7 Things Only Bilingual Parents Understand
Have you ever wondered how bilingual parents deal with the challenges of bilingualism?
Are you curious about the topic and feel that’s something you may want to try at home?
My home is a multilingual one where each parent comes from a different country, and our children have been raised in a bicultural environment. Due to its universalism, we also added English and Portuguese, as we recently moved to Portugal.
So I’ve learned a thing or two about bilingual parenting, and I’m here to share my experience with you.
Keep reading to learn what a bilingual parent is, the “One Person One Language” method, and seven everyday things only bilingual parents understand.
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What’s a Bilingual Parent?
I think it’s important to say what I mean by a bilingual parent.
One person may understand “bilingual parenting” as simply raising bilingual children, while a different person may understand it as parents who speak two languages.
However, you could also think it refers to a bilingual household where one parent speaks one language, and the other parent speaks a different one.
Of course, all these definitions are related and, in many cases, happen all at once.
That’s the case in our home, where my wife speaks Polish, I speak Spanish, and our daughters go to school in English.
At the end of the day, bilingual parenting means all of these definitions and more. As long as someone at home speaks more than one language, you can call that “bilingual parenting.”
However, let’s learn more about one of the most successful bilingual parenting methods: One Person One Language (OPOL).
One Person One Language
This is the method we follow at home, and it has worked perfectly well for us.
OPOL is an approach followed by bilingual parents “in which one caretaker speaks to a child in one language, and a second person speaks to a child in another language.”
I’ve always spoken to my daughters in Spanish, while my wife speaks to them in Polish. But, of course, it helps that their mother also speaks Spanish, so we can all understand each other when needed.
The downside is that when the women in my life want to talk about me in secret, they can do it in front of me while I have no idea what they’re saying!
Researchers have found that One Parent One Language has a success rate of 74.24% and has become one of the most popular approaches for bilingual parenting.
7 Things Only Bilingual Parents Understand
Bringing up a bilingual child isn’t an easy task, but it’s gratifying once you see the results.
These days my children speak four different languages fluently, and they aren’t even ten years old. What’s more, at no point did we feel that learning one of these languages was a struggle for them.
On the contrary, they learned them all in a “natural” way—just like we all learned our native language.
As a language teacher who writes about parenting and learning languages who happens to live in a multilingual home, I think I know a thing or two about bilingual parenting!
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For this reason, here are the seven things only bilingual parents understand:
1. You Finish Sentences in Different Languages
One of the most noticeable effects of bilingualism is that sometimes you can’t find the right word in your native language, but it comes to mind so easily in your second language.
You have no idea how often my younger daughter switches from one language to another.
But this happens to all of us. So one of the best tips for bilingual parents that I’ve ever received is not to worry about this. Also, don’t do anything to try to change it.
It’s normal when our minds must choose from a larger array of words in different languages. So your child may take a little longer to answer, but she will still be able to communicate and do it in two languages.
2. You Watch TV in More Than One Language
If you live in a bilingual household, you surely know what I’m talking about.
I’ve watched cartoons and kids’ films in so many languages I can’t even count.
My children, for instance, have a language schedule for the week, and if they want to watch their series or a movie, they have to set their tablet to the language of the day.
In the beginning, this expectation of language switching was a bit of a struggle. But now, they do it themselves without even asking, and we can see that they feel no difference between Spanish, Polish, English, and Portuguese.
This little trick does wonders for your child’s development, as they get used to the rhythm and intonation of each language.
And the only issue so far?
That I don’t always understand what I’m hearing in our living room!
3. Your Holidays Are Multicultural
This applies to couples born in different countries or cultural backgrounds, like my wife and I.
Our holidays feel like tiny windows into another culture.
Take Easter, for instance, where my wife’s Pisanki Polish tradition is to boil brown eggs with colorant. Instead of painting them, intricate designs are drawn with a needle—and these elaborate artworks aren’t saved or even hidden for a hunt, they’re simply eaten on Easter Day.
Meanwhile, in my Mexican tradition for Easter, we empty the contents of our eggs through a tiny hole in the bottom, color them and then fill them with confetti. On Easter Day, the Easter bunny hides the eggs, which the kids then have to hunt for, and their prize is to break the color-filled creations over each other’s heads.
At our house, we do a combination of both traditions.
For Christmas, I’ve learned that Polish tradition requires everyone to eat 12 dishes and go to a freezing midnight mass. While the Mexican tradition involves breaking a piñata and re-enacting Mary and Joseph’s struggle to find a place to spend the original Christmas Eve by singing posadas.
The fact is, on Easter or Christmas, we always have the chance to learn new things about one of our families’ cultures—and you can hear different languages popping in and out of the conversations.
4. Your Bookshelves Are Classified by Language
As an educator, there’s nothing I recommend more than reading to your bilingual children in their two different languages.
Reading is always important.
But both my wife and I agree that it’s best to do one night in one language, and the next night in another. This way, you’ll keep their attention—and, even better, they’ll have to make an effort to understand new words.
If you want to raise bilingual children, one of the best things you can do is get books for your kids in the two languages you want them to learn.
If you have gotten to the point where your bookshelves are classified by language, you’re having true success as a bilingual parent!
5. You Listen to Music in Different Languages
It may be the radio, Spotify playlists, or your favorite podcasts. Still, the reality in a bilingual household is that you’ll be listening to all of your music in different languages.
The big bonus here? Your family road trips and parties are more diverse!
6. You May Not Communicate Very Well With Your In-Laws
Depending on the situation, this could be a pro or a con. In my case, it has been one of the main downsides of our bicultural family.
On our trips to Poland, everybody gets along very well but me.
My wife translates for me as much as she can, and I smile and nod accordingly. But you know that to develop strong relationships and get to know your in-laws, you need to be able to communicate with them properly.
I’m sorry to say that I haven’t been able to do that.
Of course, there’s a solution for it—I could learn Polish and problem solved. Believe me, I have tried, but it’s still one of those goals that I haven’t been able to achieve.
7. Your Children Effortlessly Switch Between Languages
A couple of weeks ago, my six-year-old uploaded a YouTube video where she effortlessly switched from English to Portuguese. I was genuinely impressed by how far she’s come in these two languages that are not her native ones.
But that is what bilingual children do.
They switch from one language to another without even thinking about it.
I, for one, still struggle to switch from English to Spanish with my students, as I have to make the “conscious decision” to switch languages.
From what I‘ve seen with my children and my students, they don’t need to make this “conscious decision.” Instead, they simply jump between languages without any effort.
Are You Ready To Become a Bilingual Parent Yourself?
The benefits of bilingualism are plenty and diverse, and being a bilingual parent is an interesting adventure.
First, you must decide to do it.
Then, all you need to do is follow through.
You’ll give your children the gift of a second language, open their minds to a different culture, and enrich their lives with these little things that only bilingual parents understand.
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