“You should raise your child bilingually”, my heavily pregnant French friend suggested to me a few week’s ago as she adjusted position on a remarkably soft sofa.
She described her own plans to bring up a bilingual baby. “I want my child to grow up knowing about my culture and my home language”, she told me. “And it doesn’t involve too much hard work. Whenever I speak to my little girl, it will be in my native French and Daddy will talk to her in English.” She slid further into the yawning gap between the cushions and I resisted the temptation to haul her out.
The thought of teaching my firstborn a second language still seemed like a lot of hard work. “You only need to speak to your baby in French for a few hours each week at home”, she added. “Before you know it, the little he or she will be well on the road to fluency in two languages and will be set up for a great future career.”
Really? I thought. Could I honestly grow my child into a highly sought-after globetrotting professional from this early age? Did I even want to?
On reflection, it wasn’t such a bad idea.
My child would be fluent in two languages, they’d be well ahead of the development curve from an early age, and at the front of the queue when job hunting later on in life. In a global economy continuing to falter, having that second language on their CV could be handy. I’d need to start early, pull together a game plan, and set clear goals on what I wanted ‘Junior’ to achieve.
My own bilingual journey
For me, the road to bilingualism and speaking a second language ground to a halt the moment I moved to Australia.
I learned French during my school years in England, went on exchanges to France as a teenager, and spoke the language fluently while working for the Federal Government in Canada during my late twenties. Having a second language under my belt helped me on my merry way up the career ladder and then I came to the land down under. There wasn’t much need to speak a second language so I simply stopped and I’ve regretted it ever since, perceiving a grinding halt to my job prospects and a long life of wishful thinking ahead.
In an attempt to retrieve the lost language that in some small part defined me as a younger man, I recently started private tuition with my French friend and the years of learned vocabulary and grammar have slowly winged their way back to me.
Now my wife is about to have our first child.
Assuming all goes to plan, we’ll be welcoming our baby boy or girl into the world in three week’s time and I’m quickly warming to the idea of raising our child in two languages. I’m keen to buy French kid’s books with colourful characters and charming turns of phrase, excited to tune in to an array of foreign language stations on the radio and television, and yearning to whisk our newborn off to France le plus tôt possible.
The pros and cons
Raising a bilingual baby is a big effort when there’s potentially not a lot of point here. We live in a country where only English is generally spoken and we’re located far from our neighbours where foreign languages are predominant so should I give up before I’ve started? And let’s not forget we’re talking about a baby here, not an older child. Isn’t it better to let it have its time as a newborn and leave it to develop in peace?
The leading books on raising bilingual children describe huge advantages to bilingualism such as providing a better understanding of other countries and cultures, significantly improving brain development at an early age, and ensuring an ability to compete and succeed in the job market in an ever-shrinking world.
Yet for every person who supports the idea of their child being fluent in two or more languages, there is another that says it’s not a good thing to do.
Teaching your child to learn two ways of saying every word will confuse them and may even cause language learning delays. They’ll have to be a superstar to learn not one but two quite different languages and it’s a lot of work to succeed in this endeavour, particularly if neither of you are native foreign language speakers. And all this to achieve something that may not even be useful in a career here in Australia.
My gut feeling is that many of these negativities are myths.
A hopeful future
Children are capable of almost anything at a young age so why not put in the hard yards early on with the prospect of a brighter future for them, however distant or unnecessary it might currently seem.
Imagine listening to your developing child parle a little francais with ses amies over Skype, feeling supremely confident that this tiny person has an opportunity-laden life ahead of them because you put in the homework early on and set them on their way. Your teeny tiny ankle biter may develop greater intelligence as a result of your combined early efforts – and their job prospects and career aspirations should flourish
For me, to bring up a bilingual baby is to prepare my newborn for an uncertain global future while giving them every available tool for increased confidence and a deeper awareness of other cultures. An added bonus is that I get to learn something along the way.
And what could be better than that.
What do you think? Is there any point in raising a bilingual baby or child? Have you tried to? Is it all about future career prospects?