Sunday, January 17, 2010

Book review: 7 steps to raising a bilingual child

This post was written for inclusion in Bilingual for Fun's Blogging Carnival on Bilingualism, hosted this month by Bilingual Readers.

7 Steps to Raising a Bilingual ChildNever skimp on steps when raising bilingual children.
This is a review of the book 7 Steps to Raising a Bilingual Child, by Naomi Steiner MD with Susan L. Hayes.

[I found this draft from May 2009 in my Edit Posts list and clicked on it, thinking it would be a random set of hastily scrawled notes. But, I don't know — it looks like a full review to me. Why I didn't publish it before is anyone's guess. Hey, free post!]

Here's another book in raising multilingual children that I found helpful. It gave a solid foundation for what bilingualism is and what it is not, and then it moved into creating a strategy that will work for your family. Naomi Steiner talks you through a program of setting goals for the level of bilingualism your child will achieve, determining which language you will add to your family and who will speak it, and even setting a firm start date, and then helps you create a "bilingual action plan" that includes maximizing language input at home, taking advantage of community resources, and finding support in formal education.

One helpful aspect of the book is that she provides tables and worksheets throughout. The tables help if you like to see something visually to learn it or to refresh your memory, and the worksheets help you organize your thoughts and make concrete plans for your bilingual journey.

She also gave a wide sampling of resources that might be available to bilingual families, from TV shows to summer camps, babysitters to Saturday schools.

I also appreciated that her approach of letting the parents complete the worksheets and think over what's available to them means that she's not advocating a one-size-fits-all plan for every multilingual family.

Steiner also devotes a whole chapter to reading and writing, and gives suggestions for each age range. She points out that reading and writing in a weaker language will always take longer than in a stronger one, so to allow for that and look for ways to make reading and writing fun. She also reiterates the helpful tip to have your children formulate thoughts in their second language and then write them down, rather than formulating it in the stronger language and then translating. I've actually found that a helpful tip as I speak to Mikko! If I try to translate something specific, I start floundering. But if I speak a thought from scratch in German, it might be simpler but it usually flows more freely.

Another thing I admired about this book is how in depth she goes into potential roadblocks and in suggesting ways through or around them. Some of those obstacles are the standard ones of parents who think they're not speaking the second language well enough or children who start refusing to speak the second language. But others were more unexpected and helpful: "I'm self-conscious about speaking my language to my child in public," "Because I'm the one who speaks a second language, I feel like I'm the one doing all the work to raise our child bilingual," and "My work schedule has become really hectic, and there's little time for my child's bilingualism."

Along the same lines, as a behavioral and developmental pediatrician, Steiner also is able to go in depth into developmental difficulties your child might face and how they relate to bilingualism, such as speech delays, difficulties with reading and writing, and even being gifted and, therefore, bored. This is primarily in a section about schooling and the bilingual child so might or might not be of as much use if you intend to home or free school. If you are intending on traditional schooling, she gives tips for how to find good bilingual programs in the public schools, and how to beware of programs labeled bilingual that are really all about mainstreaming immigrants. (And my wrath on that is a post for another day...)

One con of the book for me is that I didn't enjoy the writing style quite as much as The Bilingual Edge, but that might be just personal preference. It seemed a little more didactic in tone, sort of "Well now, children, let's learn about bilingualism, shall we?" It might be the very fact that Naomi Steiner is a developmental and behavioral pediatrician who works with multilingual families, so presumably she is both a teacher of the young and, perhaps, used to speaking from a position of authority. Heaven knows I have issues with the medical establishment and with formal education, so those might be just my hang-ups! At any rate, don't let that spoil the usefulness of the book for you.

All in all, it's a strong book that's well organized and easy to read. It has all the essentials of bilingualism covered, and it goes in depth into unique obstacles multilingual families might face. The worksheets and steps to follow will help you craft a clear plan going forward in your bilingual journey.

For more of my posts on how we're raising our 2-year-old son, Mikko, bilingually in German and English, please see:


Anonymous said...

I admire your resolve to do this with a non-native language!

My mom spoke German and Spanish fluently but only spoke them to me if I asked her to. I guess she didn't want me to have linguistic overload since I started learning French in 1st grade.

But what made the best impression on me for language learning was traveling. We'd go somewhere, even if it was the Spanish part of NYC in the '70s and she'd just rattle away, communicating with everybody. I thought that was the coolest thing: she knew a secret language.

Before we'd go somewhere exotic (like Egypt) she and I would study Arabic together. She'd take a course and teach me what she learned and we'd do homework, listen to tapes and practice on each other. Then we'd use it as much as possible 'in situ,' try to read signs and write down phrases we heard all the time to decipher them later. Same thing with Russian in the Soviet Union.

So I think my advice would be to attend these native speaker groups you know about and get comfortable chatting away with native speakers. Your son might feel your embarassment and discomfort and that might send the wrong message. I always learned what was important wasn't perfection but communication in whatever way imagineable. To have fun with people and their language, to be humble and ask for help and tips, and to not be afraid or intimidated because you're not doing it to be the best but to crack a code so you can discover an entirely new mindset and world.

That was my motivator to really learn other languages (I also wanted to be a spy when I was 10 so code-logic was very intriguing, too.)

I only speak English with the kids and they speak back to me in English with some Italian mixed in. My hubs only speaks Italian and he asked our son to teach him English! It's adorable. So we do mini-lessons each day and it's a great way to sneak in some grammar rules I would otherwise never bore my kid with. All our tapes, DVDs and books are in English. They hear Italian all day at school and around them.

My goal with them was just have them understand English so my relatives could chat with them on the phone and so they would be acclimated when we go home in the summer. So I'm really happy they are actually fluent, too. But I want to check out the books you recommend because I would like for them to be able to write in English and that is a huge challenge for anyone.

Keep at it!! the LOVE of language is the greatest gift to give and the fundamentals of how another language works and what it sounds like is even greater.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for writing this review. I would really love for my son to learn a second language from a very young age. I speak Spanish as a second language (even majored in it in college) but my fluency is not where I would like it to be. Still, I think it would be beneficial to start exposing my son to Spanish soon. I've spoken it to him a little but not in any consistent way. Perhaps this book will give me some guidance on the subject.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for writing this review. I would really love for my son to learn a second language from a very young age. I speak Spanish as a second language (even majored in it in college) but my fluency is not where I would like it to be. Still, I think it would be beneficial to start exposing my son to Spanish soon. I've spoken it to him a little but not in any consistent way. Perhaps this book will give me some guidance on the subject.

Anonymous said...

your post is interesting, and I am glad to have read it. For many years I have thought seriously about raising my children (you know, the ones I am unlikely to ever have) in a bilingual fashion.

My perspective is a bit different than that of the book (which I have admittedly not read) - but one of my main thoughts has been to move elsewhere in the world for some of the formative years to that my children learn more than the language.

It seem that your review and perhaps the book deal with the issues of spoken language, but what about body language? What about issues of social understanding and cultural idiosyncrasies which are inextricably tied up with a language? How might a parent teach a child about the issues that begin where words end and living-language begins.

"Words are not the end of thought, they are where it begins"
Jane Hirshfield

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