Raising bilingual kids is a conversation that comes up a LOT in my life these days. With a toddler who’s beginning to speak in full sentences and many bilingual friends with kids the same age, it’s inevitable. Even strangers comment on it! Hearing an American mother only speaking in a foreign language to her child intrigues everyone – especially here in the South. Since the logistics of raising bilingual children and languages in general fascinate me, I’m always more than ready to talk about the subject with anyone who’ll listen.
I was raised speaking Lithuanian as my first language, but (in a twist that usually surprises people) neither of my parents were born in Lithuania, nor was I. All four of my grandparents fled to America immediately following the Second World War, when the Soviet Union took control of the Baltic States. Upon settling in New York, my grandparents and their Lithuanian friends worked hard to create an American-Lithuanian community. These well-educated immigrants (it was mostly the “intelligentsia” crowd who were fleeing the Soviets at this time) placed a huge emphasis on raising children who would be able to move back to Lithuania the second the Soviets were kicked out. Little did they realize that the Soviet Union would last for nearly fifty years. Growing up, both my parents attended Lithuanian schools, Lithuanian camps, Lithuanian churches, and Lithuanian social events. It really wasn’t unusual that they ended up finding each other and marrying. It was also a given that when my parents had kids, they’d want to pass on their language and culture. I was raised hearing the phrase “Speak in Lithuanian!” thrown around a lot, even though by that point we had moved to Florida and I grew up without any Lithuanian friends my age. Obviously, my culture was still incredibly important to me, though. I’ve always known I would want to teach my children to speak Lithuanian, too. Sounds like an easy decision, right?
Guys, raising bilingual kids is HARD.
Really, really hard. Not only is it a lot of work, but there are so many different components to it. Let’s take your spouse, for instance. Are you married to a fluent Lithuanian speaker? Great! You’re ahead of the game. Are you married to an American whose learning Lithuanian for you? Fantastic! Your husband must really love languages – especially obscure ones! Are you married to an American who’s okay with not understanding every word that you’re speaking to your children? Great! It’s wonderful to have a supportive spouse. Are you married to someone who hates being left out of the conversation? Ouch. Understandable for your spouse to want to be included, but that makes it so much more tough for you.
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I have to admit – meeting another third-generation Lithuanian who spoke the language of my childhood and came from the same background as me was amazing. I’m so excited that’s one less hurtle in terms of our children learning Lithuanian. BUT if you think that makes it easy-peasy? Ha, you’re so wrong. Despite Lithuanian being both me and my husband’s first languages, both of us are much (much) more comfortable conversing in English. Our Lithuanian is dated (hello, language of our grandparents) and we rarely get to spend time with other Lithuanians. I’m often really jealous of Spanish speakers. Their language is so common here in the US (especially in North Carolina) and learning materials are so easy for them to access. Spanish playgroups? Spanish schools? Spanish reading materials? All at the tips of their fingers. Lithuanian is NOT a common language in the United States and moving from Chicago (where my husband grew up and where we lived during the first few years of marriage) to North Carolina (where my immediate family lives) was hard, because I was leaving behind one of the biggest Lithuanian-American communities in the country for a community of…at this moment? Roughly 18 people that I know personally. Ten of whom are related to me and seven of whom are under the age of eight.
So what’s my plan?
Not worry about it and then ship my kids off to Lithuania for a few years? It would be nice, I’ll admit. But no, we’re taking the slow and steady route of trying to DIY this minority language learning. Thankfully, I’ve picked up a lot of tips from my parents, my husband’s family, other bilingual friends, and my 2.5 years as a parent (yes, please laugh with me at how very much we are at the beginning of this journey). Here’s what we’ve got going so far…
- I’m a huge fan of reading. It’s such an important life skill in so many ways. With this in mind, I only ever read to my kids in Lithuanian. This is a little sad when I have to pass over books with gorgeous rhythms or rhymes (here’s looking at you, Dr. Seuss), but for right now I want to just pile on the Lithuanian exposure as much as possible. I know I can’t (and don’t want to) avoid reading in English to my kids forever, which is just another reason I’m strict with myself about this while they’re young. I’ve read in multiple places about how important reading comprehension is towards language skills – that’s a given. But interestingly enough, learning to read in the minority language FIRST is also considered a huge step towards developing the child’s skills and retention rate in that language.
