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Three Major Challenges I Have Faced in Raising Bilingual/Multilingual Children in the United States

In the abstract of her academic article titled “Challenges and Benefits of Early Bilingualism
in the United States’ Context,” Linda M. Espinoza, from the University of Missouri-Columbia, states that although the young dual language learner (DLL) population in the United States has tripled in the last several decades, most young dual language learners in the United States are not receiving early child education that supports their emergent bilingualism.

Research findings conducted at the secondary level don’t yield very positive results either. In the academic article titled “Cultural and Linguistic Investment: Adolescents in a Secondary Two-Way Immersion Program,” Carol Bearse and Ester J. de Jong indicate that many of the students they interviewed in their study acknowledged that as they moved through the secondary years, their exposure to Spanish declined, while their English dominated their school day.

As a doctoral student doing research in dual language, reading findings such as these disappoint me. As a dual language program coordinator that has worked at expanding dual language programs at the middle and high school level, I find these findings frustrating. However, as a mother who is trying to ensure that her daughters grow up to be multilingual in the United States, these findings make me especially anxious and nervous for the future of my own children.

Many of my friends, family members and people I’ve encountered in passing have expressed to me that they’ve given up on the idea of “pushing” a second language on their children. They admit, with a strong sentiment of mixed shame and regret, that it is a struggle to get their children to do anything in Spanish (or their heritage language) and that they are just not interested in putting up a fight anymore.

Teaching our children a second, or third language, in the United States is a tremendous investment. I’m sure everyone will agree that there are both immediate and long term benefits of speaking multiple languages. However, making this an actual possibility just doesn’t to seem to be a priority in the United States.

There is no question that I’m fully invested in the biliteracy development of my daughters. It hasn’t been an easy process, though. That is why I’m going to share some of the obstacles that I am currently facing on my journey as a parent trying to raise multilingual children. These obstacles are currently on my radar as potential factors that, if not addressed, can cause a decline in my daughters’ Spanish (or other) language investment and growth.

  1. Pressure to Do Well in English standardized tests – My two older daughters are currently in school and even though they are both enrolled in a dual language elementary school, they are still required to take standardized tests that will impact the high schools and universities they attend in the future. These standardized tests all measure academic proficiency in ENGLISH. To my knowledge, their school district does not offer Spanish language assessments to help track their overall Spanish language development. These English language standardized exams are difficult enough for students who ONLY speak English. For instance, 50% of the students who take the NWEA MAP (the standardized test offered to students in my state) either meet or exceed their grade level expectations. https://www.nwea.org/blog/2013/partner-questions-month-percentage-students-meet-growth-targets/ This piece of data makes me a bit nervous for my oldest daughter, who is currently in third grade, and will be taking the NWEA MAP for the first time this year. In addition to the NWEAP MAP, she also has to take the ACCESS test. The ACCESS test is given to any student who doesn’t meet the required English Language proficiency at the time their language skills are screened in kindergarten. My daughter didn’t speak a word of English until she entered kindergarten, and obviously, didn’t meet the expected English Language proficiency when given the language screener. I definitely don’t like the idea that she will not have to take two standardized tests in English this year and I certainly don’t like the idea that her failure to meet English language expectations will cause her to carry the very much stigmatized label of “English Language Learner” and may also deter her from gaining admission to a more “selective” high school. Any parent who finds themself in the same situation as me can be tempted to “abandon” the use of the second language in favor of English. Using more English to boost test scores, though well-intentioned, can send the message to our children that the English language has more intrinsic value than their heritage language.

What to Do Then? I am in, no way, implying that parents should not encourage the academic development of English, especially if that is the language assessed in standardized tests, college entrance exams and so forth. Though difficult, it is important to consistently try to find a balance between the academic exposure our children get in both languages. I, personally, make it a point to familiarize myself with the topics that my daughters are learning at school and I look for any gaps. Currently with the pandemic leading to decreased live instructional time, my oldest daughter’s teacher is focusing her attention on Reading Comprehension, Math and Writing skills. I suspect she is doing this because these are the areas that will be assessed in the NWEA. When my daughter isn’t in class, I have work on either Social Studies or Science in Spanish or I try to touch on some of the grammatical concepts that I don’t really so covered in her classes. For instance, I’ve noticed that my daughters’ teachers don’t really do spelling tests like my teachers used to give me when I was in school. Therefore, I give my daughters’ weekly spelling tests to ensure they have the foundational skills they need as they move on to the upper grades.

