Raising bilingual children is not an easy task. While some parents might choose to raise their kids to be bilingual, for a foreign-born parent or first-generation immigrant, raising bilingual children is not a choice but a necessity.
Most immigrants speak their heritage language with a great level of fluency, they may need to teach themselves the new majority language in order to raise their children to be bilingual. If left unaddressed, there may be a disconnect between the parents and the child since the parents speak one language and the children are more comfortable with another.
Is it worth it to learn the languages spoken in a new country
The first question that may come to your mind is the worthiness of learning the languages spoken in your new country of residence. Your kids will be bilingual, whether you are actively trying to do that or not. Unless you completely stop using your heritage language at home, your kids will learn more than one language, their own language and the one taught in school in the new country. While you may find it difficult to attain fluency in the new language, even Cambridge University Press concludes that bilingual development in immigrants is a complicated process full of variables and dynamic interactions.
So is it worth learning a new language? Well first and foremost, you would need the majority language for your everyday life but in extension to that, it will unlock a whole new level of relationship with your child. First of all, you can tackle the challenge of learning the majority language together, you can help them learn your heritage language based on the words that they learn in school, and lastly, switch between the two languages for a different emotional response when necessary. So as an immigrant, being bilingual or multilingual matters.
Why is it important for you to learn a new language
If you are an immigrant with a family in a completely new country where the language spokes is different than your heritage language, but you are surrounded by a community formed by the people of your culture, learning a new language may not seem relevant.
But when it comes to your child being raised in a new country and knowing that they will speak more than one langauge, you would want to communicate with them in whatever language they speak to you. Let us look at why its important for you as a parent to learn the langauge of the country you're in.
Most bilingual teaching techniques rely on the parents
Your child will learn to speak the majority language at school and by practicing it with other children. However, most pre development of general vocabulary and phrases, relies on the child's parents. Till the time your child goes to school, you will have to teach them certain ways of communicating in both languages. You can only teach what you know.
Since quantity and quality of language input matters, you can't expect your child to be proficient through a class. This is also not the age to pursue any intensive training towards anything, so your knowledge of both languages is key.
Your child will have a certain limit to their vocabulary
Children at all age levels have a limited number of words that they can learn. A toddler who is 4 years of age, can on average have 80-100 words in their vocabulary. Your knowledge of two languages, both the heritage language and the majority language will ensure that they know some words in both languages. This will allow them to have productive vocabularies in both languages.
Children mix words from the languages they know
Bilingual children are known to mix words from the languages that they know. Often using words in place for things they can't describe in one language. For example Polish toddlers living in a big city in Europe may mix words from Polish and the majority language. This means that you need to know two languages to not only help them understand but to understand what they mean as well.
It is your responsibility to create a bilingual family dynamic, so that they are able to retain ties to their roots and also learn both languages successfully.
The challenges of learning a new language directly apply to a situation like this and are rather intensified if you are an immigrant. Here are some of the challenges that new language learners face and how they may affect immigrant parents.
Fear of learning a new language
Not all people face this problem but the ones who do tend to have a fear of failure. If you have spent your adult life only relying on your home language for all communication, the idea of learning a new language can be a daunting one. Most children will learn the majority language in their school curriculum in the new country but you may not have access to the same language education.
The trick is to appreciate the differences between the two different languages and understand how they a similar as well. This would be highly dependent on your heritage language. If you are trying to learn how to speak English, coming from a language based on the roman alphabet, you'll have an easier journey. While families who speak Arabic might have an uphill journey in language development.
You should stay patient and proceed in a step-by-step manner, You don't need to learn everything in one day or a month either. The fear won't go away at once, as you navigate the rest of the challenges mentioned here.
Lack of time
Let's be honest, time is a limited resource. As an immigrant in a new country, you may likely not have much of it. You have to work hard and long hours to support yourself and your family.
A full-time language class might be the way to go to figure this out. This would be a professional language class where you would be taught in a formal setting. This can be great as you have blocked out a time in the week to work on your language skills. If you are unable to find the time to attend a class, you must know that basic to intermediate proficiency is possible through online learning opportunities as well. You can expect to build a certain degree of fluency and a productive vocabulary if you just commit a little bit of time to language development.
If the reason to avoid formal education is the cost, you can seek online coaching from tutors in countries that have a more affordable pricing structure. Most immigrants to first-world countries will find a good teacher at an affordable rate back home.
Lack of opportunity
Lack of opportunity refers to the challenge of finding speakers who speak the language that you are trying to learn and practice its usage. While the opportunities may not be scarce for immigrants, they may have reservations about taking advantage of these opportunities.
The first-generation immigrant environment can be difficult and maybe even hostile in some cases. People speak with ease and fluency while you may be stuck with the basic skillset.
It is important to find speakers who will understand your motivations to learn a new language and will be willing to work with you on this. If you can find someone with the same cultural background, you can have a more hands on help in your learning journey. An example of this would be a Spanish speaker finding another Spanish speaker in America who is fluent in English. Speaking to them can help draw parallels between the two languages and speed up your learning journey.
Hesitations towards changing old ways
Humans love comfort, and if you can get by using your heritage language, given that you live and work in a neighborhood of people similar to your cultural background, it can seem unnecessary to even make the effort of learning something new.
Some languages have different sentence structures while others have gender classifications for inanimate objects. This can all seem very challenging and will likely provoke some hesitations in the most seasoned of learners.
However, when you factor in the ability to teach your toddler and communicate with them in both the languages that they speak, the hesitations will need to be overcome. Bilingual children also sometimes mix languages when they speak, so you must know both languages to understand and correct them on their language learning journey.
Listening to your inner voice
All humans have an inner voice, the voice of doubt, disbelief and maybe even distaste that may hold and individual back from any challenge, let alone the monumentous one of seeking and learning other languages.
It is absolutely crucial tu understand that the inner voice is temporary and what it is really telling you is that you are scared of failure. Once you accept failure as part of learning and know when and how to bounce back from it, you will be invincible and your language learning journey will be that much smoother.
Failure is the key to learning anything new, and once you accept that, the voice will calm down.
From the points mentioned above, we can see why an immigrant parent would need to learn a new language in ther new country. We also see the challenges to learning a new language which can be difficult to navigate, but with the right focus and support are definitely surmountable. Raising a child in an environment like this can be confusing but it is your responsibility to lead the charge toward learning and help your child learn in the process. Bilingualism is important to preserve cultural values and to provide a richer childhood. So be a learning partner to your child and help them navigate their new world with strong ties to where they come from.