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Raising Bilingual Children - How are you teaching your children? Your experiences?

Trixity 8 | 30
16 Sep 2011 #1
I've been living in Poland for 2 years. My wife is Polish, I'm English. We have two children - one is two and the other 9 months. At home we use the One Parent One Language (OPOL) strategy for teaching our children Polish and English. I know there are other methods as well - Minority Language at Home for example.

I'd love to know what methods of bilingual education other people are using and what are your experiences - the pitfalls and successes of the various methods and your thoughts on bringing up your children in a bilingual family.

On my side, my two year old seems to understand Polish and English to the same level (she can follow simple instructions in both languages and she has a vocabulary of about 30-50 words in both languages - I've never accurately measured, so I maybe well out with this estimates) and she is more chatty in Polish than English (I use the words Polish and English in their loosest senses here!). I worry because I read that by 2 a toddler should have a vocabulary of about 200-300 words, but I wonder if the delay is because she's got two languages to get to grips with. I am not so worried though, because she is making progress and that's the main thing I hope. I also have a selfish concern that English will become a second language for my children.

The 9 month old isn't much into talking but put anything near his hand and it will end up in his mouth!
EdWilczynski 3 | 98
16 Sep 2011 #2

Our 2 son's are 3 years and 3 months respectively.

Its late and i've a flight in the morning but i'll gladly share our experiences at a more opportune time.

Will get back to you.
mafketis 37 | 10,851
16 Sep 2011 #3
I worry because I read that by 2 a toddler should have a vocabulary of about 200-300 words, but I wonder if the delay is because she's got two languages to get to grips with

Temporary delays in language development in some areas (which very from child to child) are frequent in children being raised bilingually. They're almost always temporary and eventually followed by speeded up acquisition. For that matter, temporary delays in language development are not that rare in monolingual children either. Language acquisition is a very individual process and almost every child will differ from the standard schedule.

My first thought is there's nothing to worry about as long as she's responsive and making progress.

Also if you're planning on staying in Poland long term you might emphasize English more at home (following the minority language model more). If you're living in Poland she's gonna start preferring Polish once she hits the playground with the other kids so the second language needs all the help it can get. Reverse that if you're living in an English speaking country when she starts interactnig with the world beyond mom and dad.
Phil_C 2 | 7
17 Sep 2011 #4
At preschool ages there is considerable evidence to indicate that the best way to approach bilingual development is to allow the child to communicate freely in which ever language they wish, according to which parent they are communicating with at the time ( always of course assuming that both parents do communicate with the child in their own languages). The natural inclination of children is to develop the necessary language which is important to them to communicate with 'significant people' in their lives. When both mother and father are equally involved in the child's life and social development this invariably leads to a child developing both languages in parallel. Attempts to unduly influence the acquisition of either language can lead to confusion for the child, and an imbalance, which is extremely counter productive in the long term.

When my children were infants we took considerable advice from several experts in the field, and whilst I as a teacher had some reservations about this approach, it has proved to be highly effective, with both children developing a perfect balance of two very contrasting languages: English and Chinese, before entry into the school system. From that point on however, a far more complex system needs to be developed in order to compensate for what is in most cases very poor support for the bilingual child in most schools.
17 Sep 2011 #5
My kids were born in states and live in states im asian indian by birth and wife is polish my kids are grown up though in colleges now speak english in general what we speak in home.Polish because we always had polish housekeepers and Spanish as langiage taught in school,coming to communicating with us they always do in english or just some jokes in polish or I feel you dont need to MAKE a child learn other languages but just expose them to it and let them decide.My grandfathers use to say " you can take a horse to water but can never make him drink water"?
pip 10 | 1,658
17 Sep 2011 #6
I have a soon to be 12 year old and soon to be 7 year old. Both are completely bilingual in Polish and English. We speak two languages at home. I only speak English to them and my husband only speaks Polish.

