Monday, March 21, 2011

Expert Advice and Analysis

This morning, feeling a bit boosted by a few comments on my blog, I went searching for further guidance regarding my last post about Kaya's English usage and my response patterns. Strangely enough, the page that I opened to contained a chart detailing Parents' Response Strategies.

Ask and you shall receive.

My last post was so emotional...not that that's bad (or even good). It just is. But I thought I would balance it out and follow it up with a more "educational" angle, sharing with those who might be interested in what the 'experts' have to say.

First of all, I find great relief in this phrase: "Given the odds mentioned above of children becoming active and balanced bilinguals, it clearly takes some ingenuity to create a bilingual atmosphere that can compete with a global language or with the local majority languages."

I'm glad I'm not the only one who sees it as competition at times. Kaya gets SO much English input, and I have to bust my butt to try to balance it out. I actually just did a layout of her weekly language exposure, and as it turns out, she gets about 28hrs during an average week, or about 36%, of primarily German. At least 26 of her 77 waking hours are spent in primarily dual exposure, where both Geoff and I are present, interacting with her in both English and German. And the remaining 25 or so hours are with limited or no German exposure whatsoever. According to some researchers, children must spend 30% or more of their time in the minority language if they are going to be able to use it, as opposed to just understand it (active vs. passive bilingualism). Other researchers say that 20% is the cut-off for becoming actively bilingual. There are so many factors at play (50% is genetics!), it makes sense that they verdict is still out. For us, too...I wonder what constitutes "interaction". There are many days when, during my "primarily German time" with Kaya, I have an English-speaking friend over, interacting with both of us in English. There are other moments, as well, where we're out in the community, and she's interacting with English-speakers. So, her German interaction time is definitely somewhere between the 36-20%, certainly closer to 20 or less in some weeks.

Clearly, the point is to offer her as much German interaction as possible. That means getting down on the floor with her to play, or having her help me in the kitchen. It can be so easy (and needed!) to just let her play independently, but I want to remember that it's the interaction that really makes the difference in regards to her acquisition.

What just hit me, in this process of analysis, is that this whole time, throughout so much of this bilingual-child-rearing process, I've been riddled with fear. It's been driving so many of my actions. And it's not the fear itself that comes as a surprise to me, for that's been pretty obvious, but instead, my tendency to push aside the information that may accompany the fear in an attempt to overcome the fear itself. For example, a few weeks ago, I wondered how much German input Kaya has been getting. More accurately, I feared that she wasn't getting enough, that I wasn't giving her enough. At the time, however, in my desire to move beyond my fear, I brushed off any information that I could take from the situation: how much input is Kaya getting? Is it enough? Can I do anything more? If so, what else can I do? In other words, I was throwing out the baby with the bathwater in my rush to be more passionate than fearful. If I can be objective, rather than judgmental, I could be a lot more productive and at peace with it all.

So, the point that I initially sat down to make is this: When a child uses the "wrong" language, there is a spectrum of parental responses that sends a clear message about what is expected. Apparently, studies show that children pick up on these messages, so it's important to know which message you are and are wanting to send. According to Elizabeth Lanza, a pyscholinguist and mother of two bilingual children, there are 5 points on the spectrum of parental responses. Starting from the end where the message is for a monolingual mode (i.e. Kaya and I speak only German with each other) and moving to the end with a tolerance for bilingual mode (Kaya and I move in and out of German and English as we speak to each other):

1. "I don't understand" (said in minority language)
2. "Did you say X" (said in minority language)
3. Repeating child's utterance (in minority language)
4. Moving on (in minority language) with no comment
5. Code-switching to follow the child to the majority language (meaning that I would switch my language, after a few words or phrases and end up speaking English with Kaya)

Finding this spectrum has been really helpful for me. It leaves me feeling validated in how I generally respond to what Kaya says. On Friday, I had myself talked into the idea that it was silly for me to "ask her" constantly, in German, what she'd just said in English. But, according to the spectrum, it sits somewhere between #2 and #3, sending the clear message that my desire is for us to interact in all German. I also appreciate the reminder to "make the request implicitly as much as possible, without interrupting the flow of the conversation" and "if you can redirect the child subtly, so much the better." I knew I didn't like telling Kaya to speak German with me...I appreciate the expert 'slap on the hand', and will avoid this tendency in the future. It does have me wondering about George Saunder's tendency, which we've come to follow as well, to tell the child, in the minority language, "that's what Mama/Dada says". That doesn't seem very implicit...

