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Bringing up children bilingually

It was out of the chaos of Christmas 2003 that the Bilingual/Bicultural Family Network was born. Our eldest son, Patrick, was starting to talk more and my mother, who doesn't understand German, was frustrated that she couldn't follow our conversations with him.

Patrick was asking questions about Santa and the Weihnachtsmann, for which we didn't always have consistent answers. For the first time, my husband and I found it necessary to have serious conversations about when the presents were to be opened and whether we'd be hanging stockings from the fireplace for Santa to fill in the night.

Until this point, things had been going relatively smoothly and language decisions had come naturally. I didn't know more than a few words of German when I -- an American from Northern California -- first met my German husband in Ireland. I had picked up the language, however, over the course of two years while we lived in northern Germany. We felt that we couldn't pass up the opportunity to provide our sons with a German-speaking household and the chance for them to grow up bilingually.

We hoped that we would be able to create an atmosphere where our children would feel natural speaking German with us, or at the very least would pick up enough German by hearing us speak it at home. We were fairly certain that the greatest payoff would come each time we visited Germany, where our sons could speak German with their "Oma," cousins and other family members. But now we were coming across questions for which we didn't have any answers.

Were there right and wrong ways to bring up children bilingually? What might the consequences be for me to speak German with my children even though it wasn't my native language?

And my mother, out of fear of the unknown, had her own range of valid questions: Since she spoke a different language, would her grandsons know that she was part of the family? She had a hard time understanding how I could feel comfortable talking with my children at all times in a foreign language. I had no answers for her, only a reassurance that somehow everything would work out fine.

In February 2004, I realized that starting a support group was the answer. I was hopeful that having the chance to talk with other parents going through similar situations would help my husband and me make informed decisions, and maybe in the process we'd make some new friends.

I advertised in the local parenting magazines, contacted the local preschool co-ops and emailed everyone I knew about the group. We had our first meeting at the end of March 2004, which was attended by six women from four different countries. We now have more than 40 interested families on our email list.

We meet every month at different members' homes for multicultural playgroups to get to know one another, share experiences and discuss various cultural topics. A member of the group volunteers her time to create a Web site for us, and thanks to the generosity of some great publishers, we even have an extensive library of books about or related to bilingualism and biculturalism.

The most positive outcropping from the Bilingual/Bicultural Family Network has been the development and support of language playgroups. Locally, we have helped to establish German, French and (soon) Spanish playgroups, and are dedicated to helping families across the U.S. and internationally establish playgroups in their communities.

Language playgroups are essential. They offer families a direct link to language and cultural support, which is very difficult to come by when extended family is so far away. They provide an opportunity for families to establish friendships with one another. They also give playgroup children a chance to bond with others kids their age so they won't feel so different from their peers as they grow up.

For more information about the Bilingual/Bicultural Family Network, send an email to: info@biculturalfamily.org or visit the Web site: www.biculturalfamily.org

Corey Heller lives in Seattle with her German husband, two sons and baby number three on the way. She works as a senior software QA engineer for AOL.

Resources

  • The Bilingual Family Newsletter, published by Multilingual Matters:
    www.multilingual-matters.com
  • A Parents' and Teachers' Guide to Bilingualism, by Colin Baker, Multilingual Matters.
  • Language Strategies for Bilingual Families: The One-Parent-One-Language Approach by Suzanne Barron-Hauwaert, Multilingual Matters.
  • The Bilingual Family: A Handbook for Parents by Edith Harding-Esch and Philip Riley, Cambridge University Press.
  • The Bilingual Families Web Page and Discussion List: www.nethelp.no/cindy/biling-fam.html

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