My eldest was born in Canada- English was her stronger language but since we have been living in Poland they are now quite equal. From the beginning she knew who to speak Polish to and who to speak English to- in her brain there was a clear separation.

My youngest was born in Poland. She used to speak a mixture of Polish and English- now she can separate the two without any problems.

They both also go to a bilingual school so have the day is in English- half in Polish.

Certain delays when learning two languages at the same time are expected, but, ultimately does it really matter if they are assimilating language at a slower rate when the outcome will be the knowledge of two languages and full bilingualism??

Here is the thing. Speaking two languages at home is free. By doing this from day one your children are gaining knowledge of words and grammar and sentence structure that a native speaker will know. As they get older they will perfect two languages which is something that a person learning a language later on is very hard to do.

Also, having a knowledge of two languages makes it easier when learning a third or fourth.
My kids are also taking French now- something I think is necessary for Canadians.
Trevek 25 | 1,699
17 Sep 2011 #7
I was talking with a colleague about this recently. She had seen a presentation where one man, a teacher, warned to be careful of alienating the child by only speaking one language to them, as they would observe you speaking a different one to other people, which might cause emotional distancing in later years.

I have no personal experience of raising kids myself, however, my brother's kids are bilingual German/English and I believe it was just a case that he and his wife focussed mainly on using their own mother-tongue with the kids but didn't worry too much if they code-switched (swapped languages).

I have a Polish friend (single parent) who has basically taught her 5 year old English to a level that it is better than many native-speakers of the same age. She lets her watch childrens BBC (with the result the girl picked up some Spanish as well, from Dora Explorer). Her daughter also speaks with her in Polish and seems very happy. Another colleague is trying the approach where one parent speaks English (both are Polish) and the son was very awkward about speaking English to me and, so I've heard, is quite resistant to it. Interestingly, it is the father who speaks English.

Obviously, these are only a couple of cases, and I imagine other people will have very different experiences.
17 Sep 2011 #8
I worry because I read that by 2 a toddler should have a vocabulary of about 200-300 words

Where did you read that?
17 Sep 2011 #9
They both also go to a bilingual school so have the day is in English- half in Polish.

Pip, I have to mention, I am personally against schools in Poland,who consider themselves private/bilingual, my children attended the main International school in Wrsaw, even though the sachool promotes an International enviroment, the standard of education is very poor in consideration to good Polish school, in my opinion the best schools in Warsaw are equal to some of the top boarding schools in the UK, a good example of this is " Batory ". Schools are about teaching knowledge, aquiring languages is a part of that and should never be considered the motivating factor ONLY for a school. All good schools in Warsaw have a specialized language department, although the focus in on a second language mainly ( English , french or German) , having spent my 60,000 PLN a year per child on International schoolsI in Warsaw, I would say there are much better options to be had for bilingual children. Try looking at this school if you are serious about French No. ┼╗michowska High School & No. 34 Gymnasium.
dhrynio 5 | 95
17 Sep 2011 #10
We have two children, 5 and 3. They are completely bilingual. My husband is Polish and I am American. I only speak English and he and his family only speak Polish, we live in Poland. I have a few Enlgish speaking friends here who play with them in English and we do Skype calls with my family.

They watch some tv and movies, we switch it up so they watch in both languages and switch the language on movies so they watch the same film in one language and next time the other.

They both have a bit of language switching from time to time, but they get a bit better everyday. They will attend a Polish school here and I am ordering some elementary English homeschool books from the states.

They used to play mainly in Polish, but this summer I took them for 5 weeks to the states and they have switched to playing mainly in English. The more time goes by the more they go back to a bit more Polish.
pip 10 | 1,658
17 Sep 2011 #11
Interesting. The school my children go to is very well rated- expensive yes, but so far it has been worth it. --we have had no problems--I don't know about pulling my kids out now- my eldest has been there for 5 years- she would be traumatized having to leave her friends.

Language isn't the primary issue- the only thing that I think is lacking, but I won't find a solution anywhere, is the lack of Canadiana- this is something I have to teach my kids separately.

