Google+ Raising a Trilingual Child: Non-native Speaker Raising Bilingual Children. Interview with Christine Jernigan, the author of "Family Language Learning" book.


Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Non-native Speaker Raising Bilingual Children. Interview with Christine Jernigan, the author of "Family Language Learning" book.

Can a parent successfully pass a non-native language on to a child? - Absolutely! Christine Jernigan, the author of "Family Language Learning: Learn Another Language, Raise Bilingual Children" book , is one of those parents. She is a non native speaker of Portuguese and raises her two children bilingually from birth. If you have doubts whether this is doable, perhaps you are worried about your accent, than read on!


Question 1: Where do you live?  How many children do you have and what are their ages?

Answer : Chapel Hill, North Carolina, U.S.   I have a daughter who is 13 and a son who is 11.


Question 2: Please describe your family language situation. Who speaks what language? What language strategy do you follow?

Answer :  We do One Parent One Language (also called One Person One Language). My husband speaks English to the children, and I speak Portuguese. (My husband understands Portuguese fairly well after hearing it for 13 years, but he does not speak it.) When we are all four together, we tend to speak English unless the children are directly addressing me (or I, them). We switch naturally from English to Portuguese using eye contact as our cue. I discuss this swapping of languages in the book "Family Language Learning: Learn Another Language, Raise Bilingual Children"

The most common technique we use is that of "false monolingual strategy." This means that I act as if I only speak Portuguese, even though I speak English as a native language. Speaking exclusively in the language was the only way I felt they could attain fluency with me being the only speaker of Portuguese at home. If they say something in English to me, I do not respond.

However, if they are lost and cannot remember a word, I use the strategy of "feeding" in which I offer the first syllable of the word they need. Most of the time, they can then supply the rest.

This doesn't have to be as oppressive as it may sound. I can remember times when we've laughed about it, because, of course, the kids know by now that I speak English. Recently James (my son) tossed some keys to me and said in English, "Catch!" I let the keys fall to the ground as if I had heard nothing. It was funny because it was so ridiculous. I picked them up and looked perplexed. In Portuguese, I asked him, "Was I supposed to catch these?" That way he had the word "catch" in his vocabulary and could use it next time he needed it.

Question 3. When and how did you acquired the languages you speak?

Answer : I learned a little French from high school and college. I went to Wake Forest University and it had a strong French program. Unfortunately, I was not a strong student of the strong program, but enough rubbed off that I was able to do their study abroad. Looking back, I spent time with my American friends and English speaking boyfriend and spoke French very little. At this point, I can get by in a French-speaking country, but don't have conversations.

Portuguese, I started learning the semester after college when I went to the interior of Brazil to teach English. There weren’t many English speakers around, so I had to learn fast. I studied this grammar book I bought in the States and read through my pocket Portuguese-English dictionary late at night. I was highly motivated because I wanted to understand the jokes and conversations of the people I spent time with. I was there 6 months and was able to converse, though probably with heaps of mistakes. In the book I talk about some embarrassing stuff I said in those days.

I went back to Brazil a couple of years later and taught English in a Pan American School. Spent a lot of time with Americans but still managed to learn some Portuguese. At this point I would say I'm fluent, but that it's obvious I'm a foreigner from my accent and grammar mistakes, though the errors don't interfere with comprehension.

Question 4: Do you think parents, who are not fluent in a foreign language (pronounce some words wrong, speak that language with an accent and make grammatical errors), are able to teach children that language from birth and speak it exclusively with them?

Answer :  I definitely think even parents who just know some of the language can teach it to their children successfully. From early on, it's good for parents to think about what they hope to accomplish and what's realistic. If they don't feel they can become fluent in the language, then they can shoot for exposing their children to the language. What's great is that in giving children that exposure, parents are learning themselves, such that there's a building process. Parents become more adept in the language as they read to their children, for example. They are able to read more complex books the more they practice with the simple ones.

Parents may also find that learning a foreign language isn't as painful as they assumed it would be. So many people judge language learning by the torture they faced in high school and college. These classes don't always have students using real language. The words parents will find in children's songs or books are the vocabulary they need to interact with kids. The authenticity of the language makes it stick. It's so relevant that it motivates parents to keep learning.

Question 5: How about passing a language if a parent has an accent? Will be the accent passed on as well? Or is there a way to avoid it?

Answer : I would say that I really don't see accent as an issue, as long as it doesn't interfere with comprehension. So in my case, sure, I have an accent in Portuguese. But I have an accent in English, too, actually-- I'm from Nashville, TN, after all.

