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Immigrants, Their Languages, and Their Children

Alex Poole presents three modest principles to facilitate familial bilingualism

Headlines like “Majority of Americans Want Immigrants to Learn English, Poll Says” (Benedetti, 2013), columns claiming the “government should do more to preserve the role of English” (“English by the Polls,” 2017), and English-only legislation promoted by reactionary politicians suggest the U.S. is a linguistic dystopia where immigrants cleave to their mother tongues and refuse to learn English. Such fear-mongering is at odds with actual research, which has demonstrated that most immigrants speak at least some English (Lopez and Radford, 2017) and nearly all view learning it as necessary for survival (Farkas, 2003).

Linguistic alarmists might also be pleasantly surprised to learn immigrant parents are fabulously successful at producing English-dominant children. Among Asian Americans, a mere 14% report having good conversational skills in their heritage language, while 34% claim to have none (Kohut, 2013). Nationwide, the majority of second-generation Latinos prefer English when listening to music (54%), watching television (69%), and thinking about their lives (63%). Forty percent report being English dominant (Taylor et al., 2012). More than a decade ago, Hasson’s (2006) study of Miami-area Latino students showed that although 90.6% claimed Spanish as their first language, 75.2% were English dominant, and only 24.3% felt equally comfortable in Spanish and English. However, these numbers should not be interpreted as immigrant indifference to passing on their first languages. Decades of research have demonstrated a deep desire among many immigrants—motivated by factors such as maintaining ethnic identities and family connections—to rear bilingual children (Schecter, Sharken-Taboada, and Bayley, 1996; Park and Sarkar, 2007).

Dual-language programs offer hope for some families. Unfortunately, only about half of all states have devised relevant guidelines for teacher certification, and just a few offer programs in languages like Chinese (N=14), French (N=8), and Arabic (N=5) (Boyle et al., 2015). Even in places with dense Latino populations, like South Florida, districts have difficulty attracting certified Spanish-speaking teachers, and immigrant parents lament their children’s relatively low Spanish proficiency (Veiga, 2015). Those who try to foster bilingualism in the home may find the task overwhelming (DeCapua and Wintergerst, 2009; Kondo-Brown, 2003) and express skepticism about its feasibility (Nawa, 2011).

Like other bilingual parents, my wife and I have desired to cultivate our daughters’ identity (Latina) and maintain bonds with family abroad (Colombia). As someone who came to Spanish as an adult, I did not want my children to share my struggle to become bilingual, nor did I want them to relate to the emotional rollercoaster experienced by my father. Regarding his inability to speak Yiddish, the Detroit-raised retired theater professor has vacillated between feelings of sadness and anger. Although his comprehension skills are strong, limited productive abilities prevented him from fully communicating with his grandparents, whom he adored. Letters, postcards, and notes written on the backs of photographs remain incomprehensible to this day. During childhood, I witnessed discomforting confrontations about the matter and cringed at the thought of his mother’s defensiveness reincarnating in my wife.

As a linguist, I have also long known about the many benefits of maintaining a child’s heritage language, including educational advancement (e.g., transfer of literacy skills to English, acquisition of grade-level content; Krashen, 1996), a healthy cultural identity (e.g., closeness to the culture of the heritage language; Lee, 2002), and professional opportunities (e.g., increased job competitiveness; Fanton, 2017). Even though most parents find these facts intuitively true, they do not know steps they themselves can take to nurture bilingualism within their own households. In the second-language acquisition theory and methods courses I teach, my pre- and in-service teachers regularly remind me of the necessity of communicating concise and jargon-free information to immigrant parents, many of whom work several jobs, have limited economic resources, and find academic publications dry and impenetrable.

After sifting through mountains of research over many years, selecting the best of it, and experiencing good old-fashioned trial and error when applying it, I have formulated three principles which can facilitate familial bilingualism. These principles reflect my own family’s success and can be explained by activists and teachers to help others achieve the same. Even though they in no way guarantee equal abilities in both languages, such an outcome is not realistic in a majority-monolingual country and, in fact, rarely is the case for people who claim to be bilingual. As acclaimed scholar of bilingualism François Grosjean (n.d.)—himself a product of a dual-language upbringing—reminds us, “bilinguals know their languages to the level that they need them. Some bilinguals are dominant in one language, others do not know how to read and write one of their languages, others have only passive knowledge of a language, and, finally, a very small minority have equal and perfect fluency in their languages” (para. 4).