Tonight, I started to employ #2 on the spectrum: Did you say (x)?, and was impressed with the results. The three of us were in Kaya's room, getting her ready for bed, when she told me she wanted to "read a book" (it's rare that she says "Buch lesen (wesen) anymore...nearly impossible to get her to say it, even when I've reminded her explicitly). So, while we were sitting in the infamous rocker, I asked her, "Hast du 'Buch lesen' gesagt?" [Did you say "Buch lesen"? (read a book)]. She immediately responded with "Ja, Buch wesen" [Yeah, read a book], and reached over to grab a book. I was shocked. I thought I'd try it again when she asked me for her "milk" (a word she usually uses with me in German but lately has been busting out in English, too). "Hast du 'Milch' gesagt", I asked her. [Did you say 'Milch' (milk)?] Once again, she responded with a "Ja, Milch" [Yeah, milk].

So, maybe those experts know a thing or two. Maybe I'll have to keep them in mind when I feel in over my head next time (and yes, as a fellow non-nativer advised, maybe I'll reference us bloggers in more of those moments, too!).

This book that I've been referencing is definitely one of my favorites on the subject, called Raising a Bilingual Child, by Barbara Zurer Pearson, Ph.D. Easy to read and very validating on many fronts. I'll add it to my book list on the right so you can access it later if you wish...


  1. My name is Sara and I'm new to this blog, very first time I bump into it.
    I'm a mother of two (passive) bilingual girls, and I'm here to tell you about us.
    I'm a non-native bilingual parent, meaning that I speak english but it's not my mother tongue. Said that, when my first daughter (Matilda) was born, we decided that I was going to speak english to her. It worked pretty good, when she reached 3 she didn't understand italian very good. (we are italian and we live in Italy). During her first year in pre-school she obvioulsy learned the language and by the next summer she slowly stopped speaking english to me.
    Our second daughter (Camilla), understands both english and italian just like her sister, but she speak mostly italian.
    I fear too that their exposure to the minority laguage is just not enough and I wonder sometimes "why am I even doing this if these are the results?"
    I keep my english going, and hope it works :-)

  2. Hi Sara,
    I'm so glad you found my blog, and am very thankful that you shared your story. It makes such a difference for me, for all of us bilingual parents, when we can be with the experiences of others. It's so much easier, for example, for me to give myself advice, and to hear it as well, when I am giving it through the eyes of another. When I look at your situation from my perspective, it seems really normal and natural. Your girls live in a community where Italian is the norm. It's what their friends speak, what their Dad speaks, what their school, their store, their community members speak. I completely understand, believe me!, how easy it is, and frustrating as well, to want them to speak their mother-tongue, and it's so tempting (at least for me) to make it mean something (about me, sometimes!), when they don't.
    But what is becoming easier and easier for me to remember is that the language is all in there. It isn't gone. As long as you keep providing them with input, as much as possible and in as many ways as possible, it will remain in there. Whether they use it now or later, passively or actively, it is contributing to who they are in every moment, whether we realize it or not.
    Thank you, once again. I love hearing your story, and look forward to hearing more. Do you keep a blog? Where do you live? (I love Italy!!)
    Look forward to hearing more from you in the future!!

