Raising Bilingual Kids? Shift Away from a “Not Enough” Mentality
While at Stanford Graduate School of Education, I read countless articles about bilingualism. I read about how bilingualism enhances cognitive function; I read about how heritage language learning is different from second language learning; I read about what resources families need the most. And on and on.
The articles I loved most were the ones that made me go, “yes! That’s been my experience!” One such article by Jin Sook Lee and Wayne E. Wright resonated with me because I’d grown up with lots of friends who attended Chinese school on Saturdays and so many of the challenge points they mention in The Rediscovery of Heritage and Community Language Education in the United States ( by Jin Sook Lee and Wayne E. Wright, Review of Research in Education. 38:137-165) relate to these weekend language schools. But perhaps the part of the article that resonated the most was the following:
"Unless [Heritage Language/Community Language (HL/CL)]programs are formally recognized and instructional credit is granted for participating in these programs and/or achieving language proficiency, it will be difficult to increase the number of instructional contact hours in such programs (S. C. Wang, 2007). Although the use of technology and summer camps may provide alternative strategies to increase instructional hours (S. C. Wang, 1996), it is important to note that community-based HL/CL programs alone cannot provide the contact hours needed to develop or maintain productive skills in a language (Fishman, 2001). In other words, school-based programs are one setting needed for providing valuable linguistic input and literacy instruction, in particular for children from homes where parents do not have literacy skills; however, neither schooling nor home language use alone is sufficient for developing HL/CL language competence. To maximize opportunities for HL/CL development, varied methods of language input in formal, institutional settings such as schools (e.g., Byon, 2003; He, 2000; Lo, 2004), in homes and communities (Bayley & Schecter, 2003; Brinton et al., 2008; Kondo-Brown, 2006; Park, 2008; Xiao, 2008), and via technology and popular culture (Lam, 2008; Lee, 2006) are needed." (pg 148)
Any parent raising bilingual children knows this to be true– no one solution or approach is a silver bullet. This was my experience– I knew that my kids needed bilingual support from all sides. When you live in a society that is so English-dominant, you need all the support you can get. Even when children are in a school-based program, they still need additional support and opportunities to “develop or maintain productive skills in a language.” Schools, homes, communities, technology and popular culture are ALL needed to achieve desired outcomes. This can certainly feel overwhelming for parents! It can feel like nothing is ever enough. This reverberated in me and my experiences on every level.
Knowing the critical role parents play in the transfer of bilingualism, the resolve that a parent has and the attitudes they bring to the learning is paramount. I recently wrote an article about how, when given the opportunity, I always ask for bilingual support for any gifts. I do this because I know that you can never have enough bilingual support. But I’ve discovered that there is a difference between always welcoming opportunities for support and constantly feeling like I’m falling short. The former is a great help to a commitment to bilingualism, while the latter can be a huge detriment as it will make me feel like maybe it’s not even worth trying. This tendency towards feeling like I may not have it, like I may not be enough for my kids on their bilingualism journey, is what I find I have to fight the most! Anytime I feel like we’re not doing “enough” to support our family bilingualism, I have now shifted to reminding myself of the following:
Not enough → I’m doing my best
This is a lifelong journey and the best I can do is give my best each day.
Not enough → I’ll keep at it
Consistency is the most undervalued trait. Little efforts over time add up to a lot. Keeping at it is a victory in itself. Keep going, little by little and it will add up.
Not enough → I can equip my kids with the attitude and skills they need to get what I can’t provide them
The truth is that no one parent can be everything their kids need– every family benefits from the community around them. The best I can do as a parent is to foster in my children the attitudes and skills required to tap into community resources and opportunities and help around them. This is a worthwhile skill that extends far beyond bilingualism! So, it’s actually a good thing that a parent needs to direct kids beyond themselves for help. Let that sink in.
Bilingualism requires a lot of commitment and effort but we need to give ourselves grace and keep a big-picture mindset and to not let our eagerness for more support feel like we’re constantly failing or falling short. If we feel like we can’t do it, or we aren’t enough, that will become another hindrance to overcome. Remember, while more help is always welcome, we must be resolute in our belief that we can do it. We can be the help and support that our kids need– with our best, consistency and teaching the right attitudes and resilience.