Children from immigrant families make up the largest and the most rapidly growing group of children in the entire United States, with approximately 20% of all children speaking a language other than English when they are at home. Therefore, there is an inconsistent exposure of children to either English or their first language, which means that there could be potential challenges when it comes to teaching and communicating with bilingual children. Bilingualism is defined as the ability of an individual to speak fluently in one language while also being successful in understanding another. To a great extent, bilingualism (especially among children) presents an opportunity to preserve the national culture and language, allows being more advanced in language learning, opens better career opportunities, and promotes cross-cultural communication.
When speaking about bilingualism, parents play a dominant role in choosing how to educate their children. However, because different families approach the matter differently, educators are challenged by an increasing need for developing a unified framework of efforts to teach bilingual children both at school and at home settings. The problem is significant due to the lack of parents’ knowledge about the importance of language development and the absence of efforts on the part of educators with regards to teaching bilingual children. To develop a unified approach towards teaching bilingual children, it is first important to answer the following research question: “What challenges do parents face when raising bilingual children?”
Bilingual children face many challenges both at home and in the classroom. Similarly, their parents also struggle with determining which strategies will allow their children to learn two languages instead of focusing on one. Therefore, it can be hypothesized that the lack of unity in the efforts of parents and teachers regarding language development is the most problematic challenge that hinders children’s’ learning. In the modern learning environment where children are presented with innovative tools and methods of learning, overcoming the challenges of bilingualism is more than possible. Therefore, the main issue lies in developing a cohesive strategy that would combine the efforts of parents and educators regarding the language development of bilingual students.
Research on the topic of raising bilingual children is not narrow; on the other hand, scholars working in the sphere of education have paid a lot of attention to the topic. First, it is noteworthy to mention the study conducted by Lee, Shetgiri, Barina, Tillitski, and Flores (2015) who focused on examining parental preferences with regards to raising Spanish/English bilingual children (p. 503).
By involving thirteen Spanish-primary-language parents into participation in focus groups, the researchers were able to determine that parents wanted their children to be fluent in both languages since they understood the benefits of bilingualism such as preservation of the native language and culture as well as better future career opportunities for their children. The qualitative research showed that most of the parents’ decisions associated with raising their bilingual children depended on their prior parental experiences, the contribution of schools and family members. In general, parents opted for English-only schools and teaching children Spanish at home. Among the identified strategies, parents preferred making children read bilingual books and speak Spanish at home, with schools and pediatricians being used as resources for language learning.
Quiroz, Snow, and Zhao (2010) conducted a prospective study related to interactive features that support improved vocabulary outcomes in children from Latino families (p. 379). Particularly, researchers focused on the interactions between children and their mothers and whether they facilitated vocabulary acquisition. For predicting children’s vocabulary outcomes, Quiroz et al. (2010) used home factors (e.g. literacy resources, immigration history, etc.) and the interactive language of fifty mother-child dyads (p. 380). It was found that reading to a child and answering maternal questions during “book sharing” were significant predictors of children’s vocabulary acquisition in both English and Spanish. Moreover, the study found a negative correlation between language activities supporting English acquisition and Spanish outcomes, and vice versa.
Mancilla-Martinez, Gamez, Banu Vagh, and Lesaux (2016) conducted a 2-phase study that had a goal of extending the existing research on parents’ reports measures of children’s productive vocabulary (p. 1). Researchers drew participants from Head Start programs held in the US; in these programs, English was the primary teaching language. All participants reported Spanish (or English-Spanish) as the language(s) they usually use at home-related settings.
For measuring the productive vocabularies children had in both English and Spanish, the researchers used the MacArthur Communicative Development Inventories. Findings showed “concurrent and discriminant validity, based on standardized measures of vocabulary, as measures of productive vocabulary for the growing population of bilingual children” (Mancilla-Martinez et al., 2016, p. 1). This suggests that parent reports can be valid and cost-effective tools for vocabulary enhancement purposes of English-Spanish bilingual children.
