However, it is an important and maybe even life-changing decision. Being bilingual opens up new worlds, more possibilities and a different way of thinking. It comes with social, cognitive and health benefits, but it isn’t always an easy road to take. You may have to deal with other people’s preconceptions and prejudices along the way. You may feel like the odd one out or even face your own child’s rejection of your efforts.
These are all obstacles that can be overcome if we are determined enough, and the simplest way is just to ignore them. This may sound strange – ignoring problems doesn’t make them go away. Well, in this case it does! At least, it’s a tactic that works with those negative voices from either inside or outside your own head. Below I’ve listed five of the main obstacles that I’ve faced so far in the first four years of our bilingual journey. You may have others that I haven’t even thought of, as everyone’s situation is different in some way.
I should add that in our particular situation the obstacles are minimal. We live in Mexico where pretty much everyone speaks Spanish (although there are many official languages) and I’m bringing up my daughter in English since that’s my native language. It’s a no-brainer. Knowledge of English has become nothing short of essential for countless careers and even just to be able to graduate from many universities you have to have reached a certain level of English. So the usefulness of being bilingual is indisputable and I have been generally supported in and congratulated on raising my daughter to be bilingual. Not everyone may agree with my methods and some people might have different opinions on how, when, where, how often, etc. but I’m confident that at least in this aspect of parenting I’m getting it right!
The main obstacles I’ve encountered in our bilingual journey so far:
1. Feelings of self-doubt
Don’t doubt – you are doing the right thing! There are huge benefits to being bilingual, aside from the obvious one of knowing another language. According to various studies, in bilingual people the part of the brain in charge of executive control is more developed, which means improved concentration and multitasking skills, greater ability to focus and solve problems and more mental flexibility.
This greater development of different parts of the brain helps to delay the onset of dementia in old age. It can also result in better chances of recovery for stroke patients.
You are giving your child an advantage in life, you can be sure of that.
There’s not much you can do about this except stop caring what others might or might not be thinking about you. (Remember this quote: “What other people think of me is none of my business.”)
You may find yourself sometimes feeling ridiculous or a bit odd when you’re out in public or with other people as you’re the only one speaking a different language to everybody else. You may imagine sometimes that people are giving you strange looks, judging you or think you are weird.
a) Don’t crumble under imaginary pressure, ignore and overcome your self-consciousness. Be proud of being different.
b) You have no idea what people are really thinking; they may actually be admiring you.
3. People asking you why you’re not speaking their language/ the language you’re “supposed” to be speaking
Has anyone else ever had these type of comments or is it just me? Depending on how they’re asking and who they are, either explain patiently why you’re speaking a different language to your child, or just ignore them.
4. Opinions such as “your child will get get confused” or “bilingual children start speaking later than other children”
They won’t get confused. You might get confused, other people might get confused, but the children know what they are saying.
Speech delay in bilingual children is a common assumption and to be honest, I don’t know if there is any truth in it or not. All kids develop at their own pace, so even if they do take longer to start speaking, they’ll soon catch up – and in two languages!
5. Your own child answering you in the other language, not the one you’re speaking to them, or being reluctant to speak your language
Obviously don’t ignore them, but don’t let it discourage you. Just continue talking to them in your language as you usually do, without pressuring them too much to speak a particular language. It’ll come naturally.
Lately my now four-year-old, who used to talk to me mostly in English, has been addressing me more and more in Spanish. I think this is probably a natural consequence of me being at work most of the day and of her starting preschool and being surrounded by her Spanish-speaking classmates. Often she drops in an English word or phrase into a Spanish sentence – something she didn’t used to do so much, now more frequently. Anyway, I keep on speaking in English to her and it's so completely normal to both of us, no matter which language she is using. I would feel odd speaking to her in Spanish despite the fact that it is the lingua franca in our household.
It’s become a habit that has stuck. It’s like a switch that goes on automatically when I’m speaking to Emma and I don’t care if the other people around us are talking Spanish, whether I have to translate what we’re talking about (or sometimes Emma will translate), whether they understand or not, whether it bothers them or not. That may sound inconsiderate, but it’s just the way it is. It’s my bilingual survival technique, while Emma is still little and her acquisition of English still comes mostly from me.
I'm sure as she gets older we will come across different challenges and obstacles in our bilingual journey but I feel confident that I'm setting a solid foundation and giving my daughter a set of skills that will help her in the future.
What are your thoughts on this? If you are also bringing up bilingual children, have you come across any of these obstacles, or different ones? I'd love to hear from you!
I started writing somewhat irregular updates on Emma's language progress when she was a toddler which, for me at least, are fascinating to look back on. You can read about what Emma was saying at almost two in Bilingual Toddler Update at nearly 23 months .
If you're curious about how I ended up living in Mexico, you can read my story in the launch post of my Stories from Life Abroad guest series.
If you want to read more about the benefits of being bilingual, this article from BBC Future is interesting reading and was also the source of some of the information I included here.