Raising a “Happily Bilingual Child”

butternut falls

Buttermilk Creek, Ithica, NY

No matter how much I instinctively trust my son’s ability to somehow sort out the two languages he is learning, there is always a slight fear on my part, or maybe just a thought, that at some point, in some way, two languages might confuse him. It’s not something I think about much as I have committed myself to teaching my son Serbian in addition to English, period. But, I love to see studies like the one cited in The New York Times’ article Hearing Bilingual: How Babies Sort Out Language. The article explains  “not just how the early brain listens to language, but how listening shapes the early brain” and goes on to conclude that “bilingual children develop crucial skills in addition to their double vocabularies, learning different ways to solve logic problems or to handle multitasking, skills that are often considered part of the brain’s so-called executive function.”

This is yet another study to show the benefits to bilingualism, which comforts me and encourages me to try harder to give my son Serbian. And the article mentions somewhere the “happily bilingual child” and acknowledges the fact that “there aren’t many research-based guidelines about the very early years and the best strategies for producing a happily bilingual child.” Yes, I’d like to be see more research done in this area, and consequently some guidelines on how to raise “a happily bilingual child.”

Oftentimes I think about the possible emotional consequences of bilingualism. I consider myself to be bilingual, but the kind of bilingual that differs from the kind my son is going to be. I was thirteen when I was introduced to English, and I had Serbian “in place” when I started learning English. And I have to admit that I have always felt like the two languages were slightly at war within me. In my life in the US, many times I felt like I had to suppress my Serbian, or at least some aspects of my Serbian, in order for the same aspects of my English to flourish. I am not happy about this, but I am happy  as long as I have at least one language fully available when I need it. For example, I write my stories and this blog in English, and I feel English will be my dominant language in the area of writing as long as I live in an English-speaking country.

I wouldn’t call myself an unhappy bilingual, definitely not, but I hope my son has an easier time being bilingual. I kind of count on it as he is absorbing both languages at the same time. But I’d definitely like to see more studies covering the area of “happy bilingualism” and hear other people’s stories of bilingualism.

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  1. ADL
    October 21, 2011 at 8:19 am

    I grew up with both French and English (English mother tongue at home, attended a French school until graduation) and I also learned Italian. I never mixed up any or the languages, as a child. As an adult I went on to learn German and Spanish, and when I was in the thick of speaking those languages, I didn’t mix those up either. It was only when I had to revert back to only English that I had that problem. So, I think the more languages the better, especially for children.

    • October 21, 2011 at 9:17 am

      Thanks for sharing! Hearing stories of success is incredibly helpful!

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