Kim, Lee, and Lee (2015) examined Korean American parent-child relationships through bilingual child use (p. 269). By applying the positioning theory, researchers aimed to analyze home interactions of three Korean American families with children aged 6-12 to investigate the dynamics of bilingual usage and the roles of parents and their children. It was found that interactions between children and their parents were characterized by complicated negotiations regarding the boundaries of parental authority through language changes between English and Korean as well as changes in speech levels between informal and formal in the Korean language. Linguistic strategies were shown to either move away from the traditional hierarchical relationships or to remain true to the norms associated with the roles of traditional Korean households, which points to the changing patterns of language expectations.
Kang (2012) also focused on the Korean American context and explored the language ideologies and practices of Korean-immigrant parents with regards to the language development of their American-born children (p. 431). By interviewing seven ethnic Korean families and their children aged 5-7, Kang (2012) found that Korean-immigrant parents wanted to pass their native language to their American-born children, which was largely associated with their own language barrier as well as the perception that language plays the role of an individual’s identity marker (p. 431). Language strategies such as language mixing and parental feedback served as catalysts for the integration of specific family language policies related to functions, forms, and Korean language teaching for American-born children from immigrant families.
Dixon, Zhao, Quiroz, and Shin (2012) investigated home and community factors that influenced bilingual children’s ethnic language acquisition and development (p. 541). Researchers focused on a sample of 282 Singaporean children whose mother tongues were Chinese, Malay, and Tamil, and who were also English language learners. Researchers achieved some interesting results. First, the found a positive effect of parents speaking their ethnic languages and children’s ethnic vocabulary while speaking only English limited their vocabulary. Second, the language community strongly influenced children’s ethnic vocabulary acquisition. Third, the family income had different effects on vocabulary development depending on the language community. Fourth, watching TV programs in English predominantly hindered children’s ethnic language vocabulary. The mentioned findings point to the need for a sustained home and community support when it comes to teaching children their ethnic language.
Caesar and Wolf Nelson (2014) conducted a pilot study that focused on examining the effectiveness of home-school partnerships in the process of enhancing literacy skills of Spanish-speaking preschool children of migrant farmworkers (p. 317). Nineteen children participated in the study (11 experimental and 8 control). Their parents were asked to provide labeled drawings of different family activities for assisting bilingual literacy instruction in the classroom. The Early Literacy Skills Assessment scale was used for conducting pretest and posttest measures in English and Spanish. The results of the pilot study showed a significant improvement in pre- and posttest Spanish and English scores for the experimental group of children; however, the control group did not show an improvement in print and alphabetic knowledge. Such findings show that parental involvement in the form of parent-generated content for classroom learning may be a feasible approach; however, more research is needed regarding this topic.
Rodriguez (2015) also explored strategies employed by Latino families with regard to raising their children bilingually in Spanish and English (p. 177). Also, the researcher explored families’ rationale for bilingualism and the challenges they did not expect to meet during the implementation of their language teaching strategies. Data for the research was acquired from comparative case studies over three years. To teach children how to maintain their native language, families were predominantly planning to speak and support Spanish at home and other family settings while English was taught predominantly at school.
Among the three families involved in the research, two expressed concern with their children not being skilled enough in English by the time they started school, and only one family expected to meet the challenges that their child would face when learning and maintaining her native language. The findings of the research suggest that productive bilingualism attainment presented more difficulties compared to learning and being proficient in only English.
It is also important to mention the study conducted by De Houwer (2015) who examined the concept of harmonious bilingual development in young families (p. 169). Harmonious bilingual development is defined as the experience of an individual to feel well and confident in situations associated with language contact regarding children and their families. The research is noteworthy for its contribution to systematic ethnographic studies into harmonious bilingual development. De Houwer (2015) proposed the following constituting elements of harmonious bilingual development:
- using parent-child interactions in a single language;
- children’s active use of two languages instead of one;
- children’s relative equal proficiency in both languages (p. 169).
It was asserted that positive attitudes towards early bilingualism in children contribute to the enhancement of the mentioned elements.
Overall, parents perceive their children’s bilingualism as a positive aspect that can provide them with more opportunities in the future, especially when it comes to careers. However, the most common explanation for developing bilingualism among children is associated with the preservation of the cultural and ethnic heritage. In the majority of cases, the involvement of parents in the development of bilingualism offers more benefit than harm, especially in instances when there is active and effective communication between children and their parents. The literature review showed that the notion of bilingualism could be approached from different perspectives; however, the key principle relates to adjusting to the children’s needs.
