Although the advantages of raising children to be bilingual are widely known, native speakers of a language often fail to transfer their language (and, consequently, a large chunk of their culture) to their children if those children grow up in an atmosphere where an official language is not the native language of their parents. This leads to a number of misunderstandings ranging from the forgivable and unintended to uncomfortable to downright insulting. For instance, when a child blends the two languages together, creating a series of family-specific idioms, it is cute and laudable. However, when that child fails to understand older generations who may have not acquired the official language properly, it is uncomfortable and unsettling. When that same child demands to be spoken in one language only and pointedly avoids all things dealing with things of the parents and grandparents’ native culture, the situation turns into a potentially explosive war zone, with each side holding out as the one with a right to its language and customs.
There are several tricks, though, that work to keep a child immersed in the parents’ native language that do not cause as much stress as continually, in a machine-like trance repeating “Speak Spanish! Speak Russian! Speak X-ish to me!” Even direct commands like that have a tendency to enter in one ear and go out the other.
Primarily, identify to yourself why it is important that your child learns your native language. Do you have a unique and dear family history that you wish to relate in un-translated terms and names? Do you wish you child to have an edge in a professional world? Do you intend to have a secret link between you and your child in that you will be free to use a second language in a situation where you would rather be unheard? Or, perhaps, you wish you someday introduce your child to other generations of the family tree, scattered all over the world and united by one tongue? All of these, and more, are viable and honorable reasons to raise your child bilingual. Once you have identified your reasons, though, it is important to decide on a subtle but effective strategy.
Invest in media in your native child. In this day and age, it seems that almost anything can (and will!) be found for sale online. Surely, after a day of searching, you can find your favorite films and cartoons, songs and other programs in your native language. Buy a collection of them! They can be replayed and are an important permanent part of your strategy. Do not forget to check out your local town, county and university libraries. Often, it is possible to run a “language” search and order for materials to be sent to a library of your choice where you can pick it up and play it for yourself and the kids.
Which brings up an important point. Your kids will not be interested in your native language if left to their own devices. The older they grow, the more they will try to lean towards using the same language at home as they do in the playground, in school and on the streets. You need to show them—by sitting with them, watching with them and listening with them—that these materials you have acquired are worth their time.
Teach your children to read and write in your native tongue before the prevalent one in the community. This is an important point often neglected to be mentioned. If your native language becomes the first one that a child begins to comprehend from a visual form to a mental thought, there will be a higher chance of him or her remembering the language. If you devote yourself to a year of reading playbooks and stories with your child and then to teach him the characters and words, that year will pay off time and again, for a lifetime.
Mainly, if you are bothered by your child mixing the languages, which becomes less than cute and less than adorable to native ears after a child knows the difference, then try not to commit the sin yourself. Consciously try to keep your language pure by not succumbing to using the simpler substitute in the official language. When this becomes difficult—and it invariably will—remind yourself why you embarked on this non-easy project in this first place. If your reasons were strong enough, then they should motivate you through the hardest of days.
Lastly, if you catch yourself being the middle generation between your children and your parents who are often, in non-native surroundings, polar opposites in terms of language preference, try to always err on the side of the parents because of the double benefit it provides. Primarily, it will help reinforce in your children the notion of respect for your roots and the sacrifices that it took to uplift these roots and take them elsewhere. There is nothing worst than ungrateful children and you would not want to be caught dead in a situation when your offspring rudely corrects one of your parents on a heavily accented word or awkwardly translated phrase. Secondly, younger minds are naturally more nimble and flexible than older ones and it is always easier for a child to adjust than for an older adult. Make it a point to only speak your native language during family gatherings when your children are present. If your spouse does not happen to understand it, you need to make your goals clear to him or her at the onset of the immersion program, and you should ask him or her for encouragement during these gatherings by at least responding to a few phrases in stock words of “yes, “no” and “maybe.” You may work out a lot more between the two of you but try to win your spouse over to the importance of this sacrifice for your children’s sake.
The process is not easy and is not guaranteed to pay off in your child acquiring equal mastery in both languages. However, it will give you one more bond that may become intensely valuable to you and your children as the years wear on.