Not surprisingly, my daughters—ages ten and twelve—are stronger in English than in Spanish. However, they have few comprehension difficulties when watching television, listening to music, and talking to Abuelita Carmen, my wife’s mother, on the phone. Spontaneous conversations with family friends and Spanish-speaking waiters do not flummox them. Age-appropriate, popular publications are generally comprehensible. While their writing skills in Spanish are not at grade level, they can compose Mother’s Day and birthday cards to my wife and look forward to studying at our niece’s school during month-long sojourns to Colombia. Speech production with relatives involves high levels of fluency and accuracy, and my wife’s high school classmates express disappointment that their American-raised nieces and nephews cannot talk like our girls.

Principle 1: Focus on Their Interests, Not Yours

I cannot be certain why these particular kids struggle with Spanish, but I am pretty sure it is not for their parents’ want of trying. The problem could lie in mom and dad’s lack of empathy. The following story exemplifies my point. Several years ago, I heard a radio host interrogate his mother about throwing away the massive number of comic books he had accumulated as a teen. She essentially responded that he should have been reading real books instead of garbage. Undoubtedly, her intentions were good, but she was guided by a common yet erroneous parental belief: My children should be reading what I value, not what they value. In his classic article on literacy development “How to Create Nonreaders,” Alfie Kohn (2010) describes how teachers diminish children’s enjoyment of reading—and their motivation to voluntarily engage in it—when they limit their choices. When bilingual parents make the same mistake, it is especially tragic since they deny their children access to materials that will both teach them the language and facilitate further motivation to engage it. According to Krashen (1993) and Shin and Krashen (2008), reading self-selected, interesting materials (e.g., books, magazines, comics, newspapers) leads to significant gains in grammar and vocabulary. The experience of my friend and tennis partner David demonstrates how this works. Raised in Taiwan until second grade, he subsequently received limited exposure to Mandarin until late middle school, when he started to watch martial arts movies in Chinese-language movie theaters in Los Angeles. His obsession with this topic led him to devour all available print materials related to it. He struggled at first to understand many Chinese characters yet eventually acquired them. He credits this experience with helping him survive medical school in Taiwan.

Obviously, preliterate toddlers lack the skills to independently hunt for books, but by monitoring our children’s interests, my wife and I were able to select materials we could read to them. Like most other children, they loved Curious George, Dora the Explorer, Barney, and Elmo. We encountered little resistance when bedtime reading involved these characters and often had to reread stories several times before they agreed to sleep. Ever ready to delay going to bed, they still request some light reading three to four nights a week. Recently, we completed a Spanish translation of Little House on the Prairie. Some of their favorites include Charlotte’s Web, A Cricket in Times Square, and Dork Diaries—all in Spanish. Once or twice a page, they usually ask me questions about vocabulary and meaning or attempt to relate the content to their own lives. Conversations take place in both languages, yet they are processing grammar, vocabulary, and content in Spanish—and it does not feel like work.

While they like many of the same books, they nevertheless gravitate to different types of publications. Our older daughter prefers fairy tales and fashion-related texts, while her younger sister likes magazines and soccer-related materials. I have even caught the latter reading a biography of Colombian star James Rodriguez I purchased for my wife. Fortunately, both can hear and watch him, in Spanish, on television and the internet. Most days, I arrive home to find my daughters and wife watching games from Spain and Latin America. Miscellaneous words like golazo (goal), penalti (penalty), and métela (kick it in) stand out among their screams of excitement.

Outside of sports, most of their television consumption is in English, with some notable exceptions. Legendary Mexican comedy El Chavo del Ocho is a favorite at dinner, and dubbed versions of the Karate Kid, Avatar, Matilda, and Star Wars easily grab their attention. On weekends with free movie channels, Spanish versions of Harry Potter and other recent hit movies are a way of avoiding doing dishes, walking the dog, and other chores. They think I am giving them a break; I know I am giving them an education.

Music is also a major source of Spanish input. Old salsa, such as anything by Héctor Lavoe and El Gran Combo, always grabs their attention. Pop hits by Shakira, Carlos Vives, and Juanes are popular in our household, especially since they are all Colombian. The most popular form—which I personally cannot stand—is reguetón, which mixes hip-hop with traditional Caribbean and Latin American music. I am more likely to hear my daughters mumbling Nicky Jam, Daddy Yankee, and J Balvin than Demi Lovato, Selena Gomez, or Justin Bieber.

Principle 2: Select the Comprehensible, Not the Difficult

My daughters’ embrace of these artists, television programs, and reading materials is not only because they find them interesting; they are also comprehensible. Krashen (2017) eloquently condenses decades of language-acquisition research in the following statement about the power of comprehension: “we acquire language when we understand what we hear or read. Our mastery of the individual components of language (‘skills’) is the result of getting comprehensible input.” They understand the lyrics of Latin music because English-language songs tend to focus on the same themes: love, family, and overcoming obstacles. They first saw Harry Potter, Karate Kid, Avatar, Matilda, and Star Wars in English and therefore comprehended the content when they viewed the Spanish versions. Likewise, they know the ending of almost all Spanish-language books before they turn the first page because they have read them in English. They played soccer for many years without watching televised games, so the language was mostly familiar when my wife gave them World Cup fever. When it was not, the physical actions provided sufficient scaffolds, as they have in other television programs and movies.

