Dashing Hopes of Bilingualism: A Parent’s Uncertainty

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My son is now 3 1/2-years-old. To our great joy and relief, he has overcome his speech delay and is on equal footing with his peers….in English. His secondary language, Turkish, is developing, although several paces behind his dominant language. And my recent experiences with slightly older Turkish-American (or mixed-Turkish-American) children has me wondering about his future. Our dream of having a bilingual child is not always as simple as it’s made it out to be. 

“Just talk to your kids,” they say, “It’s that simple.”

But is it?

We are using the one-parent-one-language, OPOL, approach — mostly by default as I speak Turkish at a hilarious beginner’s level — but his exposure to his dominant language is much greater than that he receives of his secondary language. And it has me wondering a great deal about the future of his language acquisition.

While he gets to hear and use Turkish on nights and weekends from his father, this is supplemented by occasional immersive sessions whenever we have a family visit or we visit Turkey. During these times, I can really see his Turkish develop MUCH quicker. His father may always speak Turkish at home, but he can still understand our son’s English speech and respond in kind. When Turkish family visits, our boy must speak Turkish or find another way to communicate his needs because they do not speak English.

This is why immersion is the best way to learn a language–repetition of input and output of the language is key. But it’s not always an option in every multi-cultural, multi-lingual home. Work and life get in the way.

While those times when he formulates phrases in his second language are hopeful, there’s always something that brings down the swift stroke of reality. Recently, I had an interesting experience that gave me a definitive learning moment as a parent of a *potentially* bilingual child, and which made me question how my son’s Turkish fluency will progress.

We *tried* a local Turkish school program, mostly with kids a bit older than he. The younger kids were around 5-years-old. Some of these children were from families like ours–one American parent, the other Turkish. Then there were others who had two Turkish parents. However, none of those children could speak with any kind of fluency, or least refused to do so.

The level of comprehension surprised me even more as I expected it to be much higher. I sat in the classroom one day and the children wouldn’t respond to even simple questions (like “where?”) Maybe they understood but were too shy or intimidated. But there was at least one confused: “uh, what?” so it was surely not the case for everyone.  

I am completely unaware of the Turkish exposure level of any of these children, but I would assume the children with both Turkish parents at least hear their mother and father speak to each other in Turkish on a regular basis. So this experience had me asking:  will the older my child become, the stronger he reject the language that perhaps makes him “different?” Will he never be fluent? The possibility of this was a definite motivator for my husband to increase our son’s exposure and focus on Turkish. But will that little bit even make a difference?

The experience was a bust for us on more than one front —  my son felt like the odd duck out because of his age, refused to stay in the room, and left us with the option to either continue forcing it and turning him off to it forever, or quit. We chose the latter.  

The only option we have going forward is to continue giving him as much exposure as possible, and my husband must always stick with Turkish communication at all times. I try to contribute occasionally, but he’s compartmentalized his parents into language boxes and when I try enter their Turkish box, he usually kicks me out with a: “No Turkish, Mommy.”  

And now there’s this tiny, persistent voice in my head that wonders if it will all be a futile effort. He may learn and know some Turkish but perhaps fluency is not possible without sending him for an extended period to Turkey. At a young age, when his language acquisition is at its highest potential (between 3-and- 5-years-old), this is simply not an option for our family.

He’s at least trying now and usually interested. He responds to his father the best that he can, and enjoys reading Turkish books and watching Turkish cartoons. He loves singing Turkish songs. This is a wonderful age for these activities and we’re trying to enjoy it while it lasts.

Meanwhile, our little girl is now 9-months-old and we’re reveling in the baby babble that translates across all languages. Lessons learned from her brother may make it easier for her. Time will tell.

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