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Is Raising Multilingual Kids a Huge Mistake?

Photograph by Twenty20

When this Iranian-born girl from Los Angeles met and fell in love with a Colombian-born guy from Chicago, the complexities of making our relationship work were already significant. We spent two years bridging the gap between his then life in Washington D.C. and mine in Sacramento with trips everywhere and anywhere that our airline miles and hotel points would take us.

Fast forward a couple years and we were living in San Diego, married and expecting our first child. Our roots in our communities and cultures were strong, and one thing we were determined to do was to pass our cultures, including the languages, onto our son. We had so many questions. How would we go about teaching him Farsi and Spanish while speaking English to each other? And there were various myths and stigmas against multilingual development that we had to wonder: Would this be a mistake?

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First, we looked internally to members of our extended family who had succeeded. Those families told us the same thing: Each parent spoke to the children in their native tongue, even though they spoke English to each other. But those parents were a generation older than us, and their native tongues were exactly that, their primary and dominant language.

But my husband and I, while both fluent in our first languages, would now say that English is our dominant language. While my husband has the added benefit of reading and writing with fluency in Spanish, my Farsi reading and writing skills are stunted at a first-grade level (the age my mother stopped teaching us Farsi at home because our own studies and homework started to dominate our evenings and we needed to really start learning English). So I, for one, wasn't sure if I had the skills and breadth of language to make sure that my son learned Farsi in the same way I had learned it from my parents. Yet even with this challenge, this was something we still wanted to do.

One family in particular had three kids who learned both their parents' native languages in addition to English, all with fluency in reading and writing as well. This family told us that while each parent spoke to their children in their native tongue, they demanded that their children speak back to that parent in that same language. We later learned that this was called the "one person, one language" system. This family supplemented that system with once a week language classes that emphasized the reading and writing portions.

We wanted our children to be able to understand their grandparents and extended family ... We wanted our son to know them fully.

When I asked the kids if it was worth all the work their parents put them through, they laughed and rolled their eyes, but said yes, definitely. They hated it all then when Saturday afternoons were spent in hour-long language class that gave them even more homework than they already had. But now, they really knew each of their grandparents from both sides of the family because they could fully understand them and connect in a way that speaking the same language allows.

We dreamed of the same results for our son and future children. We wanted our children to be able to understand their grandparents and extended family in their primary and more dominant languages. While both our parents speak English well enough, it is only in their native tongue that they can fully express their thoughts, share their jokes and convey themselves with accuracy. Both our mothers have saucy senses of humor and are quick to tell stories and jokes that they can only share in their native language. We wanted our son to know them fully and be able to take in this more expansive world that opens up when one understands someone in their native tongue.

So we started the process the way the books recommended: in utero! My husband would talk in Spanish to our baby in the womb and I would have all my conversations with him in Farsi. We shared our plan with our families, and as expected, they were relieved and thrilled. They all wanted to be able to freely speak to our son in their language without having to be confined to their more limited English.

We also filled a section of our son's bookshelf with books in Spanish and Farsi. Our parents love to come over and grab those books and read to our son. I have even started studies of my own to improve my Farsi and see if I can increase my written skills. And as our son grows, we plan to put him into a bilingual Spanish-English school (luckily this is available to us in Southern California) and supplement his Farsi with some classes and play groups.

But all this is just the planning and the beginning. So far, we have stuck with it. (Turns out, hearing each other saying similar things to him every day is helping us both learn the other language!)

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And we'll continue to research and look out for some of the potential pitfalls of this process as well. While many have believed that teaching a child more than one language at a time delays their language development, there is no scientific evidence that shows multilinguals speak later. Like so much about children, the range for development has such a wide spectrum. Children all develop at their own pace.

Others have also worried that mutilinguals will mix languages, but while this may happen initially, it gets sorted out in time. I myself initially mixed Farsi with my English as an early immigrant, but quickly learned which words my new American friends didn't respond to. It wasn't long before the separation between the languages spoken in my world were clear and distinct to me.

Some have expressed that this will be too much effort for us as parents, but as parents, we each decide what we would like to pour time into for our children. For my husband and me, being able to one day hear our son laugh at our mothers' jokes and listen and understand his grandparents' stories will be the reward we seek for the journey we've embarked on.

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