Grandparents and the Bilingual Child
This summer we were fortunate enough to have visits with both sets of my little Monkey’s grandparents – a real treat, since they both live so far away. During this wonderful family time, I had plenty of opportunities to observe my little Monkey with his grandparents. Since I am always curious about his bilingual language development, I was particularly attuned to how this affected his interactions with them.
All of my little Monkey’s grandparents are monolingual (English on my side, Spanish on my husband’s), unless you count my father’s very enthusiastic “Hola! Me llamo David! Pásame la mantequilla, por favor!” (Hello! My name is David! Pass me the butter, please!)
Luckily, they all support our mission to raise our son to be bilingual, yet it has created some difficulties for them. This is particularly the case for my husband’s family, since my little Monkey mostly speaks English right now. Even supportive grandparents may get frustrated at times, and in the worst cases, it could create tension within the family, as questions are raised about the appropriateness of the child’s bilingual upbringing.
Difficulties with Having a Bilingual Grandchild
- Trouble communicating: I have written more fully elsewhere about my reflections on our recent trip to visit my husband’s family in Costa Rica. During our visit, my little Monkey’s Spanish-speaking grandparents were frequently left in the dark as to what he was talking about. He was a bit shy to begin with, and when he did talk around them, it was mostly in English. And while this is less of an issue with his English-speaking grandparents, it still does occur occasionally. For example, when my little Monkey wanted my mother to read his punto (“dot”) book to him, she had no idea which book he was asking for! (He was referring to Press Here, a book about dots and circles that is a current favorite of his. Ironically, it was one given to him by my mother). And while one of us is almost always around to step in and translate, if we weren’t the situation could be frustrating or – in the case of an emergency – even dangerous.
- Trouble connecting: Other than the possible safety issue mentioned above, the most serious problem is that the difficulty communicating can make it more difficult for monolingual grandparents to connect with their bilingual grandchildren. In many cases, such as ours, this problem is compounded by the fact that the grandparents often live great distances apart from the grandchildren and so are already at a disadvantage in building a close relationship.
- Patience: My hope is that this situation will improve as my little Monkey grows. As discussed elsewhere, at two and a half, my little Monkey doesn’t seem to be aware that others don’t understand both of his languages. As he learns to distinguish between which language he can speak to which people, he will become more adept at speaking in the appropriate language to each set of his grandparents, alleviating both of the above problems.
- Stretch your boundaries: Later in life it is quite difficult to learn a new language, but it is always possible to incorporate a few key phrases from the other language into your vocabulary. Not only will this ease communication somewhat, but the grandchild will also be delighted to hear you speak in his other language! It may also introduce a fun activity to do together, as the grandchild gets to step briefly into the role of “teacher.”
- Focus on the advantages. Remember what an advantage being bilingual will be to your grandchild. He will be at ease in a wide range of situations that are difficult for most people because of his ability to communicate. He will also be ahead of the game later in life when looking for work, as bilingual employees are in high demand. In addition, the fact of learning another language helps a child to “think outside the box” and will make it easier for him to learn other subjects that may at first appear unrelated.
Although having a bilingual grandchild can present challenges, these are far outweighed by the advantages. And as parents, we can help ease the difficulties by helping our children understand the “correct” language to use with their grandparents. For most of us, this is a learning situation, so the most important thing is to work together in a loving, supportive way. Grandparents love their grandchildren and want what is best for them. As someone once told me, they are the only people other than yourselves that wouldn’t hesitate to rush into a burning building to save your child. So what’s a little language barrier? After all, we are talking about bilingual grandchildren, so they do speak the grandparents’ language, we just have to help them figure out how to put all the pieces together!