- Another important factor is making sure that the books have corresponding words in the minority language available for the child to see. Many friends I know are content to just translate the English text into the minority language on the fly, but then the child will have a harder time associating the word with what the text looks like in the minority language. In addition, you won’t necessarily always be “reading” the same words if you’re making the translation up. Children LOVE to predict what comes next. Isn’t that one reason why books like “The Hungry Caterpillar” and “We’re going on a Bear Hunt” are so beloved among children? They want to be able to chant “We’re going on a bear hunt!” right along with you! This is why I’m so fanatic about translating books. My time spent on translating fluctuates, but I’ve got at least 30 or so of my favorite English books translated (with the translations pasted onto the pages) and continuously have more translations on the back burner. (I also have some amazing friends who keep sending me books from Lithuania, but ordering books from Lithuania can get pricey fast! Plus, I just really love being able to read aloud my personal, childhood favorites). Vincas just bought this children’s bible and reads them one page at night before bed. The translation is ridiculously not child-friendly (I was laughing at how hard the words were), but it’s helping him dust his Lithuanian reading skills off while also giving the kids some bible story time, so double win.
I try to read to the boys for at least 20 minutes every day and we will often sing a few Lithuanian songs then, too.
- I’m also making some flash cards (Povi loves bugs and I’m not familiar with many bug names in Lithuanian, so that’s my first project) and am hoping to start using those with Povi in a game sort of way. My sister has a neat set of Lithuanian flashcards from our childhood that she’s planning on framing in her kids’ room, which is both fun and instructive for her kids.
- We play a lot of Lithuanian children’s music around the house. I have “Pucia Vejas” in my car for when we’re driving somewhere (yes, I’m totally sick of the songs already, but hoping Povi starts learning the words soon) and he listens to “Du Gaideliai” when he goes to bed. Povi hit the “I don’t want to nap” stage right around two and I pulled music out as my attempt to get him to enjoy naps again. It worked fantastically! He’s so excited to get to listen to it, that sometimes he requests a “morning nap” (aka: him going and laying down on his bed for fifteen minutes) so he can listen to the music. I also have a few children’ story CDs for when he’s older and am hoping to find some Lithuanian books on tape, too. I’m hoping Harry Potter gets a Lithuanian audio version by the time he’s older!
- I try to stay very aware of the background noise in our home. It is so SO easy to find yourself surrounded by toys that sing and speak, not to mention television shows, radio stations, and podcasts that play in the background. Kids learn incredibly quickly and often from sources of which we’re barely aware. A friend who teaches ESL mentioned that kids who have the best grasp on their minority language are the ones who hear it CONSTANTLY – especially on television. For this reason, I’m very careful not to let my toddler watch television in English whenever possible. Finding programs for him in Lithuanian can be challenging. Thankfully, we’ve had a lot of help finding ways to do this! My husband’s sisters introduced us years ago to all the wonderful children’s music videos on Youtube (Tili Duda! Kakė Makė!) and another sister gifted us more than half a dozen dubbed Pixar movies, which have been worth their weight in gold. Thanks to a conversation with a friend, we also recently signed up for a year’s subscription to emigrantas.tv – a collection of Lithuanian channels that include a children’s channel with a whole collection of past episodes. My husband and I also try not to watch our own movies and programs until the kids are in bed. In terms of toys, I’m extremely selective of what I allow in the house. Some toys never get their batteries put in and others are just plain re-gifted. I have enough of a challenge to teach my child to say “šiukšlių sunkvežimis” (garbage truck) without a toy hollering “I AM A GARBAGE TRUCK” at him fifty times a day. I love love love listening to podcasts while doing the dishes or mopping floors, so limited my kids’ exposure to them has been challenging. If the boys are playing next to me, I try to be good about wearing headphones. I also have made it a point to find some Lithuanian podcasts that I’ll listen to if the kids are around.