  3. Hi Tamara, I've just come across your blog and I must confess it's really fascinating. As Sara I'm trying to raise my baby girl bilingual in a non-bilingual family. I'm Italian too, and we live in Italy, though I have a near-native command of English. My baby is still too young to see any results and maybe this "unusual" bilingualism is delaying her first words...I'm full of doubts at the moment and the help I'm finding online is so valuable. Thank you for your blog which will surely help me along the way.

  4. Hi D,
    Great to hear from you, I'm so glad that you, as well, found my blog! Seems like there are a number of Italians out there raising non-native know others? Is there something about Italy that I don't know? Either way, I think it's great. I commend you for all of your efforts, struggles, fears, and don't have any doubt that you are doing something that will contribute to your daughter's life and well-being in a huge way. I know it can be scary, esp. at this point where you are now, where you aren't seeing much, except what you are tempted to label as a delay. I think every phase, thus far in my experience, has it's challenges, but those challenges are much less intense when we can find support from community, as we are doing here, and when we can sit with confidence and trust the process. Our children's brains are amazing. They can do wondrous things, and when we trust in that, all will be well!
    Please visit again soon!I look forward to hearing more about your process. Would you be willing to share a story or two here? How old is your daughter?
    THANKS! Tamara

  5. Hello Tamara,
    I do not know how I ended up in your blog. But when I saw the title NON-BILINGUAL, I could not resist and I had to take a look.
    My name is Monica, I'm Italian and I live in Italy. I have two kids (6 years and 4 and a half), unfortunately I did not start to speak English with them since their birth. Since I'm not native English speaker, I thought I could not teach them this language.
    When they were 2 years, they began to attend a playgroup with native speakers. Then they had a Canadian nanny and now a babysitter Italian-American is coming three times a week to play with them.

    Unfortunately, I started talking to them in English when they were already 3 years. Maybe too late. They had come into touch with the the english language already for a year (even with a trip of a month in the States) but I realized that they needed a touch more intensive and more involving. Then, when the nanny went back to Canada, I decided to continue to speak English with them.
    We are not using the system o.p.o.l. there is always mom moving from one language to the other.
    To have a routine, I have set that there are certain moments of the day that we dedicate to speak English. Some games and some books are in English...
    A year ago we started to play with two bilingual children once a week… it works!

    I can say we have two passive-bilingual children : they understand everything, but still not talking, they always answer in Italian.

    But if they are dealing with someone who does not speak Italian then they can use English.
    I'm glad I found this blog and will follow you!


  6. My cousin recommended this blog and she was totally right keep up the fantastic work!


    1. Thank you!!! Sorry for the delay in commenting back...somehow, I missed your comments when they came in last year!

  7. Dear Mo,
    Your comments are definitely inspiring for me, and I really appreciate you taking the time to share. I think, considering all of the factors that we all deal with in life, what matters is that we do what works for each of us in the moments that it works for us. =) Allowing myself this "freedom" has helped me. Granted, on days like today, I don't feel so free. I don't generally feel like I'm willing to let myself veer from OPOL...which is why reading responses like yours are helpful to me. I get blinders on, and am unable to see that there are other options, if the one I've chosen is making my life miserable. =) Cuz life isn't about that, right?! Not at all. As that beautiful Italian movie so simply states, Life is Beautiful, and nothing should get in the way of us living as such (though so many things often do!!). Hope to hear from you again soon!

    And Clomid, SO wonderful to hear from you, too!! What a boost and inspiration your simple comment was to my days...Would LOVE to hear from you (and your cousin!) again sometime, too!


  8. So what I didn't really get though.... what's the spectrum all about. You are better of using the first ones rather than the last ones?

  9. Hi Artsy,
    From my understanding, the spectrum speaks to the fact that how we respond to our children sends them a message, whether we realize it or not. If we are 'serious' about our children responding to us in minority language, then it makes more sense to respond towards number 1. If we're not so worried about, then responding towards #5 is a more accurate response to send the corresponding message. Does that help?


I LOVE reading your comments, they make such a difference! Thanks for sharing!