Bilingual Fears and Mama Guilt

When I was on maternity leave, my son was with me all day, every day.  I was constantly talking, singing, and reading to him in Polish.  My husband and I noticed that our son seemed to respond more to Polish than English.  For example, at his first birthday party, our son stared blankly at his guests who were singing “Happy Birthday.”  Yet his face lit up and he started clapping as soon as the guests started singing the Polish birthday song (“Sto Lat”).

I don’t know if my son was more responsive to Polish because he was more familiar with Polish sounds or because the language sounded like the one mama speaks.  Either way, during that time, I felt like I had this whole bilingualism thing figured out—I was exposing my son to the Polish language and I was seeing him react to it. Simple, right?

Not quite.

Going back to work full time was an emotional struggle.  I tend to suffer from major mommy guilt over everything, so returning to work wasn’t any different.  Aside from feeling guilty for being away from my son for hours during the day, five times a week, I worried that this separation will negatively affect our bilingual efforts.  I felt, and still occasionally feel, that I was/am failing him and sabotaging his bilingualism by taking away his sole connection to the language (me).  I worry that our limited time together during the work week is not enough to sustain his Polish acquisition.

By no means am I going to go back on my promise to raise my son bilingual.  I just hope that I won’t become too discouraged when I see the effects of his English surroundings potentially overshadowing his Polish skills.  I know that sounds crazy and irrational given that we live in the United States and my son’s father is monolingual.  However, every time my son turns to give me a kiss when I ask him to give me buzi or races to the bathroom when I tell him it is time for his kąpiel, I know that undertaking this bilingual journey will be worth it, no matter how challenging it may be in the coming years.

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Going Bilingual!

Deciding to raise our son bilingual was one of the easier decisions my husband and I made as to the upbringing of our child. I always knew that I wanted my child(ren) to speak my native language so they will be closer to their heritage and be able to communicate with extended family. My husband was easily on board and we decided to follow the one person, one language (OPOL)* approach, given that my husband is monolingual. My husband speaks to our son in English (and throws in the few Polish words/phrases that he knows), and I speak to our son strictly in Polish.

Yet bilingualism has more benefits than just being able to talk to aunts and uncles.

Increases cognitive skills

When children who are exposed to a second language “get to school age, they tend to have superior reading and writing skills in both languages, as well as better analytical and academic skills,” explained Dr. Naomi Steiner M.D., developmental and behavioral pediatrician at Tufts Medical Center. Furthermore, bilingualism can promote cognitive flexibility that can be applied to other areas in life that require problem solving.

Contrary to popular belief that learning a second language can hinder a child’s development, research shows that bilingual children acquire language milestones at the same rate as monolingual children. Furthermore, researchers argue that when a child mixes vocabulary in a particular language, they are not confused but instead are using their language resources to fill gaps in their vocabulary in order to express themselves. Hence bilingual children have more language skills at their disposal.

Delays Alzheimer’s disease

Cognitive neuroscientist Ellen Bialystok found that bilingualism seemed to delay the onset of Alzheimer’s disease symptoms, as reported in The New York Times.   In addition, Bialystock’s research indicated that normally aging bilinguals had better cognitive functioning than normally aging monolinguals.

Promotes self-identity

Language is an integral part of cultural identity, which in turn is a form of personal identity. Knowing their family language allows children to fully function and participate in the family circle without the risk of feeling alienated, argues Fred Genesse, professor of psychology at McGill University.

Even if you or your immediate family doesn’t speak the language of your ancestors, learning it together with your child will help you discover more about your roots.

Promotes social sensitivity

Learning a second language not only exposes children to said language but also to another culture. This exposure makes children more sensitive to people from other cultures and countries.

Prepares children for the increasingly global world

Career prospects, particularly in the international business, education, and government fields, are greater for people who speak more than one language.

I wholeheartedly believe that speaking a foreign language is a gift. If you or your family speaks your cultural native language, I encourage you to speak to your child in that language. You have a true gift that many monolingual families pay thousands of dollars to acquire. And if you are a monolingual family, don’t despair! Language acquisition takes time. Start out slowly and gather some children’s books for your child to enjoy.

What are your reasons for going bilingual?

* The OPOL approach is just one of many language systems a family can follow. The Multilingual Children’s Association provides a very informative overview. As mentioned above, we use the OPOL system because that system is most applicable to our family circumstances.