Daddy Doesn’t Speak Polish: Tips for Monolingual Parents

Tips for monolingual parents

It is often assumed that raising your child to be bilingual is the responsibility of the parent whose native language is being taught. Although majority of the work does fall on the bilingual parent, the role of the monolingual parent cannot be overlooked. Just like with any undertaking, raising your child to be bilingual is a team effort.

My husband’s Polish is limited to what he has learned since our son was born. However, he takes steps to be an active part of my son’s Polish acquisition, all while being patient and understanding, and having a positive attitude.

Here are four ways monolingual parents can be proactive in their child’s language acquisition:

  1. Try to learn the language. My husband has made an effort to learn more Polish words. Whether it is through daily “Polish Word of the Day” emails or attempting to read Polish language flashcards with my son, his actions show me and my son that he cares and is serious about us being a bilingual family. Most importantly, he uses the few Polish words that he knows when speaking to our son. Whether he is asking for a buzi (kiss) each morning before leaving to work, or saying prosze (here you go) when handing our son his food, he is helping reinforce already-learned vocabulary and make it a natural part of our family life. Husband tip: Learn to ask, “what is this?” It gets your child thinking and talking and is a great cover up for when you don’t know the word for a specific object. And if that doesn’t play out well, know how to ask “where is mama?”
  2. Use language materials with your child. My husband will watch Polish children’s programming and play children’s Polish language learning apps with our son. He will also play Polish music in the background as my son plays. He does this both when I am and am not present. This increase my son’s exposure to Polish (especially when I am not around), and makes the presence of the Polish language once again a normal part of our family life.
  3. Encourage bilingualism. Encourage your child to use the language, even if they revert to the majority language. As they get older, some children may refuse to speak the minority language. Encouragement from the monolingual parent can sometimes be a greater motivator for the child than from the bilingual parent (who can be seen as expecting the child to be bilingual). Become their student and let them teach you new words/phrases; young children especially like playing the role of a teacher. Make bilingualism a source of pride. Tell them how cool and special they are for knowing how to speak not one but two (or three, etc.) languages. Praise their efforts and accomplishments. My son beams when he can repeat a newly-learned word. Let your child hear you tell other adults how proud you are to raise him bilingual. Also, make your children aware of the benefits of being bilingual.
  4. Support your bilingual spouse. Raising your kids to be bilingual is a feat, especially when your child has very limited exposure to the language outside of your bilingual spouse. Your bilingual spouse may feel frustrated, inadequate, or like a failure at times. Strongly encourage your spouse to not give up.

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.

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.

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.