When I took my kids to Brazil, they were able to play with Brazilians. If they said words differently, they may have been corrected, but it was never anything discouraging, just very matter of fact.

I tell parents not to worry about their accent in the second language. I suggest they do what they can so that native speakers will understand them. (I list many ways of how to accomplish this in the book, but basically things like watching movies in the second language and listening to music from the target country).

Question 6: From my experience reading books everyday is essential for building strong vocabulary in the minority language. What kind of language learning activities did you find the most productive with your kids?

Answer : Wow, I wouldn't say "every day" because that's pretty restrictive. It's like telling someone on a diet they can never eat cake. If you take out the "always" and "nevers," people stay more motivated because they feel less bossed around.

(NOTE from Raising a Trilingual Child): Sure, reading everyday might not be always possible, but this is what a parent, and especially a minority language speaking parent, should try to do. If parents are able to set the right routine, kids would crave for books. My kids just do not want to go to bed without reading at least a short story. The only compromise they will accept from me is listening to my own story. )

That being said, we did read a lot of children's books. And we reread them too because it's not easy to find Portuguese children's books. Sometimes I would just use books in English and tell the story in Portuguese. We used Richard Scarry's Fun with Words book where the kids point to interesting things they see and I say it in Portuguese.

As far as activities that were most helpful for us, I'd say learning songs and nursery rhymes in Portuguese. I found a neat book of songs and rhymes that had a CD. (scroll all the way down to see the language resources) That way, I could listen to it alongside the kids and pick up the songs. Then we'd sing them around the house, in the car, etc. I always had children's CDs in the car that had fun Portuguese songs on it. Story books also helped because they loved to be read to -- it didn't matter the language. And just doing everyday things in Portuguese -- getting dressed, eating breakfast, playing Candy Land. What I try to get across in Family Language Learning is that your house doesn't have to become a school. You just live your life and do it in the second language.

Question 7: When you just started speaking Portuguese to your first child, were you able to stick to it all the time?

Answer :  In the beginning, in fact, with my first child, she was better in Portuguese than English in some areas. My son was the second child and my daughter ended up speaking English to him-- she was in preschool by the time he was old enough to speak. Had there been a Portuguese preschool, I definitely would have had her in there.

What's funny is that Portuguese became our language such that it felt fake to speak in English. I've talked about this with other bilingual parents and I'm not alone. It's as if you choose a language with your child and it's awkward to speak to each other in a language other than that chosen language. Imagine if you're learning Spanish and your best friend is too. So you get together and are talking about your Spanish classes, you might try speaking some Spanish together, but it feels strange because you've already chosen English as the language that holds that relationship.

Question 8: What language did your bilingual children start speaking first?

Answer : They spoke first in Portuguese probably b/c I was home with them so they heard me more than my English-speaking husband. It freaked out one of my relatives to the point that when I would say something to my daughter, he would repeat it loudly in English. When they went to preschool, their English became stronger.

Question 9: Some parents are concerned that if their child is exposed to two languages, he/she will be a late talker. Did your children experience any speech and language delays? What would you say to stop parents believing in this myth?

Answer :  It's funny because I was speaking about this at a Teaching English as a Second or Other Language (TESOL) conference I attended last week. The delay is very little. It's less than the delay boys have from girls in language development. What I've seen happen is that the child stays at home with a parent who is teaching the second language. The child hears more of that language and becomes stronger in that language. Then along comes the grandparents who don't speak that second language and they are frustrated at not being able to communicate as much as they feel they should. Pressure is often put upon the parents to change their language plan so that English will be the stronger language.

What should happen, in my opinion, is that parents feel confident enough to explain to Grandma and Grandpa that as soon as little Suzy starts preschool, English will become her stronger language

Question 10: When you departed on your bilingual family journey, what was the goal for your children's Portuguese language fluency? Were you able to achieve it? What was the most important element in achieving it?

Answer :  I feel like I've met my goals in speaking. However with reading and writing, I would like my children to be more proficient. They do some homeschooling every school morning. Just 5 minutes or so of work that I correct and have follow up questions about. They can send a text message in Portuguese or leave me a note on the fridge saying where they are going. They understand if I give them a to-do note or a grocery list. They do not read on their own in Portuguese. I think if they take Portuguese in college, however, they will do more of this and will feel much more confident at it than their non-Portuguese speaking colleagues will.