Implementing change for improving the language outcomes of bilingual children requires the involvement of two types of stakeholders: families and educators. Because children face significant challenges when being taught in one language at school and encouraged to speak another at home, it is essential to develop a unified framework that will combine the efforts of parents and educators. At home, parents should understand the benefits of speaking both languages instead of one; similarly, educators should try integrating two languages in their teaching. The following strategies are proposed to be implemented at home:
- Reading to the child for increasing his or her vocabulary in both languages.
- Adding more exposure to the less preferred language in the household.
- Joining playgroups and meetings in the local area.
- Making learning fun: allowing the child to choose new books and games.
- If necessary, hiring a tutor for reinforcing the child’s grammar.
- Make a “need” for the child to speak both languages.
The following strategies are recommended to be implemented at school:
- Using group work to encourage children to communicate and collaborate with students from different cultures and backgrounds.
- Adopting a content-based approach for language instruction to incorporate both languages for incorporating languages into every lesson.
- Maintaining a positive relationship with all students to maintain better academic performance.
- Setting clear expectations about the usage of both languages.
- Allowing students to trans-language so that students can express themselves when needed (Wong, 2015).
- Avoiding low grades for students that struggle differentiating between two languages.
The mentioned framework will allow students to exercise their language development both at home and in classrooms, without one language prevailing over another. The strategy can be implemented through educating parents and teachers on the tools of bilingualism development. Then, parents and teachers will be asked to integrate the strategies into their everyday interactions with bilingual students to see whether they will bring any benefit. It is important to measure pre- and post-implementation outcomes to determine whether the strategy brings any benefit.
Findings and Discussion
When raising bilingual children, parents often face the challenge of not knowing what strategy will suit their needs the best. While there is no unified approach as to how bilingual children should be taught two languages, it is imperative that parents participated in language development. It was found that the majority of families spoke one language at home and delegate teaching another to schools. On the contrary, schools can often ignore the need for students to learn their native language and only focus on second language acquisition. For this reason, it was proposed to develop a two-sided approach to address the needs of bilingual children: while parents should encourage their children to speak a language other than the native, teachers must not ignore the linguistic heritage of their students and make changes in classroom instructions accordingly.
Caesar, L., & Wolf Nelson, N. (2014). Parental involvement in language and literacy acquisition: A bilingual journaling approach. Child Language Teaching and Therapy, 30(3), 317-336.
De Houwer, A. (2015). Harmonious bilingual development: Young families’ well-being in language contact situation. International Journal of Bilingualism, 19(2), 169-184.
Dixon, L., Zhao, J., Quiroz, B., & Shin, J-Y. (2012). Home and community factors influencing bilingual children’s ethnic language vocabulary development. International Journal of Bilingualism, 16(4), 541-565.
Kang, H-S. (2012). Korean-immigrant parents’ support of their American-born children’s development and maintenance of the home language. Early Childhood Education Journal, 41, 431-438.
Kim, A., Lee, J-S., & Lee, W. (2015). Examining Korean American parent-child relationships through bilingual language use. Journal of Family Communication, 15, 269-287.
Lee, M., Shetgiri, R., Barina, A., Tillitski, J., & Flores, G. (2015). Raising bilingual children: A qualitative study of parental attitudes, beliefs, and intended behaviors. Hispanic Journal of Behavioral Sciences, 37(4), 503-521.
Mancilla-Martinez, J., Gamez, P., Banu Vagh, S., & Lesaux, N. (2016). Parent reports of young Spanish-English bilingual children’s productive vocabulary: A development and validation study. Language, Speech, and Hearing Services in Schools, 47, 1-15.
Quiroz, B., Snow, C., & Zhao, J. (2010). Vocabulary skills of Spanish-English bilinguals: Impact of mother-child language interactions and home language and literacy support. International Journal of Bilingualism, 14(4), 379-399.
Rodriguez, V. (2015). Families and educators supporting bilingualism in early childhood. School Community Journal, 25(2), 177-194.
Wong, K. (2015). Five fundamental strategies for bilingual learners. Web.