e don’t speak English at home
Jon Aage Jordalen, 14, and his brother Kristoffer, 12, effortlessly shift from Norwegian to English and back to Norwegian as they talk with parents, do homework, read and write.
Like brother Aaron, 6, and sister Bettina, 17, these boys are bilingual. “Their first language – written and spoken – was Norwegian,” says their mom, who feels fortunate to have a bilingual family but admits to some challenges along the way.
The Jordalens aren’t alone in their bilingual skills.
According to the latest figures, approximately 10 million children in the United States can speak two languages fluently. In Washington, more than 60,000 children are bilingual, and Spokane schools are home to students who speak a variety of languages as well as English. A whopping 55 percent of roughly 1,000 local bilingual students speak Russian. Smaller, but significant numbers, speak Spanish, Vietnamese and Ukrainian. And, minority languages unfamiliar to most Americans, such as Chuuk, Pashto and Kirgiz, also have a place among our bilingual students.
But being bilingual doesn’t just mean one thing, as the ways in which children acquire their second languages vary widely.
Janine Alden, senior lecturer of the Teaching English as a Second Language program at EWU, says a child’s first language is usually the mother’s first language. The child’s second language, which may be learned almost simultaneously, is the father’s.
“People believe the brain is predisposed to learn a language. The second language follows the same basic steps as the first – babbling, single words, and eventually sentences,” she says. The ideal setting, according to many researchers, involves each parent contributing his or her own language. Yet, not all bilingual children learn in such a neat, well-ordered way.
Some grow up speaking a minority language at home, while developing English skills within the larger community.
Alex Napelenok, a junior at Whitworth College, lives in Otis Orchards with his parents, who speak Russian almost exclusively. Alex was born in Estonia, in the former Soviet Union, and he immigrated with his family when he was four years old. At home, says Alex, they’ve always spoken Russian.
“It’s very awkward speaking to [my parents] in English. They know English well enough, but we’re used to Russian and it’s easier for them,” he explains.
Bilingualism for Alex and his six siblings came when they began spending time outside the home. “I didn’t start to learn English until preschool,” he remembers.
Like Alex, Nick Vera of Newman Lake recalls his childhood home as mostly using another language – Spanish, in his case.
“But we learned English from the community,” he says. “In my neighborhood in New York City, we heard lots of languages, like Italian and Yiddish, so we used English as a common ground. Nearly everybody I knew could speak two languages.” For Nick and his brothers and sisters, shifting back and forth from family-Spanish to community-English was an everyday, natural occurrence.
In other households, the parents make a more conscious effort to keep two languages alive for their children. A good example is, Kjell and Camille Jordalen of Chatteroy, who have always communicated with their four children in two languages.
Living in Norway for 16 years, Kjell spoke Norwegian at home, while Camille kept English alive. Linguistic researchers call this approach “One Parent/One Language,” but the Jordalens say the division isn’t always clear-cut.
“My part has been to teach English [to our children], but we both speak both languages,” says Camille. “As soon as I learned Norwegian, we could intermix. Sometimes you find one language expresses a concept better than the other.”
In other cases, a family may emigrate and following that become bilingual as a unit. Vance and Julie Wood, both of Newport, Washington, grew up speaking only English. However, they’ve served as missionaries in Spanish-speaking countries for the past eight years, currently living in Venezuela.
They say that, along with their four teenagers, the family is now bilingual and biliterate.
“When we’re by ourselves,” explains Julie, “we speak mostly English, with lots of Spanish phrases mixed in.” But, when shopping, attending church or sightseeing, it’s Spanish for everyone.
“It isn’t hard, because everywhere we go, people only speak Spanish,” she says.
Parents cite several practical reasons for maintaining a bilingual home. For the Jordalens and others who have relatives abroad, their youngsters can communicate with sets of grandparents who only speak one language. When they travel overseas to visit, the children can play with cousins, interact with aunts and uncles, and feel included in the activities. For the same reason, travel in general is often easier for bilinguals.
Julie Wood says her children’s Spanish skills “allow them to speak to people all over Latin America.”
Many also believe bilingual children do better in school, dispelling myths perpetrated English as a second language speakers until recent years.
Research with French/English students in Canada revealed such children perform better than monolinguals in cognitive tasks. Additional studies show advantages in math and science. Also, bilinguals usually pick up a third language more easily than other children. The Jordalens, for example, notice their 17-year-old, Bettina, does very well in high school French.
Camille Jordalen points out that there are other reasons that, perhaps, seem more philosophical, for keeping a second language alive in the household.
“It really opens their mind that there’s another world out there,” she says.
Researchers agree. Nadine Lichtenberger, contributor to the book “The German Way,” lists similar advantages.
“[My bilingual children] will have the ability to communicate with a broader range of people. Perhaps they will be more open-minded, accepting and tolerant of other cultures. Perhaps their bilingualism will open doors for them in the future and offer them a wider range of options later in life,” she writes.
Other bilingual parents concur, saying they hope that their children’s language skills will allow more leeway in deciding where to go to college, settle down and work when they become adults.
While bilingual families and researchers cite many advantages, there are a few challenges as well. For the Jordalens, some challenges came with the educational adjustment for one of their sons when the family moved to the U.S. two years ago.
With everything in English, says Camille, “you have to concentrate on the language rather than the learning. This was a problem in the beginning. Spelling was a problem, at first, too, because Norwegian is more phonetic than English.”
Alex Napelenok echoes this sentiment. “My vocabulary [was] severely handicapped. I was always behind in English classes, especially in writing. Not until I started to read a lot in English did it improve.” He credits his teachers, beginning in elementary school, for encouraging a love of books as a way to triumph over his shortcomings. “Now I’m an English major in college and love to write.”
Another difficulty noticed by researchers involves teen angst in the bilingual home. Youth may feel ashamed to speak the minority language with family members, especially within earshot of peers. Yet, this doesn’t have to be. Alden points out, “If they get support for being Hispanic [or whatever culture], they’ll likely speak that language.”
On the other hand, “if they’re not encouraged to be proud of their heritage, they won’t want others to know they’re bilingual. Language is who we are. It’s mixed with our identity,” says Alden.
Parents with bilingual children can do many things to encourage them to use both languages. Having books, magazines, newspapers and videos at home will offer opportunities for aural and intellectual stimulation. Also, attending cultural events and traveling abroad to visit relatives will allow practical use of the language.
Allowing children to take pride in their non-English background is the key, says Alden. “Know the culture and stories. Try to find a community of other children who speak the minority language.” Such a group might be in an ethnic church or a regular family reunion.
Another piece of advice involves consistency. Bilingual parents recommend using both languages from the beginning. In later years, even if the children tend to drift away from one language, parents still should use both. That way, children will be reminded of their language as well as their heritage.
Making language fun will also help preserve it.
“I often speak in Norwegian,” says Camille Jordalen, “and they answer in English.” Sometimes, even when the family is with English-speaking people, they’ll slip in a little Norwegian to each other, as a secret code. “It’s neat to have this language for our family.”
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