Tuesday, April 20, 2010

note to self: don't judge monolingual families!

A visit with an old friend this past weekend got me thinking: is it possible for those of us who are raising bilingual or multilingual families to congratulate ourselves for our efforts yet not judge those families who don't? Particularly families whose parents do speak more than one language already?

Natasha and I have been friends for fifteen years, when we studied abroad in the same city in France. Originally from Russia, she and her parents came to the US as refugees when she was 16. By the time she was in college, she was fluent in English, very good in French, and had also studied some German. Although she hasn't had a reason to use her French since college, she said she felt it coming back as she interacted with Griffin this weekend. (And her accent is still great!)

She has two children, ages three and seven, and she confesses that she doesn't speak Russian with them. Her parents, who moved to be near her family, are so very disappointed that she has not passed her mother tongue on to the kids. But she doesn't beat herself up about it: she had to be realistic, she said. She has worked full-time all along, with her husband doing more of the day-to-day child care, so during the few hours in the evening that they are all together as a family, she has not wanted to shut her non-Russian-speaking husband out. She chose harmony and family time over bilingualism.

She also pointed out that her own Russian language development more or less stopped when she was a teenager. Never having been exposed to the critical baby-related vocabulary in her native language, she couldn't say everything she wanted to when her first child was born, and she had neither the time nor the inclination to research Russian vocabulary with a newborn around. (This is a significant difference from how it worked for me: when I started taking care of my nephew once a week and writing this blog four years ago, I was a newlywed teaching full-time in a foreign language department. I had myriad friends and colleagues to ask vocabulary questions of and who were genuinely interested in hearing about my would-be bilingual nephew. In other words, I had what she didn't: lots and lots of linguistic support and lots and lots of time.)

And she didn't state this, but of course it would probably be especially difficult to raise Russian-speaking children in the medium-sized town in the northwest where they live--no Russian playgroups, no Russian nannies, stares from strangers at the grocery store and the doctor's office, skepticism from the preschool and elementary teachers, the expense of buying books from halfway across the world.

That all makes sense to me, but I wish for her children's sake that she had been able to raise them bilingually. Of course, it's none of my business, and seeing these words in print makes me feel terrible, like I'm judging her, when the last thing any parent needs is the disapproval of a friend or the judgment of someone who's not in her shoes!

Still, it seems like her kids are much better off than those whose families haven't given them a second language. (Look, there I go, being judgmental again, this time against people like my very own parents!) One of my too-many projects that I'm doing for/about Griffin is making a storytime DVD. Ever since he was born, I have videotaped family and friends reading to him, singing songs, reciting rhymes, so I asked Natasha if I could film her. She read him a book in English and then, after some gentle prodding, told him a nursery rhyme in Russian, then another, then another. Griffin ate it up, telling her "More! More!" so that she had to repeat them over and over. At one point, she looked down and said, "More? Yeah, this is Sasha's favorite too." So even though she doesn't use Russian with the kids, she surely sings to them and recites these rhymes. She still shares her language and her culture with them. And I think her parents do speak Russian around them too.

As Clarisse, a Brazilian in Namibia, mentioned in her recent profile, an inextricable part of raising children with more than one language is the idea that we are exposing them to other cultures as well, showing them that an entire world exists around them, a world where other people's appearances, beliefs, homes, and languages can be quite different from ours. So Natasha's kids are definitely benefitting from that. They are growing up bicultural, if not bilingual, which is just as important, and perhaps even more useful. This also presents a significant contrast with me and Griffin: he may be bilingual, but I have not shown him much about French or francophone culture so far. (Uh-oh. Judge away!)

All this simply reinforces my belief that we parents are doing what we can, giving what we can, the best we can, most of the time (I honestly can't say "All of the time," at least in regards to myself), and that's plenty good for our kids, and that we shouldn't pass judgments based on what everyone else does. Bravo and kudos to us bilingual families--and to the monolingual ones as well.


  1. Griffin is 100% adorable! Congrats on your community service. I've been thinking of starting a sort of community play day throughout the summer, but...I'm not sure.

  2. I guess it's a fine line between judging and wondering about the choices of others' :)

    I find it quite interesting to see what decisions people make about passing on another language to their kids and how they come to make that particular decision and maybe re-visit it later.

    We chose bilingualism even though The Husband is not bilingual himself, and so far it's the right choice for us. And like you, I know people who could be passing on another language and chose not to - but to me, their choice is as interesting as is yours of doing the non-native bilingualism thing :)

    And I really mean interesting!

  3. @Smashed--You articulate that perfectly! Yes, "wondering about" really is more accurate than "judging." And I agree that revisiting the decision of which language(s) to use with the family should also be an important step. And of course, I do recognize that people judge me for doing the non-native thing!

    @She--thanks! Good luck with your project.

  4. I stumbled across your blog while doing some research for the programs that I help organize for children of Hebrew speaking families living in Westchester County, NY. Raising our three children bilingually has been hard work but very rewarding and I enjoyed reading your posts. This was a particularly good one. Rachael

  5. @Rachael--I appreciate your comment, especially since I was not sure if I should post this one. It concerned me that relatively few people had commented, until I saw my blog email account. It turns out that this post has generated more emails to me than any other one I've ever written. (And to my relief, none vitriolic!)

    Would you consider letting me profile your family, please? So far, only one other family has been Hebrew-speaking (and they're in Israel), and the majority of the families have one or two children. It would be really interesting to hear about the second language dynamics in a family of five! Please email me at babybilingual (at) gmail (dot) com if you're interested, and I'll send you the questionnaire.

    Thanks also for the recommendation of the graphic artist! I'll check her out.

  6. As a loyal follower of your blog who is NOT teaching her daughter another language, I often think about this issue.... and feel like I have to excuse (or at least explain) myself for it.
    I would love for Dani to be bilingual, but I have not made it a priority. I don't know how she or I will feel about it in the future, but right now I am spending so much time developing her in other ways that we both enjoy and value, that I can't feel like I'm short-changing her.

    I think there's another part to it: When she was younger, I spoke Spanish to her more (though I certainly wasn't monolingual), but when she started going to daycare, she realized Spanish was weird, and she became resistant to it. At some point, she started watching Dora, and while she did pick up a smattering of words, she showed no interest in learning more. I remember Spanish being by far my least favorite subject in school, and I guess I can't stomach imposing it on her. In the back of my mind, though, I retain the thought that sooner or later, my husband will get stationed either in a place that has bilingual schools or overseas (in which case we will all work on learning a new language!) and hopefully that will jumpstart things.

  7. Ella--I didn't know that you had had negative experiences with Spanish in school. Of course our own educational experiences will color what we choose for our children! And I know you're doing so, so much with and for Dani already--homeschooling, excursions, trips, exposure to different people and ideas and oodles of books....

    I also didn't think about children's own preferences for language use when I wrote this post, probably because Griffin is still so young. Forcing a kid to learn a language that he doesn't want to works about as well as forcing a kid to learn to play a musical instrument that he has no interest in, I imagine.

    (Note to self: figure out if I'm imposing French on Carl when it often seems like he's disinterested.)

    I'm sure that when Dani decides she wants to speak another language--whether she discovers, say, Japanese on her own or y'all move to Italy or she wants to sing the same songs as her cousins in Puerto Rico--she'll do an amazing job of it because of everything you've done so far to prepare her! She is one smart cookie.