The benefits and challenges of raising bilingual children

Sophia Fetzer, 12, and Jonah Fetzer, 10, speak German and Spanish in addition to English. Their parents encourage them to read books in all three languages. P
The benefits and challenges of raising bilingual children

Growing up in Argentina, Monica Fetzer remembers times when she wanted to speak only Spanish.

But her parents, the children of German immigrants, spoke German in their home. They sent Monica and her siblings to a bilingual school where they spoke Spanish in the morning and German in the afternoon. On Sunday, they attended a German church.


Learning and speaking in two languages was part of her daily life.

It was hard work, Monica recalls, and there were so many times when it would have been easier just to speak Spanish.


Nowadays her two children make this same argument. That's because Monica and her husband, Greg, an American, are raising their children to speak German and Spanish — in addition to their native English.

"Sometimes they would prefer to speak English because it's easier," says Monica, whose family lives in Towson. "But I remind them of all the family they have in Germany."

Her children, Sophia, 12, and Jonah, 10, have visited Germany three times and Argentina four times. Their worldview has been broadened exactly the way she and her husband had hoped.

"One of the gifts of learning a language when you are young is that you can go to another country and really communicate," she says.

For most American families, learning and retaining a second language is enough. The idea of a third language sounds like crazy talk.

One parent,one language
Here’s how it worked for the Fetzers: Monica spoke only German to her children when they were very young. Greg, a Lutheran pastor, spoke only English. This one-parent, one-language rule is one of the most common ways parents raise children to speak two languages.

Monica made a point to read to her children in German, and found their favorite American books in German translations, so they could be exposed to the same stories in their second language. In recent years, this has included the Magic Tree House series.

Around the time each child turned 3, she also began teaching them Spanish. This was easy for her because she teaches Spanish both privately as well as part time at Our Lady of Grace School in Parkton. Her hope is that when the children go to high school, they will add to their languages by studying Chinese.

A language for home,a language for school
From the early days of their marriage, Bret and Naomi Davis, of Towson, have spoken Japanese in their home. It was the first language for their children, Toshi, 8, and Koto, 6, who learned English at school and through play dates or activities with other children.

Naomi grew up in Japan and began learning English in sixth grade. She first came to the United States as a high school exchange student and later met her husband in Europe. He began studying Japanese in graduate school.


"Bret and I never thought about mixing languages in our family," Naomi wrote in an e-mail. "I sometimes feel fake when I speak English to my kids, and I feel my English doesn't have the same power as my Japanese does."

Sometimes, she says, she can spend an entire day without speaking English to her children.

From Aug. 2011 to Aug. 2012, the family lived in Kyoto, Japan, while Bret was on research sabbatical for his job as a philosophy professor at Loyola University Maryland. And the family immersed themselves in Japanese life and language. Toshi, for example, played on a local soccer team.

"We learned that we are at home!" Naomi wrote of the family's adjustment to life abroad. Koto, in particular, has become more outgoing, she says. "She was very timid at preschool in the U.S., but too proud to play by herself. She used to stand alone and look at the other kids."

The language barrier kept her from socializing as much as she wanted to, and Naomi admitted that she felt badly that her daughter had to experience that. But without speaking Japanese at home, her children would not be bilingual in language and culture.

"Bilingual child raising is a very slow and long process and I know we will face a lot of hardship in a near future," Naomi wrote. "But I believe it is our responsibility to teach their mother/father's language and culture as much as we can."


The academic advantage
“These parents are on to something,” says Dr. Afra Hersi, a professor of literacy education at Loyola University Maryland. Her research includes work on bilingual teenagers and their school experiences.

Bilingual families need to have an "explicit goal" of bilingualism and an idea of how they will keep it up, Hersi says. Although children will learn some language if a parent speaks to them occasionally in a second language, parents need to do more if they want their children to become bilingual.

Hersi herself grew up speaking Somali at home and English in school. Later, her grandmother came to live with her family and "our Somali got deeper," she says. She taught Hersi jokes, riddles and even how to cook in Somali.

"The powerful thing about language is that it helps kids communicate with their families," Hersi says. "But they also develop a cultural sensitivity and a global context for the world we live in."

The latest educational research also bolsters the academic benefits of bilingualism.

"It's kind of exciting," Hersi says. "For so long, the conversation was about duality of bilingualism versus English only. Now we know that bilingualism is an advantage. The question is: How do we build on this?"

A language for each country
Kerstin Waltz readily admitted that her children have reached an age where speaking two languages has become a challenge. She and her husband, Jim, who is American, were living in her hometown of Frankfurt, Germany when their daughter Sophia, now 12, and son Noah, now 9, were born. German was the children’s first language.

Today Sophia and Noah are typical American kids — who speak mostly English.


"You work all day. The kids are in American school all day and they don't see an incentive to speak German," Kerstin says, whose family now resides in Catonsville. "And they are at that age where they are embarrassed."

But the German "is in there," Jim says. When the family returns to Frankfurt for summer trips or when relatives come to visit, Sophia is back to being a nearly fluent speaker. And Noah knows enough to converse about his favorite topics: soccer and candy.

"Sometimes I make an effort to have an all-German day where we only speak German," Kerstin says.

Weekend Watch


Plan your weekend with our picks for the best events, restaurant and movie reviews, TV shows and more. Delivered every Thursday.

But it feels natural to speak German in Germany and English in the U.S. "We had the same problem when we were over there," she says. "We didn't speak much English."

The couple met when they were working at the same Chicago hospital. She is an occupational therapist and he is a neuroscientist. After graduate school, they moved to Frankfurt in 1999 because Kerstin's father was ill and she wanted to be near her family. Jim relished the new experience of living and working in a different country.

Five years later, they returned to the United States. Now they keep up with German news through the Internet and travel to Frankfurt every other summer. At home in Catonsville, Kerstin makes traditional German foods, like schnitzel and sauerkraut. And Noah frequently wears the jersey from his favorite soccer team, Eintracht Frankfurt.


"I know they have a connection and are very proud," Kerstin says.

Both she and Jim said they hope their children spend a year in her homeland after they graduate from high school. Then they will learn to speak fluently and to appreciate a different world view.

"They just see a different world. When we go to Germany, they see the different ways to do things and I know they will always have that," Kerstin says.

Resources for Bilingual Families
This website lists, by language, other websites, books, CDs and resources that are helpful to speakers. In the discussion forum, parents ask, “How late is too late for a bilingual start?” or “What do you do when a child refuses to speak your language?”
Here, French, Spanish and other speakers can find fellow conversationalists in groups like the Baltimore French Language Meetup or the Baltimore Spanish Language Meetup.

Start with an easy series that your child likes and find those books in your second language, says language teacher Monica Fetzer.

Need ideas? Sandra Boynton's "Moo, Baa, La La La" is available in Spanish; Eric Carle's "The Very Hungry Caterpillar" can be purchased in German. Check out Enoch Pratt Library for its wide selection of children's books in other languages.

Your local school
The Baltimore County Public School system has a French immersion program at Wellwood International Elementary School. Students can continue the program at Sudbrook Magnet Middle School. In addition, Archbishop Borders School, a Catholic K-8 school in Baltimore City, offers a Spanish immersion program.