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Saturday, February 2, 2013

Tips for Raising a Bilingual Family

Obviously I'm not an expert, and I'm not even bilingual myself.  Yes, I'll admit that I understand more Greek than I let on, but my husband, B, is the driving force behind the languages in our home.  Here are some of the easiest things to do to raise a bilingual family, things I've observed in our eight and a half years of raising our children to speak two languages.

1) Commit to it.  Really.
When B is determined to do something, he does it.  I love that about him.  He decided, probably long before our children were even thought of, that he wanted to raise a bilingual family.  He settled upon Modern Greek because it was the language he knew best. B also knew that the grammar and syntax of Greek would prepare our kids' little brains to learn other languages, like Latin, Russian, or German, in the future.

2)  Begin at birth.
B remembers feeling quite silly speaking Greek to Z in the hospital just after she was born.  After all, he's not Greek.  He had no idea what to say to her, and his Greek was decent, but not spectacular, when she was born.  Still, he persevered, and her Greek is fluent now.  So is his, for that matter.

3) Read together.  Books in the second language are a luxury and not a necessity.
One of the best bits of advice B received from a veteran bilingual parent was to translate simple English books into Greek as he read them.  No access to books in Tagalog?  In Swahili?  No problem!  Take something like a Spot book (in English) and read it aloud in Tagalog, or Swahili, or whatever you please.  The child won't know the difference.  At first, B wrote the Greek underneath the English words, but now he can translate on the fly.  Of course, that can get annoying with more complicated books.  Our kids have a group of books that are "daddy only," and a group that are "mommy only."

4) Insist that the child address you in the chosen language.
At some point, every child will try to get away with answering questions in their dominant language.  When our kids speak to B in English he pretends like he can't understand.  If the child persists, like T is right now, B asks the question again and then provides the vocabulary for the child to answer in Greek.  This is definitely making for some comedy as we guide T toward fluency.  He either mixes the languages, addresses B in English with a Greek accent, or uses a wacky Greek accent to speak Greek.  To us it's hilarious.

5) Find a community.
We found that having other people, especially children, to speak to in Greek cemented the knowledge in our children's heads.  We visited Greece when Z was three, and I could see her reaction as the lightbulb went off in her head: "Oh!  I can converse with this little random child at the playground!"  Since then, we have enrolled our children in Greek school, and we have "Greek only" playmates.  Now that the playmates are school-aged, we hear a lot more Greek and English mixed.

B's number one tip?  

Just start talking.  

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