"Chocolate is not junk food. It is emotional health food." - Dragon Lady
Question #41491 posted on 12/17/2007 3:01 a.m.

Dear 100 Hour Board,

I have always envied my peers who have had the opportunity to grow up bilingually. I think those who are bilingual in any language have a huge advantage in education and the work place. (and its just rad)

SO- If you spoke a foreign language and your spouse did not, would you teach it to your children?
Why or why not?

Also, if you and your spouse both spoke different languages ( say you both served in different foreign speaking missions)Would you choose one to teach to your children, or would you teach them both? none?

- Wants to offer her future children the world.

A: Dear Reader,

If my husband and I spoke different language natively, I would definitely raise my children bilingually. For starters, I'm too attached to my mother tongue not to want to share it with my children, and I'm sure that my spouse would be, as well. Also, we'd presumably have monolingual family members on both sides, and I'd want for my kids to be able to communicate with their extended family.

However, if either or both of us had learned second languages, but didn't speak them natively, I probably wouldn't raise my children bilingually.

As I understand it, the most effective way to raise bilingual children is for one parent to speak only in language A while the other parent speaks only in language B. As I said above, I'm very attached to English and I would have a hard time speaking only, say, French to my children, both in terms of not being able to share my love of the English language with them and in terms of the mental effort of constantly speaking in a foreign language. Also, even very competent RMs (and others who speak a foreign language with equivalent fluency) tend to make consistent, if subtle errors in their second language, which would then be passed on to their children, who could grow up speaking a bizarre, slightly creolized version of the language.

Lastly, children who grow up bilingually don't always attain equivalent competency in both languages. Even in countries where almost everyone is bilingual (e.g., in countries where one language is used in business and academia, but many local dialects exist) most people end up with very different vocabularies in those two languages because they've learned them in very different social contexts. Also, if the language spoken at home has a complicated or nonintuitive writing system, children may learn to read and write in their school language, but be functionally illiterate in their home language.

I'm not trying to come across as being down on bilingualism — I agree, it's a pretty cool phenomenon. However, it's actually a lot more complicated than just speaking a language pretty well and wanting to pass that on to your kids.

- Katya

P.S. See also here and here for a two-part Wired magazine story on one man's attempt to raise his son as a bilingual speaker of English and Klingon.