Multilingual Children for Money or Love?

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My husband and I are the typical young family starting out our journey into parenthood. Like all parents, we want what is best for our children and thus, spend quite a bit of time researching everything from cribs and mattresses to baby food and stimulating toys.  But we also research something else: how to raise trilingual children.  Our ethnic backgrounds set us apart from many other parents around us in Suburban Michigan, as my husband is Lebanese and I am Mexican. We both came to the U.S. to attend college and ended up making our host country our permanent home.  We now have two young children after five years of marriage.

One thing that we value above any other is our multiculturalism—a perspective and lifestyle we want to impart to our children. It’s important to us that they take pride in all the pieces that are part of their individuality and enjoy the benefits of the different languages we speak as a family.  Our dream of fostering our family’s multilingualism has pushed me to think about what exactly we hope to achieve with raising multilingual children.

The chapter entitled “For Money or For Love” in the book Raising a Bilingual Child by Barbara Zurer Pearson uncovered my own motivations to nurture our childrens’ trilingualism. According to the author, some parents view fluency in more than one language as a financial benefit, citing the ability to land a job that is not available to monolinguals as one example. I didn’t identify myself with this experience until I realized that if I was not bilingual I would not have attended college in the U.S., landed a job in my host country right after graduation, and now be able to work from home as a translator.  Zurer Pearson is certainly right about that practical advantage.

For other parents, the importance of raising bilingual children is not related to a career but rather to family—the necessity of establishing a connection with relatives that live in the parent’s native countries and maintaining a special bond between these relatives and the children. We see the value of our children being able to converse with their grandparents fluently in Arabic and Spanish, but there is also an advantage in communicating as a native speaker when you are in a host country. Those who are not fluent in a language will not enjoy the same ease of meeting people and understanding a cultural context when traveling, as one example.

For my husband, multilingualism represents the ability to connect with a broader range of people as well as improved chances of reaching your goals. He often says “a new language equals a new person you can meet and more opportunities.” He sees language as both a social tool and a key to open doors that remain closed to monolinguals. For me, language is the first step in the ladder of cultural understanding. It is easier to relate to other people, their customs and traditions and even their work environment with a common language.  As foreigners, we would not have been able to assimilate and learn the etiquette of different environments such as those at college, at work and socially, if we didn’t speak English fluently.

Our children’s multilingualism is for both money and love. We want them to have many career choices and not be limited by the languages they speak, but also retain the ability to relate to their families and others abroad without being seen as outsiders or tourists in their own countries.  Speaking more than one language allows you to look for jobs in more than one country and to assimilate to more than one culture.

The movie Tortilla Soup reinforced my excitement over raising multilingual children for both money and love. The film is about a family in which the father is a first generation U.S. immigrant from Mexico who has made the effort to teach his children both cultures and languages. His three adult children represent what I want for mine: they are fluent in two cultures and languages with a solid mix of values from both their Mexican and American heritages. In my case, I would like my children to be fluent in not just Arabic and Spanish but to be culturally fluent in Lebanese and Mexican culture as well.

My children will hopefully have no boundaries when it comes to choosing their career and location. And I hope they can easily connect to and share in their heritage. This means understanding the jokes of each culture, word plays in each language that require native fluency to achieve, and mixing all the great parts of each of the cultures that run in their blood to develop their own personalities. They will be citizens of not only the U.S. but of Lebanon and Mexico too.  And most of all, our children’s multilingualism will enable them to be citizens of the world.

1 COMMENT

  1. We’d hoped that our daughter would be interested in learning more than one language for the reasons you listed. But it’s taken on a life of it’s own. At her own request, she’s now in Spanish and Mandarin classes 5 days a week. At home she’s soaking up Arabic and French (my husband teaches her those) and she’s even trying to squeeze out of me every bit of Japanese I learned over a decade ago. Languages are definitely her thing.

    But really, it could have gone the other way very easily. And you know? We would have been fine with that. There was a time when she didn’t want to hear my husband’s dialect (Derija) at home at all. And we certainly didn’t push it.

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