Before sitting down to write this post, I googled the phrase “bringing up bilingual children”. I got exactly 2,260,000 hits. Most of these were articles or blog posts providing advice on how to best approach parenting when your child uses more than one language. Titles like: “10 things you NEED to know if you are raising a bilingual child” or “Raising a TRULY bilingual child” or, my favourite, “Fluent in 3 months”. Most of these pages provide accurate, if somewhat oversimplified information and sensible advice about how to forge a little bilingual-biliterate person: knowing two languages is good for your brain, it makes you more culturally aware, it allows you to talk to grandma back home, etc. If you are raising a child in a bilingual setting, the suggestions you find are to be consistent, to be patient, to try to provide as much input as possible, to read a lot of books in your mother tongue and to not worry if your child mixes the two languages. After about two decades of psycholinguistic research on bilingual development, it’s actually nice to see that the articles on the Internet embrace the idea that bilingualism is an asset and that the benefits of being bilingual greatly overweigh the efforts it might take to get there.
But then, I googled “raising bilingual teenagers” and the results were much less reassuring. I got about half of the hits, slightly more when I deleted the word raising and just kept “bilingual teenagers”. Only about a third when I searched for “bilingualism in adolescence”. And the range of material is much more limited: a few articles from academic journals and a few blogs, mainly of frustrated parents, who thought they had done everything right with their bilingual children but are now stuck with angry teenagers that refuse to even greet them in their home language in the morning. So what is the deal here? It seems to be the case that parents can get access to a lot of information and best practice until their children reach a certain age, and then they are left alone with very little of either. One issue might be that there is still not enough research being carried out that is specific to bilingual adolescents (but the reader may find these titles useful, ref 1, ref 2). In addition, society’s attitudes towards bilingualism also play a crucial part in shaping the behaviour of the teenager-to-be. Is bilingualism the norm or the exception? Is bilingualism valued by the state or is it seen as a burden? Is bilingual education supported with dedicated funding or is it left to the good will of the educators?
As anyone who has a teenager at home knows all too well, young people like to fit in. They like to dress the same as their peers, to listen to the same music, and, crucially, they like to talk the same as their in-group. If a society doesn’t really commit to accepting bilingualism as normal, if the message that gets through is that bilingualism is tolerated but not appreciated, then teenagers will always find it easier to hide their bilingualism rather than to cherish it. And parents will be faced with the extremely difficult task, as Stephen Caldas puts it, to raise bilingual children in a monolingual culture.
Dr Anna Wolleb is Research and Outreach Officer at the Centre for Literacy and Multilingualism, University of Reading.