Bet kodėl? : Raising Bilingual Children

I recently stumbled across this fun series of blog posts written by families all over the world detailing their tips, tricks, and stories about raising multilingual children. The first post on accountability (written by Bilingual Avenue) inspired me to write my own explanation of why I’m raising my kids bilingual.

Reason #1: I’ve joked before that if I got a chance to go back in time and study a second subject in college, hands down, I’d become a linguist. I love languages. I love the process of learning a new language. I love practicing that language and stumbling around until I figure out how the sentence is supposed to work. I enjoy learning the etymology of specific words and how a language changes over time. I adore wandering around and getting lost in countries where nobody speaks English…which is ironically one of my husband’s least favorite things to do, falling somewhere AFTER chasing angry bears, but BEFORE having to wash dishes immediately after dinner.

Sometimes I surprise myself with how much I want my kids to speak a language of a country they’ve never visited and I’ve only been to four times myself.

The why is a question I’ve pondered a lot, so writing down my reasons has been long overdue, but for sure starts with my love of languages. Besides Lithuanian, I studied a little bit of German in high school (don’t remember more than a few words), a smattering of Latin (at which point I discovered I’m really more into living languages…being able to converse in the language is a driving motivation for me), dove headlong into Italian when I studied abroad (and learned enough in three months to put together sentences when speaking with townspeople, but sadly forgot most of it when I returned to the States). I also began studying Spanish when living in Boston, but then got distracted by Lithuanian again. One of my favorite aspects of big city living were the many languages I came into contact with in Boston and Chicago.

Reason #2: It’s my motherland. And by motherland, I really mean “grandparents’ land.” All jokes aside, I was raised only speaking Lithuanian at home (Southern Florida) for the first decade of my life (my mother’s control over keeping us from speaking English at home waned around the time my youngest sister was born) and the idea of not raising my children in that same way – especially since I happened to marry another third generation Lithuanian – just seems….strange? Weird? I love hearing my kids speak Lithuanian: it makes my heart happy and my home feel like home. And at this point, the language has continued to stay strong in my family for two generations despite those generations being raised outside of the country of origin, so it seems a shame to have it end there.

Even if native Lithuanians might think our accents peculiar or our vocabulary lacking, I’m still happy with the foundation I’m laying for my kids’ language skills and the progress we’ve made.

Povi didn’t speak a word of English until he was around 1.5 years old, when we moved from Chicago to North Carolina. He only began piecing the English words into sentences around 3. Now, at just a little over 4 years old, he speaks a funny, fresh-off-the-boat accented English. Despite this, every day he surprises me with words he’s figured out by listening to me speak with others, or by chatting with his cousin.

This year he really began insisting that his cousin “says it this way!” and I would pretend to not understand until he’d say the sentence in Lithuanian. After some power struggles, I finally realized I don’t like pretending I don’t understand when it’s obvious I speak English with others constantly. Instead, I finally initiated a conversation about it: “Povi, I know Lukas speaks English sometimes, just like his Dada. And that’s great! But we speak Lithuanian at home, okay? So you can speak English over there, but Lithuanian here at home.” He thought long and hard for a moment, his dark eyebrows furrowed and lower lip stuck out. Finally, amazingly, he nodded. And he seems to have really gotten it! Now most of the time he doesn’t argumentatively insist that mėlyna is blue anymore. Instead, he seems excited to know two words for everything.

multilingual children

Reason #3: I would love to insert an “It’s so helpful and practical!” reason here, but…gosh darn it, Lithuanian just ISN’T super necessary or helpful in the United States. The only person I know within my generation who is benefiting in a tangible form from speaking Lithuanian is my brother-in-law. As a military officer, he actually receives a yearly bonus for being bilingual AND for his second language being Lithuanian, given the current political climate in Eastern Europe. BUT, even if it’s not useful for my kids to speak Lithuanian in the here and now (other than chatting with grandparents and cousins and the amazing cognitive benefits of being bilingual which are crazy-many, but I won’t get it into), I’m sure it’ll benefit them in many unimaginable ways throughout their life.

Travel, for one. Or if they decide to learn other languages. Knowing a second language will make the process of learning a third – or fourth! or fifth! language that much easier! I also strongly believe that being raised speaking a second language will give them a broader multicultural lens with which to view the world and a tie to their heritage – both incredibly valuable resources in a world that is changing rapidly. <3

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