I don't know if schools have changed since the days when my husband went to school in Poland- but his feeling is that public schools are sub standard- I think there is no blanket statement with this but generally speaking the public system needs an overhaul- maybe when this happens we might make the switch.
OP Trixity 8 | 30
17 Sep 2011 #12
Thanks for the replies so far - there's some really interesting feedback and I get the impression that the way that we're approaching things is fine and that I don't have too much to worry about - just let things happen naturally.

A few comments:

EdWilczynski - I'd love to hear your experiences when you get back.

Mafketis - I think you're right about not worrying - she is making progress and I get the feeling that right now she's starting to go through some kind of learning spurt - she's really progressing (almost by the day). I'm curious about what you said about preferring Polish once she hits the playground - I am really curious to see how that's going to pan out.

Phil_C - Thanks for your feedback. You wrote "allow the child to communicate freely in which ever language they wish" - I'm curious about that. My initial feeling is that children will naturally go with the easiest option for them, which on the one hand might be English (it's easier to say "car" than it is to say "samochod") but on the other hand, with 90% exposure to Polish and 10% English, eventually Polish will become the easier option purely through more exposure. On the premise that the children should be allowed to go with whichever language they wish English would soon become defunt wouldn't it? It's great to hear that your children have picked up both English and Chinese. That's encouraging

Bavarian - you asked where I found the information that said by 2 years old a child should know 200-300 words...I can't find the specific link, but I found a similar one here that quoted 150-200 words:

(It looks like a really interesting site by the way).

dhrynio - Of all the replies, your situation sounds closest to ours, so I'm really happy that your little ones are doing really well. It's really interesting that after their trip to the US they preferred to play mainly in English and now they're switching back to Polish since they're back - makes sense I suppose!

Thanks again for this great feedback!
mafketis 37 | 10,851
17 Sep 2011 #13
Trixity said:

. My initial feeling is that children will naturally go with the easiest option for them, which on the one hand might be English (it's easier to say "car" than it is to say "samochod") but on the other hand, with 90% exposure to Polish and 10% English, eventually Polish will become the easier option purely through more exposure.

From the point of view of a child acquiring a first language there's no credible evidence from linguistics that they find one language harder than another (to speak that is, reading and writing are another story). All languages are really hard and it takes a lot of time and effort for children to achieve native mastery.

Looking at one word out of context doesn't tell you how the whole system works. There's a ton of stuff in English that's just as tough as Polish endings for children learning a language natively.

It's generally accepted that childen will virtually always prefer the language of other children in the enivornment to mom and/or dad's (when they're not the same). I've known speakers of several different languages trying to make their kids bilingual in Poland and it generally works but the kids still all prefer Polish because that's how they interact with the enivornment outside the home.
Phil_C 2 | 7
17 Sep 2011 #14
Not at all. As I said in my post...if both parents are communicating equally in their own language with the child in this important formative stage, then the vocabulary is acquired progressively. Unless there is an imbalance ( which I indicated is likely to occur at school or kindergarten age ) then the child should not find samoch├│d any more difficult to say than car. And in fact the example you cite could easily be reversed in many other instances, in which the Polish version would be easier to say than the English.

And so it is a balance which is achieved over time, rather than an exact measurable day by day parallel progression. In a normal family situation both parents are extremely significant individuals to the child. They should in fact be 'THE' two most significant people in the child's life. On that basis, the child will be driven to communicate equally with both parents, and will develop the language accordingly. It is as the child's focus of interaction with others moves outside the family home and circle that other influences kick in. So if as the child grows older any imbalances do seem to be developing, then of course they need to be addressed. But I have always found it to be a quite an amazing thing to behold, when a child of 3 or 4 years of age, sits confidently between both parents, and changes language as instinctively and easily as turning their head around to speak to one or other parent.
18 Sep 2011 #15
I think there is no blanket statement with this but generally speaking the public system needs an overhaul- maybe when this happens we might make the switch.

