Bilingual Families Connect Interview
Questions by Janine to Tracey Tokuhama-Espinosa ©2010
- What do you feel are the top three reasons families should consider raising bi or multilingual families?
When we made the decision to raise our children multilingually it was based primarily on giving them opportunities. Languages open doors to cultures, jobs, and intellectual insights.
Perhaps the second reason I would encourage families to raise their children with many languages is due to the evidence we now have that shows the benefits to extended working memory in bi and multilinguals—a plus for all learning.
Finally, I think families should consider raising multilingual children because of the benefits that can be reaped in terms of global understanding. People with more languages are more open to differences in general, and in today’s world being able to negotiate across borders (commercial, diplomatic, etc.) not only benefits the individual, but his or her country(ies) of origin.
- What are some of your recommendations to families who do not speak a second language but would like to begin teaching their child a second language?
I think Barack Obama said it best when he was debating Richards in the Primary election: In the U.S., first we have to stop losing languages (due to the misconception that in order to integrate into the States you have to learn English and forget all else), and then those of us who just have one language should take classes, travel, involve ourselves with people from other language backgrounds.
I think families should also realize that by stimulating an authentic interest in language (through travel experiences, virtual fieldtrips, querying family members who were originally from another country, films in other languages), we can create a natural curiosity in our children. The U.S. has so many rich resources for this (human and otherwise). Another wonderful option is through attending dual immersion schools in which children in the U.S. are taught English along side another language (Spanish, Mandarin, etc.) throughout their school career.
- What are some of your recommendations to parents who already speak a second language about introducing that language to their child?
We know from philosophical, linguistic, anthropological and neurological studies that language is a reflection of culture. We also know that we all carry our cultural baggage around with us, some of which is expressed through language. I fell in love with languages because my father’s side of the family is Japanese and many still spoke the language when I was a kid. I wanted to know more about myself, and therefore, learned more about languages. My mother was studying linguistics at Berkeley when I was in primary school and she did her thesis on Black English (there was no Ebonics back then), and she spent a great deal of time identifying “cultural markers” or points of language use that showed just where (which neighborhood) someone came from based on their language use. Both of these experiences fused with being a child who wanted to know more about my own origins and myself. Every parent can infuse a love of languages in their children just by looking at their own history.
We also know that people learn languages when they have a high motivation for use, and we know that one of the strongest motivating forces in love. Parents can stimulate an interest in languages by simply using it in natural contexts with children. Some specific recommendations include adapting a strategy of story time use of the target language, or visits to relatives who speak the language. Videos in foreign languages are also useful, but nothing replaces a human being in terms of stimulating language use.
- At what age should parents begin to try to teach their child another language? Can they start later? Is it harder?
The general rule of thumb is the earlier the better (from pre-natal moments, if possible). We know that children who are brought up bilingual from birth do not have accents, and actually treat both their languages as “first” languages (acquisition versus learning), which has lots of benefits.
Adding a language later in life is more difficult than from birth for two main reasons. First, if parents decide to start later, the child and parent already have an established language relationship (e.g., Mom speaks X, Dad speaks Y, Kid speaks XY), and this is often complicated to change with children under five (who have yet to solidify their abilities in their first language). A change of strategy between 1-5 years of age often confuses children and can delay their language acquisition. Second, if parents decide to start later, they are often obliged to find other contexts for language outside of the home (classes in ballet in French, soccer practice in Spanish, etc.), and their language exposure is limited in context, is more costly, and generally less authentic (and of less quality and quantity).
- Do think there is more of a trend toward families teaching their children a second language today?
This is an interesting question because it shows a distinct American view. Around the world second, third and even forth languages are the norm in education; unfortunately in the U.S. we have been slower to get on the band wagon. I am very happy to say that yes, in the U.S. there is definitely a trend towards learning foreign languages that didn’t exist a generation ago, but it is still less than other countries around the world. All other industrialized countries (Japan, Germany, France, Holland, Canada, etc.), and all emerging economies (India, China, Thailand, Singapore, etc.) learn more than one language in formal education. The U.S. needs to realize that its competitiveness depends on its languages—one of the most desired and least available traits of young U.S. college graduates is a foreign language, according to the Economist.
I see the trend growing, however. My sister, who lives in San Diego, has two young daughters who are now attending a dual-immersion Spanish-English school. By pure demographics (more people speak Spanish in their homes in Arizona, California, New Mexico, and Texas than English), U.S. public schools are finally realizing they have to cater to a “new” American profile, one that demands bilingualism at a minimum.
- Briefly, please tell me about yourself. A sentence or two about your book, "Raising Multilingual Children, would be great. (Also, if possible, send a high resolution photograph of the cover of Raising Multilingual Children, just in case we can use it).
I am half-Japanese, half American Indian-Irish, married to an Ecuadorian diplomat with three children (17, 14, 13), who were raised in English, Spanish, German and French. I am a university professor (Education and Neuropsychology) at the Universidad San Francisco de Quito in Ecuador. I was born and raised in Berkeley, California (1963), and went to school in Boston (Boston U and Harvard). I have three books on foreign language [(Raising Multilingual Children (2000); The Multilingual Mind (2003); Living Languages (2008)] and two others related to Mind, Brain, and Education science (the intersection of neuroscience, psychology and education), in which I received my Ph.D [The New Science of Teaching and Learning: Using the Best of Mind, Brain, and Education Science in the Classroom (2010a, Columbia University Teachers College Press); Mind, Brain, and Education Science: A Comprehensive Guide to the New Brain-Based Teaching (2010bW.W. Norton)]