Raising a bilingual, or in our case, a multilingual child is a serious commitment that one has to fully understand before envisioning a fluent child in the future. Many people think that just because your child knows a few words in different languages, she is bilingual, but reality is different. In order for a person to have a good domain of a language, that person must know how to speak it, read it and write it properly.
Just think about your native tongue, it took years of listening and learning grammar rules before you were able to write your first decent essays, right? Now, add into the mix the particular region where you grew up and the generation that you belong to (both affect our language and vocabulary immensely) and then think about the ways in which the country you were born at has influenced how you speak. All of these components interacting together make you fluent in your native tongue and identify you with a group of individuals.
In other words, language is intimately tied to speech, a set of rules and culture. This is why, in order for a person to be truly bilingual, she must also be bicultural and biliterate -which means that she’s able to read and write following proper grammatical structure in both languages. By this logic, I believe that a person who understands two cultures, has a better grasp on the context in which language is utilized and has a richer vocabulary than one who has only learned language in a classroom and has not been exposed to real-life-situations where that language is used.
My husband and I want our children to have the advantage of speaking three languages as their native tongues: they would learn Arabic from their dad, Spanish from me, and English from listening to mom-and-dad’s interactions and from the environment, as it is the main language spoken in our community.
But talking to them in our respective native tongues is not enough. We must create a sort of island where culture and language interact so they also learn how to read and write in them. I always feel sad when I hear that my husband’s relatives who were born here or in Canada speak Arabic but don’t know how to write it -what an opportunity they lost!
We don’t want our children to lose any opportunities to learn, therefore, ever since our daughter was born, we have invested in books, music CD’s and now children DVD’s in our respective languages. This is to besides teaching Spanish, for instance, also teach a little bit of the culture. I’m so committed to this quest that I even made sure that the Spanish Sesame Street DVD’s I got were not translated but were the versions that are produced in Mexico -Plaza Sésamo- so our daughter can get a taste of the culture before she’s old enough to live it when we visit my home country.
Though our daughter is still a baby we are noticing how our efforts are making a difference as she understands vocabulary in at least Arabic and Spanish at the moment (we have not tried English yet) and her first four words have been a good mix between the three languages spoken at our home.
We are hoping that by keeping up our Skype conversations with our family abroad and using the great amount of books and other fun tools available in our native tongues, we will make this language-learning such a big part of our family life, that our children will not see it as a task.