One of those teachers

January 23, 2014

Bilingual brain

Welcome the newest member of the D'Angon team -Juliana Dangond! If it seems like there has been a little break in our blog posting, you are right, but for good reason. We welcomed our little girl into the world on Dec.12, 2013. Even though Juliana is only 5 weeks old, the educator in me is acutely aware of her language development - or more accurately - her bilingual language development. (I speak to her and our 2 year old only in English and my husband speaks to them only in his native language - Spanish). The research on the cognitive benefits of bilingualism is extensive: children who grow up bilingually actually become more intelligent in other areas besides language, like math. The input of multiple languages causes the dendrites in the brain to grow and expand differently than monolingual children, hence making more synaptic connections.

For any educators reading this, the information above is probably not new to you, or at least not surprising. Yet, when I reflect back on my years teaching in public schools, I remember being shocked at how many teachers complained that Hispanic (the largest minority demographic that we served) parents were not speaking to their children in English. The conversation in the teacher's lounge would go something like this: You know the parents can speak English - I just had a conference with them. ugh... why is it that they won't speak English to their children at home? I heard those comments often, and they came from mainstream teachers (unlike me - I taught in the bilingual program) who were unquestionably frustrated by having to accommodate students who were still in the process of acquiring their English skills. Frustration, however, is no excuse for ignorance. 

So, if you are, or have been, one of those teachers who think that parents should speak anything other than their native language to their children, I highly encourage you to do a bit more homework on the subject. But if you don't, here are the key reasons parents should always speak in their native language to their children.

1. They will model it correctly, and if the student can speak one language well, then they'll have a strong base on which to build their second language. I had one student whose father spoke to her in English even though Spanish was his native language. His English was heavily accented, and though we could have a conversation, it was full of grammatical errors and limited vocabulary. He really thought he was doing the best thing for his child by speaking to her only in English. The problem was that all that this child learned was broken English. She could understand Spanish, but she could not speak it. Imagine speaking to your child using only the French you learned in high school. Unfortunately, since this student's early childhood years (prime language development years) were spent only learning a poor example of a language, she was pretty much limited for life. 

2. Bonding occurs in the strongest language. There are some words, jokes, gestures, and expressions that just don't translate - they are culturally imbedded in the language. When parents don't speak their native language to their child, there is gap in cultural connection - a gap in the parent child bond. I remember as a Fulbright scholar teaching in Bogota, Colombia, I befriended another scholar whose mother was Colombian, and whose father was American. His mother only spoke English to him growing up. After living in Colombia for a year and developing a respectable command of the language, he told me he started to speak to his mother in Spanish, and that they could actually joke around and laugh more than they ever had in English. He told me he was learning more and seeing a side of his mother that he had not known.

3. Being bilingual is better than being monolingual. In addition to greater brain development, we know that bilinguals have greater job opportunities, more cultural exposure, and increased opportunities to connect with more people. As teachers, if we know these benefits, we should be encouraging parents to continue to nurture their native language at home while we nurture their second language at school.

Teachers have a whole lot on their plate, and need parents as allies. If we remember that when parents speak to their children in their native language, they are benefiting the child cognitively, then we can see that they are in fact helping us do our job.

Until next time!