Raising a Bilingual Child

Editor’s Note: As families, classrooms and workplaces become more racially and ethnically diverse, some parents wonder if they should raise their child to speak more than one language at home. Stay-at-home dad and author Barack Levin, who is Israeli and whose wife is French, describes how his family came to a decision about whether or not they should teach their American-born son French and Hebrew, as well as English.

As Eden becomes more aware of his environment, I need to start teaching him new skills, especially language skills. My wife and I speak different native languages (French and Hebrew, respectively), and we live in a country that speaks a third (English). We have the option to decide if we want Eden to learn to speak more than one language.

Concerns About Development
We know that one potential disadvantage to teaching him more than one language at this age is that his overall speech development could be delayed. Coping with several different languages at the same time, each with different sounds, grammatical structures, tenses, rules vocabularies, and alphabets, could be very confusing for Eden. We have been warned that teaching him more than one language would also be, to say the least, problematic. Some say the real problem is that any speech delay might lead to other, even more complicated, issues later on in life, whether social (he could be “behind” other kids his age in communication skills while he is still struggling to understand what language to use), psychological (he would be “different”), and mental (speaking and switching from one language to the other can cause stress).

Family Fluency
At the same time, there are some very strong arguments in favor of teaching Eden our native languages, as well as English. The first and most important one is that no matter how fluent Michelle or I are in English, we will never be able to best express our thoughts, desires, concerns and even anger as precisely in that language as we can in our native tongues. … For both of us, it is easier, simpler and more natural to talk to him and express our feelings in our native language.

Talking With Grandma
Another strong argument for raising Eden to be trilingual lies with our parents. My in-laws speak no English at all, and my parents speak only rudimentary English. It is already hard enough for our parents that we have chosen to live in the United Sates, but it would be horrendous if they could not converse with their grandson in their own language and be forced to speak only in English.

Culture and Tradition
Lastly, language is not only a way of speaking but a cultural vessel, as well. Language folds itself into the history, tradition and culture of its associated ethnicity or nationality. Any language and structure holds many subtle references to history and society, as well as containing endless nuances that simply don’t translate to other languages. For instance, while I can supposedly say the same thing in French, English and Hebrew, native listeners will each understand me slightly differently.
It is for the ephemeral reason we feel that teaching Eden our native languages will indirectly teach him about our cultures and traditions, as well as provide him with the tools he needs to explore these aspects of his life and history.