I speak only French to my daughter. When people find out that I'm raising a bilingual child they often make the same assumptions I did when I first decided to stop speaking English to her.
“What a wonderful thing you're doing for her,” they'll say. “It’s supposed to be so good for their brains.” Or, “That will make it so easy for her to learn other languages later.” Or even “I bet that will make her more competitive for schools and jobs.”
All of this may or may not be true, but I’ve become tired of the same responses – all centered on my daughter and focused on some distant financial or cognitive payoff. The truth is that I am the one putting in all the work now. I’m the one buying bilingual alphabet books and singing along to the same French CDs over and over in the car. I’m not doing this in the distant future. I’m doing it now.
In the past year and a half that I've been speaking French with my daughter I've been surprised by several unexpected effects of welcoming another language into our household. Some of these benefits are immediate, and many of them involve me, not my child. Based on our experience, here are some of the surprising reasons you might want to teach your child another language:
I live in the Midwest in a predominantly white, monolingual neighborhood. When I yell across the playground in French, heads whip up in surprise. I’m not raising a bilingual child to make a point about linguistic diversity, and sometimes I can even feel quite embarrassed by the extra attention, but it does feel good to be doing something a little different in our day-to-day lives.
Bilingual and multilingual families are not such an unusual thing in many parts of the country and the world, and there should be nothing mysterious about it. We all have to change our child’s diapers, whether they’re full of poop or caca.
Always speaking French to my daughter can sometimes feel like a slog, but I’ve been surprised by how often it can be just plain fun. There are no grammar sheets or verb drills – just the words passing meaning between us. When my daughter laughs at something I've said or calls me Maman, I’m hit with a shock of joy. I’m reminded how words that open a window into another part of the world can have a sparkling beauty all their own.
Speaking French to my daughter has become a community effort. My husband now knows more words than he will ever admit and uses them whenever he needs. Grandparents and aunts and uncles have all picked up the odd phrase and say, "Bonjour," when they see us. My mother has even begun taking French lessons after many years of letting her knowledge of the language rust away.
If you're lucky, your family members, friends, neighbors, and colleagues will embrace your language, as mine have, and you can share an important part of yourself with them.
Many Americans who were raised to speak only English as children have unpleasant memories of struggling in high school Spanish class or being laughed at as they fumbled to reserve a hotel room or order a meal abroad. There is a culture of anxiety surrounding foreign languages, and it can seem like an impossible, unnatural task to learn one. This is often because we have begun too late.
I want my daughter, her friends, and anyone who hears us speaking another language to know that there's nothing to fear. It's possible that her bilingualism will help her learn other languages more easily, but I don’t really care about that. What matters is that she can dive in, headfirst, with enthusiasm and courage because learning another language is something to embrace and enjoy, not to dread.
It can be difficult to teach your child a language that's different from the one he or she hears in school, on the street, and in normal life outside the home. I fight hard against the barrage of words my child hears and absorbs naturally every day. I speak her second language, day in and day out, no matter the situation or my own state of mind. Sometimes it would be so easy to lapse into English or simply to give up altogether. But I don’t.
Instead, I translate another book to her as we read together, I answer back in French when she says another word in English, and I look up another phrase I don’t know so we can both learn it. I don’t mind this, though, because it feels good to work hard for the person I love the most.
Like most parents, my goal is to embody and transmit my most important values to my child. That’s why I speak French to her. If you speak another language to your child, that’s wonderful. Enjoy it! However, many parents share something else that is important to them. Perhaps you practice a sport, or teach your child to dance, sing, or love the outdoors. It doesn’t matter that we each choose something different. What's important is that we recognize our own hard work and that we enjoy the unexpected places it takes us.