- An important way to keep the minority language relevant is by making sure kids understand that it isn’t a secret language: other people speak it, too! I’ve been redoubling my efforts lately to try to only speak to my sister in Lithuanian when we’re around our kids. This is so tough! I also made it a point to sit down my parents when my oldest was born and ask them to only speak in Lithuanian to the boys. Weirdly enough, I felt like they needed to be asked – even though they had fought that battle themselves when they were young parents! Sometimes grandparents just aren’t aware of how important something is to you until you emphasize it. None of my grandparents are still alive, but if they were I would try to be diligent about seeing them (or calling them) often so that they could speak to the boys in Lithuanian.
- I’ve also been trying to meet up with more Lithuanian speaking families whenever possible. I’m hoping to start a once-a-month play group within the next year for these families. There actually is a small Lithuanian school that meets once a month in a nearby city, so that might be something I’ll try to make it to once my kids are old enough. There’s also a summer camp my husband attended throughout his childhood in Michigan that I’d really like to start attending with my kids. It’ll be a hike, but so worth it for them to be able to make friends their own age whom they see yearly.
- Saving the obvious hardest one for last: my husband and I have recommitted recently to only speaking in Lithuanian when we’re around the kids. This one is HARD. When we just started dating, we spoke in Lithuanian all the time. Then we stopped entirely. When I was pregnant with my first I kept thinking “we should start again” but we really didn’t until Povi was at least a few weeks old. At first, it felt so so awkward. And my grammar sucks. It sucks even more when I’m around friends who are fluent, because I start second-guessing myself and feeling shy. But it really helped that Povi was an infant and couldn’t understand what I was saying. I started talking out loud all the time, even just describing what I was doing. Half the time I could tell my grammar was off, so I’d actually try different combinations of words and endings until it would sound correct. Then I’d look it up and check. It was nice knowing that my baby wasn’t judging me throughout this process. Vincas corrected me at first, but then I realized that he wasn’t always right. Now we tend to have debates about grammar and we’ll sit down right there and look up the correct phrase or word. I’ve also found that reading in Lithuanian a little bit each day (adult books) helps a ton. This has become an on-again/off-again practice for me, depending on how crazy life is at the moment. I have most of the translated versions of the Harry Potter books and a random assortment of other children’s books, as well as a few (adult) spiritual books. Each time a friend or family member travels to Lithuania, I try to ask them to bring something back.
If you’ve stuck with me to the end of this post, a good recap would be:
If you live in an area where the minority language you’re trying to teach your child is not easily accessible, you have to be incredibly intentional about teaching and using it. Exposing your child to this language a LOT is key if you want them to speak it fluently.
Is this something that’s important to you? Find the time to sit down with your spouse and discuss your goals for your minority language. What would make YOU (not your grandparents or your parents) happy and feel successful? To have kids who speak it conversationally? Who can read and write in this language? Who understand it and can respond with simple phrases? Who simply appreciate and love the culture, maybe have some friends who share their roots? Write these goals down in a journal and go back to them periodically. Jot down steps towards achieving this goal and then CELEBRATE every time you’ve reached a milestone! Acknowledging the small victories is key towards feeling successful. If you only ever focus on what your kids can’t do, you’ll just feel let down. You want to joyfully embrace what your child has succeeded in accomplishing.
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Teaching a second language is its own circle of Mommy guilt hell. Learn to give yourself a bit of grace and not worry too much about being perfect. In addition to discussing all over the above with my husband, we’ve spent a good amount of time acknowledging what we don’t want in our journey. We don’t want this language to become a barrier towards a strong relationship between us and our children. We don’t want our children to feel like they have to speak perfectly in order to speak at all. We do want our children to feel proud of their family history and roots. We do want to set the framework for them learning more, if they so choose.
Every little bit helps and if, in the end, you’re simply teaching your child to love where their family comes from, than that’s a victory in of itself. <3
Got any tips or experiences to share? I’d love to hear them! Please leave a comment below and I’ll be in touch. <3 Want to follow along my journey? Hop on over to my Instagram account and hit follow.