you face, and how do you deal with them?

Have you become more comfortable speaking a foreign language than your mother tongue?

2 thoughts on “Bilingual Kids

  1. The last question is interesting. I’ve known several people who’ve become a bit awkward in their mother tongues—they feel they speak it at a rather childlike level. This happens sometimes in Indonesia, where the Chinese diaspora speaks southern Chinese languages (and often not Mandarin) at home. At school they learn Indonesian, and they often pick up English, too. So I know a guy who speaks Indonesian and good English, but disparages his use of his native language, which is Hakka.

  2. I live in Israel. I’m raising my older son (5 years old) bilingual in Russian and Hebrew. I speak Russian to him, and his mother speaks Hebrew. It works perfectly. He speaks both languages fluently, and chooses the right language when speaking to each person. He switches back and forth in moments effortlessly. When he doesn’t know how to say something in one of the languages, he just asks: “Dad, how to do you say X in Russian?”

    He has a few Russian-speaking friends in the kindergarten, and he can speak Russian to them. They all know Hebrew, too, and they mostly speak Hebrew in the kindergarten, but when I’m around them, I nudge them a bit with some Russian questions, and then they switch to Russian. It’s very fun 🙂

    He is already starting to read in Russian, and he knows a few Hebrew letters, too. He confuses words very rarely. I took him to a vacation in Moscow this year, and he got around very well and was happy to hear a lot of Russian around. I read mostly Russian children books to him (Pushkin, Harms, Barto, Marshak, Chukovski, Uspenski, Nosov, etc.), but occasionally I read in Hebrew, too.

    Quite a lot of Russian-speaking immigrants in Israel try this. Not everyone succeeds. I sometimes see parents speaking to children in Russian, and the children understand and respond in Hebrew, or in Russian with a lot of Hebrew mixed in (especially verbs, curiously).

    The only challenge I had, if you can even call it that, was around the time he was two years old. He heard much more Hebrew in the extended family, the street, and the kindergarten, so he mostly spoke Hebrew, but I insisted on speaking only Russian. It was clear to me that he understands me, because he did and said (in Hebrew) relevant things in response, but he hardly ever spoke Russian back then. For a few months I found it a bit hard to continue speaking Russian when there was so much Hebrew around. But just a bit. With some effort and persistence I succeeded. Luckily, my wife cooperated perfectly, and we also know a few other people who raise children bilingually successfully, so the social environment definitely helped.

    Given that this is working so well, I plan to do the same with me younger daughter, who isn’t speaking yet.

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