Thursday, October 28, 2010

Bilingual families

Jon and I have a bilingual family.  I was born and raised in Moscow, Russia.  Jon grew up in the U.S.

When Jon and I got married, we knew that we would always have to do things just a little bit differently because of our backgrounds, but we were ready for this challenge.  So far we've done amazing!  Jon is super patient at my parents' house as we sit and talk in Russian, our first language.  He's also incredibly understanding when my parents take a few minutes to find the right word for what they are trying to communicate to him.  He's even tried to learn a little bit of Russian when we went to Moscow a couple of years ago.  Now that my grandparents moved here from Moscow, things are even more different since they don't speak any English.  Our families have also been supportive (as they are in every single thing) by making the extra effort to spend time together and communicate, regardless of the language barrier.  Few things make me happier than watching my parents chatting joyously with Jon's family.

With a baby on the way, we've had to sit down and make a couple more decisions.  The biggest question at hand right now is what language to teach the baby.

On one hand I've always wanted to teach our kids how to speak Russian and to introduce them to my culture.  My family is important to me and Addi will need to know how to communicate with them.  I struggle with making this work since she will be surrounded by English and today it's easier for me to speak English as well.  One of the methods that I've heard and read about is to teach the baby just one language, the one they will have a harder time learning, until they go to pre-school.  Some say that surrounding them with Russian when they are very young will make it easier for them to learn it while they will pick up English in school easily.  However, I can't see myself doing that since Jon's family doesn't speak Russian.  How could I deny their grandchild from communicating with them?  I wouldn't.

On the other hand if we decided to introduce both languages to the baby from the day she is born, she will have a harder time catching up.  Babies who learn two languages from birth tend to start speaking later in life.  I feel guilty slowing Addi's progress so early in her life.  I don't want to see her struggle to understand what words mean and which language she should speak.

For now Jon and I plan to take the latter route and speak both languages to Peanut when she is born.  I'll try to talk Russian while Jon will speak English.  Peanut's grandparents will also do their part in creating two environments, allowing Addi to hear both languages.

I even talked to my grandparents and had them bring some Russian baby books to read to Peanut after she's born (I need to brush up on my reading skills!).

These are stories that I was brought up on.  I'm so excited to share them with Addi!

I've been reading them to remind myself about my childhood and it's been amazing.

This was my favorite book when I was a kid.  It's a collection of exaggerated stories about a little boy whose name is Dennis.  Every story is only a couple of pages long and every one of them is hilarious.  I've been reading them and giggling to myself since translating them to Jon often loses the meaning (although I did try...he didn't laugh).

We have about a dozen books in Russian now and I plan to get a few more.

No worries- I've been buying some English books too, mostly because I can't resist them.

So, blog friends of mine, any advice on raising a bilingual baby?


  1. I forgot you were Russian! How cool to teach the baby both languages. I would, if I could (and if I had a baby to teach).

  2. There's been a discussion going on on the WTE boards for my month. They seem to mostly all agree on your route of one parent to each language. My uncle grew up in the US in a house where they spoke only Greek, and he said he resented it when he got to school and couldn't understand English. But then with his children (my cousins), they largely ignored Greek until they were old enough to go to "Greek school", and they really don't speak it very well. Their oldest, however, was raised in Italy when he was young, and they spoke English at home, but sent him to an Italian pre-school, and he had no trouble doing both.

  3. Katy- thanks! I actually just read an article last night that supported this as well. I hope it works!

  4. What an interesting question! My good (American) friend married a Japanese woman. They have a 3 year old raised mostly in the US and each parent spoke their native language with the baby. They probably spoke a little more Japanese at home so the child took to that quicker but being in school helped his English a lot. It's so great to have your child learn both languages, especially when their little brains are sponges! Good luck!!

  5. Hiya Kat, I found your blog a couple weeks ago & started reading, but this is my first time commenting :) I'm really enjoying your blog though!

    I want to comment today because I'm from Ireland, and at the moment I'm studying for a degree in Early Childhood Studies. One of our classes is on pre-schools that are run through the Irish language, which is our native language, but the vast majority of us use English as our first and daily language. We were actually talking about this whole issue of two languages from birth, and the lecturer recommended that if the child is growing up in a bilingual family, that one parent speak only in their preferred language while the other parent speaks only in the other language. She said it makes it less confusing for the child than if one parent was switching between the two languages.

    I think it's a great idea, and in the long term Addie will get so many benefits of learning two languages early on, she'll find it much easier to learn further languages in the long term. So best of luck with creating a happy bilingual family :)

  6. Marie-

    Thank you so much for the insight! This is great - I've always been very curious about this and now we're actually facing it. I'll have to keep everyone posted on how she does!

  7. I think it's wonderful that you are making a commitment to teach your child both languages. This is something that I struggle with as well. I am Mexican, and fluent in Spanish, but it's not what I would consider my "native" language since I was born in the US and primarily speak English. I actually don't have anyone around me who speaks Spanish so it's terrible and rusty too. I want the boy to learn it because I feel it's important, but I feel weird just busting out with it. It's never been my primary language so it feels awkward and strange to speak it more than a few sentences at a time.

  8. I don't think any child could be hurt by learning more than one language at home! If my husband and I were lucky enough to speak more than one language I would absolutely make sure that our little girl was surrounded by both. I can understand wanting English to be her primary language (since she will be living and interacting here) but how great for her to know Russian too and to be able to have that bond with your heritage and your side of the family! Teach her both, for sure! :-)

  9. Hey

    I just finished a grad school program and have done my share of research on ELL students since I'm a high school teacher. Teaching a child both languages actually does not hinder their learning of language at all or doesn't make them speak later, less clearly, etc. I have a really good book on, if you are interested. The name escapes my mind right now, but you can email me if you want me to find it.

  10. Hi Kat,

    I am a new reader of your blog, and am catching up on your baby-related posts- I love your daughter's room! On this topic, please rest assured that teaching your daughter two languages is an amazing decision. Research has failed to find support for the hypothesis that learning two languages simultaneously will slow your baby's development. In fact, bilinguals and monolinguals seem to learn at a similar rate. In addition, recent research has shown that being bilingual also has major benefits for later on in life, slowing cognitive decline and helping to prevent the onset of Alzheimer's. My husband and I plan to bring our kids up speaking two languages (French and English), so I look forward to reading more about your bilingual adventures!

  11. This is actually a subject that I was talking about with my boyfriend last night. After being together for 7 years we've realized that it's getting around that time to start thinking about marriage and babies and one of the things we were discussing is how to introduce the baby to Portuguese (His parents are portuguese and his mother speaks little to no english and my Portuguese is VERY VERY poor) AND English. All of our bilingual friends suggest the 1 language 1 parent method. Ironically this will probably help Jon learn russian as well! Miguel's mother has already ordered Sesame street in Portuguese for ME to watch to try and give me crash courses on the language. Can't wait to read about your language adventures with your little peanut!

  12. I'm reading the Dr. Oz YOU Raising Your Child book and it says that kids who learn two languages actually grow bigger brains. How cool is that! My brother is living in Belarus right now to learn Russian. I wish I could teach my son (also Peanut!) two languages.

  13. My mother speaks Dutch and to this day I wish that she would have spoken Dutch to us when we were little and I think she regrets not teaching it to us as well. Giving your child knowledge of another language is an invaluable life skill and I can't think of a greater gift!


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