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The Downside Of Raising Bilingual Kids

We are different people in different languages. So if your kids are bilingual, you might be missing out.
 (Paul Bence/Unsplash)MoreCloseclosemore
We are different people in different languages. So if your kids are bilingual, you might be missing out. (Paul Bence/Unsplash)

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When my husband and I announced to family and friends that we were going to raise our baby boy bilingually and speak only German with him at home, we received an array of enthusiastic responses.

Indeed, what’s not to love about bilingualism?

From increased executive brain function and superior social skills to the delayed onset of Alzheimer’s, bilinguals enjoy all sorts of wonderful benefits, as widely publicized studies have shown. However, this overwhelmingly cheerful public discourse tunes out a little-discussed downside to bilingualism: the trade-off for parents.

I did not understand that there was such a trade-off until one day, our toddler came home from daycare and surprised me with an impromptu rendition of “Three Little Monkeys.” First, I laughed with delight. But the more I thought about it, the more I asked myself whether my husband and I were missing out on a version of our child that we usually do not get to see at home — his English-speaking self.

Language affects every aspect of our personalities and being. As foreign-language learners experience, we are different people in different languages. Studies in social linguistics and psychology show that bilinguals, when asked to complete sentences such as “real friends should…,” finished them vastly differently depending on the language they used.

Personally, I can relate to that.

After more than a decade in the U.S., I still feel a slight but noticeable disconnect between my English and German selves (just so you know, I’m a lot funnier in German, but you’ll have to take my word for it), and I began to wonder to what extent our son was becoming someone else in English, too.

There is more to this idea than parental paranoia. New research suggests that the bilingual brain might indeed accommodate two minds. Panos Athanasopoulos, a Professor of Linguistics at Lancaster University, showed brief video clips to German-English bilinguals and found that they perceived the clips differently, depending on which language they used. Athanasopoulos and his team also discovered that risk assessment in bilinguals changed with the language of operation. In their second language, bilinguals tended to make more rational decisions in these studies, because the second language typically lacks affective biases that influence how one judges risks and benefits.

Parents of bilingual children face a dilemma, then. If fluency in the secondary or minority language is the long-term goal for the bilingual child, parents have to stick to the script and provide as much exposure to this language as they can — according to Annika Bourgogne, the author of "Be Bilingual: Practical Ideas for Multilingual Families," at least 30 percent of the daily input during a child’s waking hours has to happen in the minority language to keep fluency within reach. But if parents would like to get to know the aspects of their kids’ personalities that may be tied to the community language, they have to leave the script.

Of course, parents can’t ever expect to know their children entirely. It is natural and necessary for children to develop their own identities. To some extent, moreover, children inevitably coin their own languages, and they reveal different aspects of their personalities to the various social groups, such as parents, teachers, and peers, with which they interact. Yet the sense of losing access to one’s child can take on a unique urgency when bilingualism is involved.

Don’t get me wrong: I am all for bilingualism. As a language teacher and literary scholar, I value the existentially deepening aspects profoundly, not to mention the practical perks. I have no regrets about our decision. But parents who are wondering whether they should make this choice should be aware of the potential trade-offs. Their choice may therefore not be as obvious as the unequivocally positive, public discourse suggests.

So, what can parents do when faced with the unsettling feeling of not knowing an important version of their bilingual child? For starters, they can turn to others in the child’s social orbit for updates. For example, I have been asking our son’s daycare teachers to keep me posted about new English words that he has acquired and phrases he likes to use. Also, parents can refocus their perspective: While they may not be getting the full picture in the majority language, they are in a position to enjoy aspects of their children’s personalities that may be unique to the minority language. Last but not least, they can keep the long-term perspective in view. True, I may be missing out on some of our son’s linguistic milestones in English. But I am missing out now so that when we make our next trip to Germany, our son won’t have to.

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Petra McGillen Twitter Cognoscenti contributor
Petra McGillen is an assistant professor of German studies at Dartmouth College. She teaches courses on 19th-century literature and media history.

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