In most countries the public educational system needs an overhaul, there are always good and bad schools in any city in the world, with that aside, the best rated schools in Warsaw are Polish Public and Polish semi private without a doubt.
Varsovian 91 | 634
18 Sep 2011 #16
Background: English father, Polish mother.
My 2 kids were born in England but came to Poland aged 5 and 3. We pushed Polish in England - I read the kiddie books (Tuwim etc), we had childcare from Poland and Polish TV. Polish was the children's first language. On coming to Poland, we reversed everything. English books, TV - and my wife spoke mostly English at home. Now they're 17 and 15 and doing very well academically in Polish schools, perfectly bilingual. We didn't follow any particular philosophy, just made it up as we went along. TV, though, was perhaps the biggest factor in boosting English at home in Poland - even now we watch little Polish TV.

I just wish my teenage son was a little harder working and turned his music down!
mafketis 37 | 10,851
18 Sep 2011 #17
Varsovian bragged

even now we watch little Polish TV.

That's understandable. I'm interested in an informal question (I usually ask of bilingual people in Poland):

How do your kids react o a movie in English with a Polish voice over?

Why I ask. Bilingualism isn't really a discrete phenomenon and 50/50 bilinguals are pretty rare. Usually there's more like a 60/40 split with the speaker being more comfortable win one or the other. Anyway, the less they mind the lektor the greater the chance that they're either Polish dominant (or very close to the 50/50 average). If they dislike it (as in not being able to process it properly) they're probably more English dominant.

That is, it's not a question of aesthetics but that hearing the two languages in that configuration (one language 'on top of' the other) causes processing problems. There's a lot of evidence that the brain processes a person's first language(s) differently than any learned later. If they have no processing problems then either they're Polish dominant (and tuning the other language out) or close to the 50/50 mark. If the Polish voice over causes problems in processing the English then they're English dominant.

To really test this, you would also need commercial quality versions of Polish movies with English voice overs but they don't make those (thank heaven for small mercies).
Wroclaw 44 | 5,369
18 Sep 2011 #18
If the Polish voice over causes problems in processing the English then they're English dominant.

i simply don't hear the Polish.
mafketis 37 | 10,851
18 Sep 2011 #19
Wroclaw confessed

i simply don't hear the Polish.

For me (who's pretty fluent in Polish) what happens is this: My brain starts to work in English but then the Polish starts and since it's "on top" of the English (and I know it well enough) my brain can't just tune it out but starts to process it too but that interferes with processing the English so in the end I have a couple of incomplete messages (usually overlapping and missing information) and if I keep it up long enough a headache.

If the movie is in a language I know well (but which I'm not native in) then my second language processing starts and is simply overidden by the Polish. Since my brain processes them in the same way the stronger audio (Polish in which I'm also more fluent) wins out.

I assume that it would be similar with a Polish movie with an English lektor; the English being dominant in the audio would make it easier to tune out the Polish. But I'll probably never know for sure.
pip 10 | 1,658
18 Sep 2011 #20
when my kids watch tv they press the button to take the lektor off- that is horrid. We also don't really go to movies for that same reason, sitting through a dubbed movie is pure torture. Thankfully we have iTunes.

Not to long ago I watched a Polish movie- can't remember the name but it was about a cop from France with Polish roots. Anyway, parts of the movie were in French and the rest in Polish. I used to speak French but now that I live here I simply never use it and I wasn't a true bilingual so I have forgotten a lot of it- I can still read it with understanding. We were also in France not to long ago and if somebody asked me a question in French I would answer them in Polish- it was a most bizarre thing.

Anyway- I had such a headache after watching this film. The switch from Polish to French was very difficult for me.
I find the lektor very frustrating. He doesn't translate word for word and often the idea is misinterpreted.
mafketis 37 | 10,851
18 Sep 2011 #21
when my kids watch tv they press the button to take the lektor off

You have a button for that!?!!??!