Question 11: Some non-native language speaking parents report difficulty in dealing with disciplinary issues due to the vocabulary limitation. When kids are small the parents response time is very crucial. A child may get hurt while you are looking up a word in a dictionary. How were you handling this situation?

Answer :  I should be clear in saying that if your child's safety is at stake, you the parent should speak whichever language comes out first. I think you will find, however, that if you get in the habit of speaking the second language, it will feel odd to speak in English.

I would also encourage parents to learn well words like, "Be careful!" "It's hot!" "Don't touch," and "Stop!"

Question 12: How would you encourage non-native language speaking parents to launch on this wonderful adventure of raising bilingual children in non-native language and give them the precious gift of languages?

Answer :  There are so many benefits I could list-- so many reasons why learning another language makes sense and helps your child. But the one I've found most important is that you'll spend more time with your child. You'll talk more, listen more, and spend more time together reading books and listening to music. You'll have a code that other parents and kids don't share.

I asked several moms and dads what they would say to other parents interested in speaking another language to their children. Here are two of their responses:

When he was born, I worried “How will I potty train him in French?” then “How will I prepare him for the arrival of his little sister?” etc., but then it just happened fine. Now I try and foresee us discussing the facts of life in French, when he's older, or talking about girlfriends, drugs, drinking, etc., and it's hard to imagine, but it may all just happen naturally...we're both learning! (M.G., email interview)

Be persistent! A majority of children and young kids will be stubborn. They don’t see the point in learning a language they won’t be able to speak at school or with their friends. Only when they start to mature or develop will they see the usefulness and worth in knowing two language. Their lives will only be benefited by it. (H.G., email interview)

I would like to thank Christine for the interview and encouragement! Click here "Family Language Learning: Learn Another Language, Raise Bilingual Children" to view this book on Amazon.

If you would like to share your family experience,  whatever it is good or bad,  feel free to contact me

Are you successfully raising bilingual or multilingual children? or do you have regrets about something you have not done on time? Please do not keep it for yourself, share it with other parents, by writing a comment or by contacting me for an Interview or by joining great contributors in the Life Story series. You will help thousands of readers!


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  1. This seems difficult but doable. What I do with my son is, I let him learn the English with native speakers at ( ) so my filipino accent doesn't affect him. We mostly speak Tagalog at home and a little bit of English. I hope this is enough so that he will grow up really good in the language.

  2. I love this article, and I loved your book! Which I read first. I'm living in Seattle and teaching my daughter to speak Portuguese as well. I grew up in Brazil, so speak it well, but not totally fluently. Her dad only speaks English, but is in the Army and gone from home frequently. Her nanny speaks to her in Spanish, which I also speak (and which she hears me speak to the nanny. I was very concerned about being able to teach a non-native language to my daughter, and my American husband was the one who convinced me that I could do it! Then I found your book, so awesome (esp. because I can relate to all of the Portuguese examples)! Now she is 6 months old and responding to all three languages equally. it only took me two months to feel totally normal speaking to her in Portuguese, and it feels weird to me to speak to her, or other little kids, in English. We are a little bit worried that she won't speak English initially, but I know that she will pick it up when she starts pre-school (although we will also look for a bilingual one for her.
    I'm a little worried that she will confuse Spanish and Portuguese (I know I put a lot of Portuguese words into my Spanish), but I think kids are smart and that she will be okay.

    1. I was so happy, Dnaielle, to hear the book has been helpful. And it's exciting to hear about how your family is learning different languages. I wouldn't worry about confusion between Spanish and Portuguese. Your kids will sort them out as they use the languages. And I loved hearing how supportive your husband is of raising your children bilingual. I feel lucky, too, to have a guy who is dedicated to the work. Also, if she doesn't speak English initially, don't despair. Just give it some time. Eventually English will be her stronger language so it's fine for her to start a bit later than others. I thought of the analogy of giving two little kids a backpack. Your child has a much heavier one. At first, the other kid may get ahead since your little one has more to contend with. Eventually though, your child will grow stronger and will no longer be in second place...probably even pull out in front. Sometimes children's doctors and teachers have to be reminded of this, that's the challenge. Or mother in laws :-)

      Thanks for writing!
      Christine Jernigan

    2. Also, I loved your comment about it feeling natural to speak Portuguese to other children, not your own, as well. I definitely do that. And I find that people I feel really close to, for some reason, I'll just say something in Portuguese to them sometimes.