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Raising bilingual children as non-native English speakers

This article is the first of few posts I want to write regularly every year or so. I would like to summarize my experiences, challenges and results with my and my girlfriend's decision about trying to talk with our daughter (now in her 16 months) in English. That wouldn't be surprising on its own, so why to bother with a blog post? Consider the following highly simplified combinations of speaking some language at the home and another one in the outer environment:

  1. home speaks native X, environment speaks native Y
  2. home speaks non-native Y and native X, environment speaks native Y
  3. home speaks non-native Y and native X, environment speaks native X

There is quite a lot known about the first two cases. Children have in-person interaction with native speakers on a daily basis either at home or outside. That's not the case in the third option. Not me nor my girlfriend are English native speakers and the environment is not speaking in English as well.

If you are trying to do the same, please reach me out!

Caution: Please don't draw any strong conclusions based on my experiences. If something is hard, it's child development research. If you are not able to distinguish between anecdotal evidence and rigorous research, you should stop reading immediately for your own (and probably yours child) sake.

Motivation

We are Czech, where we speak in Czech language. That means 10 millions of speakers in not-so-influential country. You could probably add few millions of Slovaks and some communities talking West Slavic languages (such as Polish), but that's all. Knowing World language just extend your reach and possibilities. The biggest advantage, in my opinion, is being able to understand and use various knowledge sources such as books, articles, papers, online platforms such as CodeAcademy or various MOOC. At least from my understanding, the biggest number of these is in English. Also, when you reach a specific level of English, acquiring additional skills is a bit easier in some sense. Not that you can e.g. watch videos/movies in the language of your choice, but also by reading about some totally different topic, such as math, will still strengthen your language skills.

So keep this in mind when reading the following lines - our motivation for our daughter to know English was primarily being able to understand English enough so she can learn on her own whatever she choose. Hence, pronunciation or advanced English structures and grammar rules are not the priority, even though it would be a great side-effect of course.

Also, we already have so called English days, when we spoke in English at home to practice our skills.

One reason to choose English has been mentioned. Another one is because we know it. My girlfriend has basics in Spanish and I had studied French, but the level of my French is somewhere like A1 at best... I don't see a reason why others couldn't choose a different language.

English level status

As I described in intro, not me nor my girlfriend are native English speakers. What's worse, non of us have exceptionally good English. Based on some Erasmus tests and my own judgment, my girlfriend is around B2/C1 and I may be about C1/C2 levels using CEFR classification. I have been in England for few weeks and I also work remotely for one of my clients who is based in London. Still, my grammar is on average and the same goes with my pronunciation.

Existing research and controversy

It's annoying how every mother whose child survived her raising style till ~4 years genuinely believes she's expert on everything, including bilingual raising (even though they don't even speak in a second language). Their reasoning is something like:

Being baby is already hard - so many things to learn. Talking to children in different language will be just too hard and it will mess with their mind.

This totally ignores the fact that there have been billions of people successfully raised in naturally bilingual environment and they don't seem to have any problems at all.

There are many other things people say such as that the children is going to be outsider because it will mess languages together, it will slow down in other areas and so on...

I am of course not denying that the above cannot be true. What I am denying is the basis for these arguments. Honestly, from all those people I talked to about this topic, there has been one who read at least a single article (which was irrelevant, as we agreed about 5 mins later). Others just do a strong conclusion based solely only on their gut feeling and in worse cases, ignores any objective arguments.

So what research there is actually? I am just going to throw in this meta-study, which is well written and easily understandable even for non-scientist. Please read it for yourself, but the results for me: there are virtually no evidences that it could do any harm. Better, it brings many positive outcomes not just related to language acquisition. Also, the earlier, the better. The bigger exposure, the better. The more languages, the better (there probably will be some cap :-D).

But! All the previous research is usually done on native speakers (case 1. and 2. from the introduction). I haven't found a single source, nor blog post about what me and my girlfriend decided to do, hence this post... And yes, this part is controversial - what if raising bilingual by non-natives can really seriously harm your child? They quite surely learn some wrong or weird things which can be hard, or even impossible to unlearn.

I just risk it. The benefits are just too tempting compare to the risk of something going wrong.

Techniques and exposure

Nothing extra. We just talk in English whenever we want and have capacity for it. It's much harder than you imagine and it has a lot of shortcomings. For example, when cuddling, we almost exclusively use Czech, because we just don't know what to say in English and just feels wrong when trying it (sometimes). There are also situations when we cannot speak in English, because there are other members of our families or other people. When our daughter is fussy, we also prefer Czech for some reason... When we are with her alone, English is easier than when we have to communicate more complicated stuff than that is a car.

Researches have a consensus that to be able to acquire a second language on an active level, you have to have more than 30% exposure (limiting you to trilingual babies :-D ). It has no scientific basis whatsoever, but I haven't found a better estimate.

Almost all the books we have are in English. We like Usborne books, e.g. their science books or any other book with flaps. It's great that there are descriptions and labels in English, allowing us to read in a correct English. It's also doing it much easier for us. We also bought some English fairy tails book which we read before sleep.

Same with videos and songs. We don't expose July to much to videos (we don't have TV channels - only youtube), but when we do (about 1 hour/day at max), it's in English. Surprisingly not-so-stupid kids songs in US English are Super Simple Songs. We basically don't consume any media in Czech. It also adds up - when we sing some songs, we can sing them in English. And since most of them are for children an contain words such as head, toes etc., it quite nicely enlarges July's (and sometimes mine :-D ) vocabulary.

Lastly, we are fortunate enough to have a very kind US friend living nearby, who is coming over every weekend or so and next to us talking, he is willing to read to July. (He also gave her some nice books and nursery rhymes).

Unfortunately, I think that July's exposure is still much less then those 30%. My wild 95% confidence interval is about 5-20%.

Current state in 16 months

I haven't found any good scientific paper on this, but according to some not-that-relevant sources 1 2 3 4, July should understand to 10-50 words, while being able to express about 10-20. To this date, we have recorded (so it's probably conservative estimate - we are doing it retrospectively every two weeks or so) that July is saying 150 words. But we also count things which she says but aren't words in any known language (except baby talk - such as booya (video), which means cuddle me). If we filter these ones, we are somewhere on 130 words. I would filter another 30 for words she already forgot, which would leave us somewhere around 100 words. Less then a half is in English, which is still much more than what an average child of her age should know. Again, that is not necessarily result of her exposure to English, but it can be plainly because we talk much more than others. Also, without knowing standard deviation (which will be large as anything around babies), I cannot say how unusual it is.

For some concepts, she knows the word in both languages (+her own baby talk variant). There is no known pattern how she choose between languages to label a given concept. Sometimes she references a cow as moo and sometimes as a cow. Also, some words are easier to pronounce and say in one language then in the other one. A good example of this is a concept of book: she can say book quite easily, while Czech variant knížka is definitely much harder to pronounce. I suspect that this is true for a much broader set of concepts: Czech words are much harder to pronounce than English words. As a consequence, she can express her much better when giving her an easier-to-pronounce word rather then still repeating
a complicated word, which we know she wouldn't be able to pronounce correctly before she reach 4 years or something (e.g. řeřicha). That IMHO enables faster adoption of language. By the way, now she acquires about 2-5 new words per day, which is again above average. I am curious what is a cross-language acquisition speed.

Fun and positive side-effects

Even though it's annoying sometimes, it can be fun. I am proud of July's Oh man! or Well, well, well.

Me and Paja benefits from that as well - having a regular contact with second language is clearly beneficial for our own language acquisition. And maybe because of this, I suspect that when talking in English, we are able to speak about some emotionally hard topics much easier.