Raising a bilingual child: a personal perspective from a linguist mother



The purpose of this post is not to provide any tips on how to raise a bilingual child, but rather to share my personal dilemma on this issue. Let me put this straight; I am a Linguist and a bilingual mother. The juxtaposition of {Linguist} and {Bilingual} mother is probably rare. Let me treat each concept separately. A Linguist Mother. Yes, perhaps it might sound flashy, but what exactly does not mean? Perhaps I can first define the not so glittery aspect of being a Linguist mother. Knowing too much about language and developmental linguistics can be a heavy burden ! Perhaps unlike other mothers you can over-train your child (e.g. by talking or singing and reading aloud everyday), you want your child to learn foreign languages, you are more prone to panic if your child is slow in their speech development, you are more cautious about the ambient language/dialect/accent in such degree that this affects your social network and the country/city/neighbourhood you decide to raise your child. The crux of the matter is that you do I’m afraid become quite prescriptive and this is over-driven by your motherly instincts. I do hope I outgrow these habits in due course!

What about the positive aspects? Your child will receive more enhanced input simply because you can put all your knowledge into practice. Especially if your child is not learning a phonics language, such as English, you can provide your child with phonics instruction at pre-school age; you can better recognize your child’s speech development, so if they are showing variable output you know that this is a normal sign of U-shape development; if they are reluctant to speak you know that this is because they are going through the silent period, etc. The best part is you can collect longitudinal data from your child, especially if you specialize in developmental linguistics. In other words, they can end up being your guinea pig, and that’s perhaps not positive from the child’s perspective!

All said and done. What about the second concept? A Bilingual Mother. I confess, this is the part I am struggling most as an English-Turkish bilingual mother. I am a Heritage speaker (HS) of Turkish,  and typically HSs are understood as early bilinguals, whose first language, the heritage language they were exposed to from birth at home, is different from the main language of their society (Valdes, 2000; Polinsky & Kagan, 2007, among others). Hence, as the second generation of the Turks living in London, I speak both ‘Turkey-Turkish’ (when conversing with the first generation, or when in Turkey) and ‘Europe-Turkish’, or to be more precise ‘London-Turkish’. As part of my daily translanguaging practice in Britain, I use a hybrid language and the mixing of English and Turkish is somewhat inevitable (!).  Raising a bilingual child (for my son this means simultaneous acquisition) requires intentional planning and can be a lot of hard work. There is no consensus on which strategy works well and nor have I established a strategic plan. Perhaps the ‘one language one parent’ strategy might be the easiest way out, but the strategy is not my concern. My concern is the nature of the hybrid language input. This morning, for instance, I found myself asking my son the following: ‘oglum car-in nerde?’ (where is your car? my son). In most cases, while at home, Turkish remains as the dominant language, while English is the embedded language. I am an advocate for Heritage Language Maintenance, so my decision to use Turkish is a conscious one. Yet I find myself reading aloud in English and teaching my son most concrete nouns in English, but with the Turkish grammar, so I code-switch and -mix. It is reassuring to know though that his lexical repertoire is in equal proportion of English and Turkish words, and most importantly he continues to acquire the words associated with Turkish culture (e.g. abla ‘sister’; abi ‘brother’; amca ‘uncle’, etc.).

So, to keep a long story short, as a bilingual and a linguist mother I have to remind myself that every child is unique and I have to do what suits best for my family. I also have to be aware that monolingual children might initially outperform my son, but he will eventually catch up. After all he has to process more than one language! He will also like myself acquire Turkey-Turkish, London-Turkish, London-Turkish-English, London-English, British-English. Each concept I enlist here deserves a separate discussion, I know! The crux of the matter is that studies/models on child language acquisition needs to address this emerging population sample. Oh and to make things more complicated, there’s also biliteracy development, which I dare not discuss at this particular point. I will instead wrap up this post with a picture of my son’s library (a portion- not all)… güle güle


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