When I was growing up, I was in awe of my bilingual classmates, and not just a little bit envious. Anna could burst into the most beautiful Italian on request, Paula made Spanish sound as utterly cool as it truly is, and Richard rendered himself all the more exotic and edgy by teaching us all cuss words in Chinese during recess. All three of them, and a gaggle of others, could flip between their second language and English as naturally as breathing, while I sat quietly flipping out and breathing fire, frustrated by my monolingual brain and my French classes that largely consisted of little more than ordering a cup of tea and a ham sandwich.
Fast forward to today, and if anything bilingualism is more common and more desirable than ever. The world is getting smaller, and multi-lingual skills continue to be held in extremely high regard.
Here in California, the trend seems to be reversing from three or four decades ago, when the immigrants of our parents generation came from overseas and were determined to integrate as smoothly and seamlessly as possible, often insisting their offspring only spoke English. Those children have now grown up and had children of their own, and are recognizing that the opportunities that they missed out on are something they want to pass on to their own children. Heritage has become fashionable again.
Modern scientific research is also lauding the benefits of growing up bilingually – from increased attention span, better listening skills, warding off degenerative brain diseases, memory boosting and better multitasking to name but a few of the results coming out of various studies.
But growing up bilingually is not without its frustrations. In families where both parents may be monolingual themselves in English, but for various reasons would like their children to grow up with a second language, or the children are learning second languages at school, the opportunities for practicing the target language may be limited.
Or perhaps the parents are both monolingual in the target language, but the children are growing up in the US school system and only speaking the target language casually in the home environment without supplemental study, restricting their reservoir of vocabulary and their grammatical “framing” of the language.
Another problem – and this is certainly true in my family`s case – may be that the parent who is native in the target language may be absent from the home for the majority of the day, and so children have an overexposure to their first language and a big underexposure to their second.
In certain cases, a target language Saturday school may help with language acquisition. But these study programs generally require a significant amount of homework, to say nothing of restricting weekend family activities, and if a parent is not able to support the student because of their own limited ability in that language, or the volume of work is difficult to manage alongside mainstream school homework too, second language acquisition can become very difficult, tears and frustration prevail, and the Holy Grail becomes a Wholly Fail.
Marrying into a different language and different culture, I was delighted that my children would one day have the experience of growing up bilingually that I never had.
But it has not been without it`s difficulties, most notably in our case that the children, once in California, were desperately trying to scramble up towards grade level in their English ability whilst also trying to maintain and progress in their Japanese language in a now largely non-Japanese environment. It was just too much to ask of them.
The perfect solution for us has been a professional language tutor. The tutor comes twice a week, and schools the children with a fun curriculum targeted exactly for them and for our home circumstances. Because we are tailoring the language to their needs and interests, rather than trying to shoe-horn them into a bilingual status, their enthusiasm and interest in maintaining and developing their now-second language is growing, while their English is fast coming up to native level, and all the while we are setting the foundations for what we hope will be a bilingual future for them into adulthood. Would they progress as rapidly as if we only spoke the target language at home, and/or only sent them to Saturday school? No, absolutely not. But the end result once they reach adulthood will be more or less the same, we are just taking the longer, more scenic, infinitely more pleasant route to get there.
A professional language tutor can be a huge support to parents not familiar with the target language. At school, students studying languages not spoken in the home will gain immense benefit from the opportunity to practice that language outside the school environment with a professional language tutor. Once I had progressed way beyond my cups of tea and ham sandwiches, it was my tutor Florence who got me through my AP French in High School.
He or she can also help support parents monolingual in the target language, by explaining the points of grammar to the student that may otherwise be difficult to communicate clearly in English, and by setting a progressive series of steps, building a targeted curriculum that clearly leads the student through a learning process, rather than simply through casual exposure, and taking the pressure off the parents to feel the need to actively teach the language.
Is it all worth it? Scientific benefits aside, second language acquisition offers exposure to a completely different way of thinking that, no matter how good the translation, can only be truly appreciated in the actual language. The personal sense of achievement cannot be underestimated, and previously unconsidered doors of opportunity can be thrown wide open. It is a legacy we can give to our children and they can pass on to their children.
But above all else, the greatest satisfaction we have in our own bilingual lifestyle is watching our children grow in confidence in both languages without undue pressure, guided by their private tutor who challenges but never overloads them. A second language truly is one of the greatest gifts you can give. And a professional language tutor can help to ensure you approach it in the right way from the beginning and truly reach that Holy Grail.