My parents had my bilingualism planned out. My father is French and my mother is American. While my mother became a highly proficient speaker of French after meeting my father, they decided that she would speak to me in English, and my father would speak to me in French. This worked well for me in that I felt that to communicate with my father, I had to use French. This was great motivation to use the language (although I’m sure he would have responded to me in speaking English, as well). While I want to emphasize that there are a variety of styles one can use to approach bilingualism, this was successful with my sister and I, and we still speak only French with our father. Part of this may be due to the fact that my parents gave careful thought to keeping us connected to our French heritage through language.
Think about reading and writing, too. I was often complimented on my “native proficiency” French growing up, but one area I struggled with was reading and writing. My father exposed me to literacy through French books, but I didn’t receive any formal training in reading or writing until I was older. While I learned rapidly, I think I would have advanced even faster had I started as a child. It’s likely my parents didn’t want to pair French with “homework,” but here is where one can get creative. If you are working on literacy in another language, find ways to make it fun, such as finding stories about favorite characters. Find an exciting craft project and make sure the instructions are in your target language. By embedding interesting activities into reading and writing tasks, you can find natural motivation to learn. In addition, any of the language activities we suggest on this blog can be modified for a language other than English.
Connect to the culture in any way you can. Language is one of the strongest aspects of cultural heritage because it can be practiced in any place, any time.This relationship becomes even more rich by connecting it to other experiences. Having half my family in France and parents on school year schedules allowed me to spend weeks in France every year. If other family members or friends speak the second language, socialize with them in that language. If you have the means to travel, visiting a home country or place that shares the second language is a great way to immerse your child. Even from home you can watch cartoons and videos or visit other places through the internet. Make a themed meal or snack each week or embed dining traditions into your daily routine (we had a goûter each day, which functioned as "after school snack").
Appreciate that every path to bilingualism looks different. Each family will approach bilingualism differently, and there will likely be bumpy points. My grandfather used to correct my grammar each time I made a mistake and as a result, I was terrified of speaking to him for a time. As an adult, I realize that he was only trying to help me. I also realize that my entire family supported my learning French, and I am thankful for it. By learning French while growing up in America, I have a connection to the paternal side of my family that I would not have experienced without the language. While I’m not always on top of the latest cultural references and slang, I can hold my own with any French speaker. It’s also helped me to appreciate a culture outside of the one I grew up in.
What have been your experiences with bilingualism? If you've raised bilingual children yourself, what have you learned? What have you struggled with? We'd love to hear from you.