Building a multilingual family: One mom's perspective and approach

Posted by Habbi Habbi on

Multilingual Stories | Habbi HabbiValicia | Mom of 2 | Grew up in: Central Valley, CA; Lives in: Boulder, CO 
Fluent in: English and Spanish; Conversational in: Japanese 
Raising her kids to be ... hopefully multilingual! 

Thinking of introducing a second (or third or fourth) language? We loved speaking with Valicia, mom of 2 - fluent in both Spanish and English, proficient in Japanese and Korean - to hear her thoughts on raising multilingual kids. We love her approach to multilingualism, one that centers around respect for language and culture ... and books!

Tell us about your multilingual background 

I’m a mom, first and foremost, of N and F (5 and 1.5 years old). For languages, I’m a native Spanish speaker and learned English when I started elementary school. I am proficient in Japanese and can understand some Korean. I’m an Associate Attorney at an immigration law firm in Boulder, Colorado (and by night, the voice artist for Habbi Habbi Spanish Books!). I studied Political Science and Japanese in college, so my interests in the law and in culture and language started young! 

Parents often ask what is the right 'age' to start learning another language? When did you start?  

Well, learning Spanish comes from my family and heritage - so that started before I can remember. My grandparents were immigrants, and my parents placed great value on having us learn the Spanish language. So, while most families of my parents’ generation tended to focus on speaking English at home, my parents raised my brother and me as monolingual Spanish speakers until we started school in order to preserve the language.

My interest in Japanese started when I was about 7 years old. There was a sister-city program we had between my hometown in California and Ono City in Japan’s Hyogo Prefecture. My family had Japanese exchange visitors stay with us, and this was my first exposure to Japanese. I remembered I loved the bright vowels - because they were the same as Spanish vowels, which made Japanese feel accessible to me. So I just took a personal interest in it. I started learning it, spent 6 weeks in Japan during high school, and minored in Japanese in college. 

I learned Korean after college actually - my friend recruited me to teach in Korea after college. I lived there for 1.5 years. I was fascinated by Korean because it is a scientifically created written language. Linguists created Hangul - so when you look at written Korean, you can pronounce it correctly (vs. being character and memorization based). 

What does building a multilingual family mean for you? 

For me, language has always been about connecting with people. Spanish meant connecting deeply with my grandparents and my community. With Japanese, I wanted to be able to talk to the people in the exchange program. When I visited Japan, I really, really wanted to connect with the people there. It makes such a difference to be able to talk to someone in their native language. It opens up a whole new level of connection, empathy, and understanding. Also, Spanish, for example, is spoken natively on 3 continents, so language opens up a substantial part of the world to you! 

What is your approach to language learning and raising multilingual kids? 

It’s deeply important to me. But my approach has to be different from my parents’ approach - because my husband does not speak Spanish fluently. I did a ton of research on dual immersion schools and families when I was at Stanford. And my big takeaway was that the *respect* that the “instructor” has for the different languages makes all the difference. So that’s how I treat language learning at home - I try to show respect for and the value of both English and Spanish, so my boys know that both are important. 

Do you want your kids to be bilingual? Trilingual? Multilingual like yourself? 

My philosophy (and each parent’s may be different!) is that the more the better, because kids’ brains are such good sponges at such a young age. That’s why even though we are a Spanish-English household, I have the Habbi Habbi Chinese books as well. That’s why we also carry Japanese and Korean children’s books at home. 

One fun story - early on, N learned the word “bilingual” and now identifies himself as “bilingual” person - knowing Spanish and English. One day, we went to our favorite neighborhood Japanese restaurant, and I started speaking to the owner in Japanese. N turned to me and said, “Mommy, you’re not bilingual. You speak more than 2 languages.” And I told him, “Yes, I’m multilingual.” And he said “I want to try, too.” He started noticing when other people would speak more languages than just English or Spanish. And I think that’s wonderful. 

How do you support your kids' interest in being bilingual?  

Like so many parents, it is books! That’s why I am so tickled that my “other job" is as a voice artist for Habbi Habbi, because I am in love with the mission. I also love that we have the Chinese set here at home - so N and F can get exposure with the Wand, even though I don’t speak Chinese. It’s fun too, because my husband took online Mandarin classes in college. So now that N has picked up a few words, it’s a secret language only N and my husband know, and N is really enjoying that. 

I also have tons of books collected over the years. I pick up books whenever I am in a new country. My friends gift books to me, because they know how much I love them. It might sound crazy, but I started collecting books when I was in Japan at 17 years old, so you can see how long I have thought about this! 

What does language learning success look like for you?

So much of it depends on the kids! So, it’s not so much the number of languages or level of fluency - but more the things that language exposure brings. I so badly want my kids to be global citizens, to have the world open to them through language, and to have real friendships with people across the world. So if they take any interest in any language, I’m on it. I want to nurture that interest - and I’m confident it will open a whole new set of doors and life experiences!


Written by H&AL of Habbi Habbi; first published on Red Tricycle | 20.10.12

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