In this chapter, I discussed some of the major issues related to raising children bilingually in the family. We saw that there are mainly two ways in which children become bilingual: (1) by acquiring two languages simultaneously from birth (i.e., simultaneous bilinguals), or (2) by acquiring a second language later in childhood (i.e., successive bilinguals). Although far more children become bilingual by being exposed to two languages in sequence, most of the available research on child bilingualism deals with simultaneous bilinguals. We saw that simultaneous bilingual children’s development in each language is very similar to monolingual children’s development in those languages, and leads to the same kind of grammatical competence possessed by monolinguals. Despite earlier claims that simultaneous bilingual children start out with a single, fused linguistic system, researchers now agree that the child’s two languages develop separately from the very beginnings of speech production. Thus, there is no indication that children are “confused” from bilingual input.
While we know quite a lot about simultaneous bilingual acquisition, we know far less about the nature of successive bilingual acquisition due to a severe dearth of systematic studies. The available research seems to suggest that successive bilingual acquisition is qualitatively different from monolingual first language acquisition. Research on young ethnic Turkish children growing up in Germany and in the Netherlands shows that the children’s second language productions are clearly influenced by their first language. In addition, the immigrant children lag behind their monolingual Dutch counterparts in terms of the size of Dutch vocabulary and Dutch morphosyntax. However, it is not clear whether this is due to reasons related to brain maturation or to other factors such as the quality of second language input and the subtractive school and social context in which many immigrant children find themselves. More systematic research is needed to address these issues.
I presented case studies of three families that have taken different paths to bilingualism: a Spanish-English bilingual family in Vermont (Fantini, 1985), a French-English bilingual family in Louisiana (Caldas, 2006), and a Cantonese- English bilingual family in Hong Kong (Yip & Matthews, 2007). We saw that maintaining a balance between two languages is a preoccupation for the parents in these studies. The Caldas family and the Matthews family both started out with the OPOL approach but the Caldas family switched to both parents speaking French after they realized that their eldest child was not receiving enough French input. In the Matthews family, the mother also relaxed her policy of speaking only Cantonese when the third child was born because the parents felt that the children were not receiving enough English input. In the Fantini family, only Spanish was spoken by both parents from the beginning to offset the overwhelming presence of English in the child’s surroundings. Both the Fantini and Caldas families took frequent trips overseas to give their children opportunities to be immersed in the socially weaker language, and the Fantini and Matthews families had domestic helpers who provided additional input in the minority language.
The case studies showed that children move in and out of bilingualism throughout their development. We saw that the onset of schooling and adolescence has a huge impact on children’s language preference. We also saw that children living in the same household can react very differently to the same language policy. While Valerie and Stephanie Caldas embraced French as the family language, their older brother John clearly identified more with English during his adolescent years, leading to some violent arguments among the siblings. We saw that personality may also factor into children’s bilingual development. Mario Fantini’s self-confidence and extroverted personality led to his speaking Spanish naturally and openly with his parents even in the presence of his monolingual English-speaking peers. In the Matthews family, Sophie was the most talkative child among the three siblings.
We also saw that firstborn and later-born children typically have different language experiences. While firstborn children spend the first few years of their lives in one-on-one interaction with the caretakers, later-born children have fewer occasions to spend time alone with adults. Depending on the preferred language of the caretaker, the eldest child is thus likely to reach the highest level of proficiency in that language among the siblings. Immigrant parents often rely on their eldest child to serve as a language broker—younger siblings are less often called on to perform this function. The older children also influence the language choice and preference of their younger siblings. We saw that eldest children may criticize the language errors of their younger siblings, discouraging them from speaking that language. Therefore, parents may want to encourage older children to help rather than criticize their younger siblings’ attempts to speak in the native language. Parents may also create separate opportunities to spend time alone with their younger children.
In sum, raising bilingual children is a journey which requires hard work, patience, and persistence. While bilingualism has numerous advantages and is desired by many, achieving bilingualism is not without cost. In the short term, children may find it difficult to cope with the school curriculum in either language (Baker, 2007). Bilingual children also make language errors that monolingual children simply do not make. In the long term, children may pass through stages when they reject one of the languages. What is important to remember in all of this is that children’s bilingualism is dynamic, constantly changing according to the social circumstances and the need to communicate with different people. Raising bilingual children is perhaps more complicated than raising monolingual children, but the hope of seeing them grow up to be skillful multilingual global citizens proud of their linguistic heritage and respectful of other cultures and peoples makes all the hard work worthwhile.