What? Where? How?
pip 10 | 1,658
18 Sep 2011 #22
we have Polsat Cyfrowy. It isn't available on every channel- you can't do it on TVP1 etc, but it is possible to do it on the Discovery network, HBO and Nickelodeon and the other foreign channels.
Polsyr 6 | 758
9 Oct 2011 #23
I grew up as a trilingual person right from the start (Aramaic, English and Arabic). I learned other languages as a teenager and as an adult (Italian, French, German, Russian and now learning Polish). I am not fluent in any of these languages, but I know enough to order dinner or buy a bus ticket...

My niece (who just turned 3) can communicate in 3 languages (English, French and Arabic) with not so many mix ups in terms of who to speak what to. However, her mom (my sister) does not work and puts a lot of effort into teaching her daughter. I would not say she is fluent in any language, but she is certainly showing the potential to be.

My wife and I have decided that once we have children (keeping fingers crossed), they will go to Polish schools and we will teach them English and Arabic at home. I would really like our future kids to learn Aramaic also, because if they don't then this language will die with me as far as my family tree is concerned.

It may not be easy, but little ones have a much stronger ability to learn languages than adults do.
patrick 6 | 113
26 Feb 2012 #24
I am a native speaker of English and my wife is Polish. Our 7 and 4-year-old speak Polish and English beautifully. We are in a third country and the kids go to an English-speaking school. My question is not how to motivate my kids to learn Polish, but how to motivate my wife to work on it with them. I don't want them to go back to Poland and have to ask their cousins how to read a menu and write simple things. My wife is always just too 'busy'.
pip 10 | 1,658
26 Feb 2012 #25
maybe your wife should start speaking Polish to them. It is cheap, doesn't take any time and the results are fantastic.
patrick 6 | 113
26 Feb 2012 #26
That's all she speaks to them-she doesn't speak English.
pip 10 | 1,658
26 Feb 2012 #27
ah gotcha! I can't really answer that one- that is a parenting issue between you and your wife. Too busy is not an excuse in my books. I hear this a lot in Poland, frankly, it is a load of b.s. However, perhaps you can initiate the process by reading or attempting to read to your kids in Polish or just even letter and sound recognition and then she may follow your lead.
Gruffi_Gummi - | 106
26 Feb 2012 #28
I have a comfortable situation: my wife is Asian, I am Polish, so we have adopted English as the primary language at home, and the "English first" principle with regards to our daughter.

I am aware of Chomsky's linguistic theories, but I observed that the early attempt of multilingualism has simply failed: the child was becoming a dictionary, capable of translating a very limited vocabulary between the three languages, to the insane joy of the grandparents. Yet the real language development (assembling words into phrases and sentences) just didn't want to happen - when the development of these skills lagged for about 5-6 months, I said "enough" and focused solely on English, before it became really too late. Our daughter is now within the top 1 percentile in the Iowa standardized test. If the extended family feels offended, it's their problem.

P.S. Naturally, opinions with regard to multilingualism will vary. The primary factor is the expectations. If by "proficiency" we understand being capable of communicating at the level "please hand me the TV remote", then, of course, multilingualism is possible. But if we want the child to think, reason and properly articulate, the brain power, IMO, should not be wasted on handling several languages.
pip 10 | 1,658
26 Feb 2012 #29
so you are more concerned with how fast your children learn the language- for what? bragging rights? You sir have just done your children a huge disservice. However, it would appear as though you have adopted well to the American mentality.

My kids speak, read and write two languages completely. My youngest is taking longer but I don't really care when the end result is being completely bilingual- now we are actually working to include more French.

It is only important in America to speak English- all cultures are null and void anyway.
Wroclaw 44 | 5,369
26 Feb 2012 #30
You sir have just done your children a huge disservice.

i'm not so sure.

english is what is needed now, any other language learnt at school will be done with peers, Polish can be slotted in with words and phrases and more defined learning later. Polish is always available in the Gruffi_Gummi household as well as whatever asian language his wife speaks.


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