Linguistic Resources for Bilingual Parents

by multilingualmania on May 10, 2010

in bilingual parenting, Bilingualism, Books, Literacy, Web Resources

Author: Eve Bodeux

As I strive to encourage bilingualism in my children, I have, like many parents in this quest, been reading various books devoted to the topic of bilingualism. I am currently reading Bilingual By Choice (2009) by Virginie Raguenaud and she has many interesting ideas, a few of which I will discuss here.

No Guilt
On page 10 of her book, Raguenaud notes that, “Balanced bilingualism is a myth…even bilingual adults struggle with this unrealistic pressure to speak both languages perfectly…Everyone differs in their language proficiency, regardless of how many languages we speak. The focus on the conversation should be on how we can improve our skills and our children’s skills as bilinguals….”

This helps us realize that each family and situation is different, and that if we make our best effort according to our own circumstances, it is good enough. We do not need to feel guilty about whether we do “enough”—we are giving our children a gift and we should be proud.

Parents’ Bilingualism
Raguenaud, who came to the US as a young teenager from France and still resides in the US today, considers herself to still be natively proficient in French. She talks often in her book about how important it is for the bilingual (expat) parent to actively maintain his or her speaking and literacy skills, for personal satisfaction and to be able to contribute to the child’s bilingual success. I would add that this idea can also be applied to proficient speakers of a second language who are raising their children in a (non-native) bilingual household.

As we know from our own experiences and from sharing with other bilingual families in the blogosphere and real life, there are many ways parents can focus on maintaining their own linguistic skills while helping their child, including singing songs together, additional self-study in a subject of interest, reading novels, non-fiction and magazines in various topics, interacting with family members who also speak the language, playing games together, and more. However, two of Raguenaud’s comments on this topic stood out to me.

Books are the Thing
On page 29 of her book, Raguenaud quotes Una Cunningham Andersson’s Growing Up With Two Languages, who said, “No amount of visiting the country where the language is spoken or contact with other speakers can hope to give a child as rich a vocabulary and such a mastery of the nuances of the language as a thorough immersion in its children’s literature.”

I love this idea because it means that non-native speakers and native expats alike do not need to take expensive trips abroad to lead their children toward bilingualism, but rather can use a method that is more accessible, reading to their kids in the minority language. If you can visit the minority language country with your children, that can be a wonderful experience and source of encouragement as well, but, if you can’t, well, it’s books to the rescue!

Do the Homework
The second idea that jumped out at me in Raguenaud’s book was her mention on page 50 of research that recommends “parents and children discuss homework in both home and school languages” continuing to note that, “[a] student who can process, analyze, and rephrase his school work in his home language, instead of just repeating it verbatim in the school language, will grasp it more fully.”

Over the years as I have talked with friends and colleagues about raising their children bilingually, many have expressed frustration that, once they started helping their children with schoolwork, they didn’t know the vocabulary in the second language, and it was all too complicated. They gave up and started on the slippery slope to only speaking the majority language with their child—when doing homework and otherwise.

Stephen Caldas, a non-native speaker of French, in his book Raising Bilingual-Biliterate Children in Monolingual Cultures, talks about how, while he didn’t give up to the slippery slope, there are some subjects, such as computers, that he must discuss with his now-grown bilingual son in English, rather than French, because they both lack the proper vocabulary in French. Raguenaud’s suggestion of forcing oneself to discuss certain topics in the minority language with children is an excellent one, and as she notes, “it’s also a good exercise for all bilingual parents, helping us expand on our vocabulary in our native language” (or, again, I would add, our non-native language, as the case may be).

A Translator’s Tips
As a translation professional, I have some ideas to share about how to locate resources to pump up your vocabulary in subject areas that you target for bilingual expansion. Translators are always in search of specialized terminology so that is just one of the tricks of our trade.

The first place to look is dictionaries and usage guides–and not always the Internet. These resources can be very specialized and not just your run-of-the-mill dual-language dictionary. Always having been a language nerd, I have gathered books on these topics since way before my bilingual-to-be children were born. To give you an idea of the resources out there (in any language), here are some items on my bookshelf:
– A dictionary of Idioms in French
– A dictionary of faux amis (that look the same, but have different meanings) in French and English
International Dictionary of Food & Cooking listing food-related terms from many languages including Dutch, French, German, Italian, Swedish, Thai and more!
– Three French-English slang dictionaries
– Three dictionaries on French-English computer terms
– Three dictionaries on French-English finance terms
– Two usage guides for English
– Three usage guides for French
This is just a sampling of the specialized books out there— in lots of languages—that you can get at your local purveyor of bilingual books, order online or pick up on your next trip .

The Internet is, of course, a goldmine for specialized bilingual vocabulary lists and other useful resources:
– GlossPost – a Yahoo email list (free to subscribe) that lists thousands of specialized glossaries in many languages in its archives. For example, I found a French/English glossary devoted to helicopters, a link to the The Free Dictionary that lists terms in 13 languages, a Spanish glossary on geographic information systems, and German-English glossaries on beer.
– The onomatopoeia glossary is one of my favorites (and it has audio examples!)
– Big databases with many technical terms in them like Termium (French, Spanish, English)
– Proz’s lists hundreds of specialized glossaries in many languages. Visit the list of Czech-English glossaries on Proz as an example and you will find hundreds of glossaries covering Art, Astronomy, Botany, Games, Music, Travel and many more.
Linguee is corpus of German/English texts shows you how a word is used in both languages, from live texts pulled from all over the web.
– Search Google using the name of the topic you are interested in plus words like “glossary” “dictionary” or “vocabulary”. For example, search “+insects +glossary +Portuguese +English” and see what comes up.

As parents we try to do what is best for our children as we impart a love of languages and strive toward bilingualism. It is a learning process along the way, for us and for them. Whether we are native speakers of the languages we teach, or enthusiastic non-native speakers, there are many resources out there which we can leverage to make our jobs easier and fun. Keep up the good work!

About the Author: Eve Bodeux blogs about bilingualism as she raises two fun-loving boys (4 and 7) with her French husband. She is a freelance translator and independent project manager in the language industry. She has a BA in French and graduate degrees from both US and French universities. She lives in Colorado USA and takes advantage of the great outdoors by hiking, skiing, biking, and sometimes camping, with her kids in tow.

You can find additional posts about raising bilingual children here.

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Tess Whitty May 10, 2010 at 9:13 pm

Very nice article! My children age 11 and 9 are bilingual, or at least I try to raise them bilingual. I have several friends here that are also Swedish and have tried to raise bilingual children, but often given up. Why? Because the other half (husband/wife) did not speak Swedish, hence did not understand what the mother/father was speaking to the children about. I have the advantage that my husband understands and speaks a little Swedish (since I met him there) and my children are by far the most bilingual of all the “Swedish” children here in Utah. This seems to be a very important separator for us at least. The older my children get, the less interested in Swedish literature they are, mostly because they can get 10 new books a week from the library, but only an occasional Swedish book that they like. Even if I buy them Swedish books, they are less inclined to read them. So when we go to Sweden they are not allowed to bring any English books and the first stop we make on our long stays there is to the library.

multilingualmania May 16, 2010 at 12:36 pm

I’ve often heard that it is difficult to raise children bilingually if a spouse doesn’t speak one of the languages!

That’s the difficult thing about building bilingualism–the older that they get, the more they are attracted to English books for various reasons, including availability. Taking them to Sweden is definitely something that can promote the language. What are some other resources or activities that people do to try to maintain the language as children grow older?

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