2. Shortage of Bilingual Speech Therapists – A tremendous challenge that I’ve faced is supporting the biliteracy development of one of my three-year old twins, who has a significant language delay. She received some speech therapy for a few months but once everything shut down due to the pandemic, her services stopped. She was offered virtual speech therapy sessions once a week for 30 minutes at a time, but I turned them down. It was difficult enough to fight and get her a bilingual speech therapist and they could no longer guarantee that the same speech therapist would offer her the virtual speech language therapy. Therefore, I had to become her speech therapist. Her comprehension in Spanish is great and she attempts to repeat everything we say. However, much of what she says in Spanish is still not fully comprehensible. I’ve taken her to an ENT specialist, who ruled out that she is tongue-tied. Neither her pediatrician nor her previous speech therapist suggested it, but I strongly believe she has some sort of verbal dyspraxia. The articles that I’m linking below has been a great resource for me:

I’m still doing my research on this condition and I’m strongly considering sending her to a specialist. The research I’ve done points to a lack of support materials for parents with children who have apraxia/dyspraxia, in general. I can imagine the scarcity of resources for parents of children with apraxia who are making a conscious effort to develop their skills in TWO languages.

What to Do Then? I’m still actively looking for a bilingual speech therapist who specializes in apraxia/dyspraxia. In the meantime, however, I continue to offer bilingual support at home. I haven’t given up on the idea that she will be bilingual one day and I continue to use Spanish as the home language. However, I often have her repeat many of the words we practice with in English. The English language seems to have many more one-syllable words that are easier to pronounce. Many of the foundational words in the Spanish language are two syllables long, such as: si-lla, ca-sa, ma-no, a-zul. These same words (chair, house, hand, blue) are only one syllable long, in English. I have found that my daughter has an easier time pronouncing these words in English. However, that doesn’t mean that I plan on “picking” English over Spanish. I’m determined to supporting her development in both languages. I will definitely continue documenting my progress. I’m sure there are other parents who may be dealing with the same issue.

Lack of Academic Resources in the Second Language – On a previous blog post, I wrote about the difficulties I’ve encountered in finding Spanish reading material for my daughters as they continue to get older.

Finding books in Spanish that they would be interested in reading independently has been one issue. Finding resources in Spanish that would continue to support their development of academic skills in Spanish has been another issue.

When my daughters aren’t in remote learning live lessons or have completed their homework, they complete exercises from workbooks, such as Brain Quest. I LOVE the Brain Quest series! The workbook is very comprehensive and I use it to have my daughters practice some of the skills that her teachers perhaps don’t have the time to cover this year.

If ONLY Brain Quest would publish some workbooks in Spanish or some of the other widely spoken second languages in the United States! As mentioned at the beginning of this post, dual language programs continue to expand in the United States and quality second language resources are desperately needed!

My daughters’ dual language teachers rely heavily on online platforms such as Imagine Learning and Brain Pop to reinforce skills in Spanish. These platforms are good but, I’m a big fan of traditional paper and pencil tasks. When my daughters physically write down what they learn in a notebook or in a workbook, I can clearly see what they know or don’t know. That isn’t always the case with the online platforms.

The other day, for example, I caught my first grader coasting through Imagine Learning, randomly choosing answers without thinking just to move further along in the program. Her teachers track her progress on how long she is logged on, which is a minimum of 20 minutes daily. I would rather have her spend those 20 minutes writing in a notebook or workbook. Her responses will be documented for me to view at any time and I could have a clearer indication of what her skills are.

What to Do Then? I think it’s important for parents who are raising bilingual / multicultural children to ask themselves these questions: How well do you want your child to speak (or read/write/understand) the second language? Do you want your child to simply speak the second language or do you want your child to be fully biliterate, or multiliterate?

In my case, these are the language goals I have for my own children:

I want my daughters to have strong academic skills in both Spanish and English.

I want my daughters to feel equally comfortable speaking Spanish and English.

I want them to feel proud of their skills in both languages.

I want my daughters to have a strong enough language learning foundation, that they are able to learn a third (and maybe even a fourth!) language.

Because the language goals I’ve set for my own children are hefty, I recognize that I need to do the legwork and find them the resources they need to support their academic development in multiple languages. This is something I’m still working on and researching so expect a blog post on this topic soon , as well!

As a parent trying to raise bilingual / multilingual children in the United States (or anywhere, for that matter!), what obstacles have you encountered? What challenges have you found especially daunting?

Please share by commenting below!