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Raising a Bilingual Child - Honoring a Heritage

by Branda Winters

My parents are Norwegian citizens - my father a doctor and my mother a teacher, in Oslo. Both speak Norwegian and only a bit of English. I, on the other hand, was educated in the U.S., married an American, and now live in a suburb of Chicago. As we raised our daughter, it was important to me that she know her Norwegian heritage and that I honor that heritage for her. One of the things I could do was teach her Norwegian – the language of my parents and my childhood. I wanted her to be able to talk to her grandparents, to hear their stories firsthand, and to tell them about her life in the language they know. For those who think this should be easy, let me state that it is not. But in the end, it is worth it, and my daughter is living proof.

Here are some tips, some issues, and some challenges I faced and that you may too.

1. There is no magical method

Infants begin to learn a language by hearing it and repeating the words, phrases, and sentences that those around them speak. But when trying to teach a second language as well, this does not readily and magically happen. It has to be a concerted and definite effort.

2. Set the Goals

I had to decide how fluent I wanted my daughter to be. To me, conversation was the most important aspect of her learning, not reading and writing. The goal was for her to be able to communicate with her grandparents, not read Norwegian newspapers, literature, etc. If they came along as a byproduct or if my daughter expressed an interest in that, we would move to that as well.

3. Scheduling and Consistency of Schedule

It will be important to keep a consistent schedule of conversation. Some say that 30% of conversation time should be in the other language. I didn’t worry too much about that. But I did set consistent times. Every morning, the breakfast table involved conversation in Norwegian. Before she was school age, I was fortunate enough to be a stay-at-home mom, and the morning was Norwegian. Afternoons and dinner time were English (dad needed his time too). At night, I read books to her in Norwegian.

4. You don’t have to do this alone

Once my daughter was in school all day, we had less time for Norwegian, and her entire day was spent in English. To compensate for this, I enrolled her in a Norwegian class on Saturday mornings. This allowed the rest of the weekend for other activities, because she got very involved in gymnastics and music. We still spoke the language after school before dad came home, and I still read at night. We also spoke Norwegian when we drove to and from activities and at the store. This provided the “real world” conversation that I wanted her to master.

5. We traveled to Norway at Christmas time

There is nothing quite like total immersion, if even for short spurts. Four times, as she was growing up, we went to Norway during the holidays. She spent a lot of time with her grandparents but also in an around Oslo, where informal conversation in real world situations was all around her.

6. Doubt and criticism may come

One of the biggest pieces of criticism I got was not that I was teaching my child another language, but the language itself. After all, no one could argue that Norwegian is a language that is particularly useful in the U.S. So, when you do determine that you are going to raise a bilingual child, make certain that you know exactly why you are doing it. My husband and I knew exactly why this was important and we were able to make others understand that too.

Other doubts that were raised were bilingualism itself. Do not listen to this. All the talk of confusing a child and so forth have pretty much been debunked. If they had not been, schools would not be introducing children to foreign languages in elementary school. Still, there are those who believe that only English should be spoken in homes and schools until children are much older.

7. Be ready for your child to rebel just a bit

There were times when my daughter would “refuse” to answer me in Norwegian when I spoke to her. I was upset and even hurt at first, but the best advice I can give is don’t get angry. I overlooked it at first and then finally asked why? She said she didn’t want to learn Norwegian anymore. My solution? I waited a few days and then Skyped my parents one night. In the midst of the conversation, my daughter came in the room, stopped and then began to speak with them. The problem was over after that. When that happened, the guilt that I had been feeling about maybe being too pushy was over.

8. Keep reminding yourself of the benefits

There is research that points to the benefits of learning another language. You need to keep reminding yourself of this when you feel challenged. Bilingual kids have better memories; bilingual people develop dementia an average of 4.5 years later. And some research states that the brain’s executive function (right frontal lobe) functions better.

9. You will never be sorry you did this

My daughter is about to graduate from college. She is still fluent in Norwegian and during the summer after her graduation, she is going to Oslo for an internship, which is going to set her future career path. I am totally validated in that decision so many years ago.

About the writer

Branda Winters is a contributing blogger for several websites, world traveler, and educator. Currently, she lives in Singapore and works as a freelance consultant and a math tutor. She has no clue where she might end up next! Join Branda in her circles on Google+

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