Language Exposure: Live Life…But in Polish

I am a working mom, so time, especially with my son, is precious. Almost every minute spent away from my family and work is spent doing or thinking about things that are necessary for our household (e.g., groceries, errands, laundry, meal planning. Thank goodness for online shopping!) so that I can focus solely on quality time with my son when we get home. Yet even those hours don’t seem like enough, a sentiment I am sure I share with other working moms.

So when I read on various outlets dedicated to bilingualism that a child must be exposed to the minority language for 30 percent of their waking time, I had a mini panic attack. After all, 30 percent seemed like a lot when you constantly feel like you do not spend enough time with your child in general, let alone spend that time talking (but according to my husband, I talk A LOT ;)).

After quickly crunching numbers, I concluded that during the workweek, my son’s exposure to Polish (time spent with me and listening to Polish audio books) is slightly under 30 percent, yet during the course of the entire week, that number increases significantly, putting my son’s Polish/English exposure at almost 50/50.

This qualitative approach to bilingualism makes sense. The more time, effort, and value you put into something the more benefits you reap. This applies to sports, studies, even monetary savings, and language acquisition is no different. Hence in order for children to benefit, “they must use both languages regularly,” which means that parents “should be serious and committed to raising children bilingually,” argues Fred Genesse, professor of psychology at McGill University.

Seriously committed I am, which is what makes me feel that I am not doing enough and creates additional pressure given that I am my son’s sole source of Polish on a daily basis. One bilingual educator suggested creating a pie chart of your child’s minority language exposure (hours per week) and routinely reassessing the results. Our son is only 16 months old, so this approach (as useful as it will probably be in the future) seems a bit much. Perhaps as our son gets older and learns to not only show preference but also argue for his preference that I will need to start reassessing his minority language exposure/activities.

As important as quantity of exposure is, I find this mathematical approach to bilingualism impersonal. Furthermore, solely focusing on the amount of exposure can be limiting and lead to bilingual efforts becoming stagnant. I can imagine that a child who has a lot of exposure to a minority language yet feels like he is being drilled will have a good understanding of the minority language yet will not be as open to communicating in the language.

Hence quality exposure is just as important, if not complimentary to, quantity of exposure.

My husband and I expose our son to the same experiences to which most American parents expose their children: we read books, play at the park, dance to children’s music, point out objects when we are out and about. I just do it all in Polish to increase my son’s exposure to the language. We try to keep his exposure to things as active/varied as possible so that he is learning and having fun. But when life happens and dinner needs to me ready ASAP, I will allow our son to watch Polish movies or children’s songs on YouTube. And that’s okay—passive exposure makes up a small percentage of his waking hours and he is getting some exposure to the Polish language.

For now, I try to keep a simple approach when it comes to our bilingualism journey: live life…but in Polish.

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