In my experience, when interest, background knowledge, and scaffolding are all missing, the experience becomes agonizing for all. Political podcasts that assume a large academic vocabulary, a deep background in American history, and an understanding of U.S. governmental institutions enabled me to tolerate long weekend drives to soccer games. I abandoned them, however, due to constant harassment from my daughters: “This is boring!” “We don’t understand what they’re talking about!” “Not again!” During Hispanic Heritage Month last year, I attempted to read them a biography of Cesar Chavez, yet found the process painfully slow due to the number of questions they asked about him, the historical context in which he lived, and myriad vocabulary words. Not surprisingly, I would find them asleep before I finished the night’s chapter.

Even when just one of these elements—interest, background knowledge, or scaffolding—is not present, the language fails to engage them. For example, my kids live and breathe everything Harry Potter: the movies, the clothing, and the magic themes the character has generated in popular culture. However, the movies are not identical to the books, none of which they have read in English. When I attempted to read the first novel to them, they interrupted me every three to four sentences to ask about the meanings of words, played with the dog, or simply fell asleep. After only a few nights, I gave up.

Principle 3: Quickly Abandon Sinking Ships

There were other times I should have given up, but I did not. Both children have studied the presidents since preschool and maintain an interest in the founding fathers. Our many discussions of them, early American history, and law suggested that a nine- and eleven-year-old possessed sufficient background to comprehend a Spanish version of the U.S. Constitution. Although they expressed no explicit or implicit boredom while I read, each night I spent most of my time providing background information about democracy, Great Britain, and the American Revolution—all in English. The girls received a primer for the AP U.S. History exam, but not much Spanish. The same stubbornness occurred with a supposedly child-friendly version of Don Quixote I picked up in Spain. It looked simple enough and had wonderful artwork. It also was a classic I could brag my daughters had read. While the story had supposedly been adapted for children, mine did not have the background necessary for comprehension. As a result, the experience became a lecture in etymology and 16th-century Europe. The last time I failed to quickly abandon ship followed a visit to the Memphis Civil Rights Museum, where we saw the shocking conditions under which African slaves were captured, transported to the Americas, and worked to death. My children’s dumbfoundedness encouraged me to further educate them on the topic, so I picked up a Spanish translation of The Slave Dancer. Being the recipient of the Newbery Medal, a prestigious award for children’s literature, this text seemed perfect. It was not. Although I did not finish the book, my feelings about the subject pushed me to go on far too long and create an environment of mental gymnastics rather than authentic learning.

In spite of my background in language learning and pedagogy, I have occasionally operated under the misconception that anything of pedagogical value must be unpleasant. The pull of this idea is so strong that remembering “there’s a vital difference between that which is rigorous and that which is merely onerous” (Kohn, 1999) is almost a daily necessity if one is to avoid it. Its perniciousness involves both wasting time and pushing children to associate language learning with the exhausting aspects of school. After eight or more hours of formal instruction, highly structured extracurricular activities, and evening homework, they are unlikely to embrace mom and dad’s schoolmarmary.

Some Practical Challenges

Luckily, I have not inflicted too much damage on them, and they continue to grow as Spanish speakers. When they report experiencing “the din in the head,” or the “involuntary mental rehearsal of language that is a result of obtaining comprehensible and interesting input” (Krashen, 2015), I feel extreme satisfaction. When they effortlessly chat with my brother-in-law about soccer, I melt. Even as I admonish them for laughing at my American accent, I get a sense of relief knowing they will never struggle with it.

There are, however, some practical challenges in applying these principles. Finding interesting and comprehensible audiovisual and print materials can be difficult, especially for non-European languages. Moreover, monolingual family members may feel intimidated or excluded and express unscientific concerns about developmental delays. Finally, the apparent simplicity of these principles might be met with suspicion by parents accustomed to complicated (and expensive) language-learning materials. Educators and activists may therefore need to devote time to explaining the principles and assisting parents in finding resources. Parents, however, will certainly need to commit to using their language and having fun with their children. I am sure everyone will agree this beats doing the dishes and walking the dog.

References available at

Dr. Alex Poole, PhD, is an applied linguist and professor of English at Western Kentucky University in Bowling Green, KY. His interests include second-language grammar, literacy, and Spanish–English bilingualism.

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