Q&A: raising a child bilingually

Shelley writes:

You've said enough about your family and your background that I infer you are raising them with two languages, English and Spanish. My husband is Swedish, and I lived there for two years and went to school full-time for the language for a year -- so I'm fluent as well. We are raising our daughter (2 years old, with an October birthday) with Swedish and English, following the "one person one language" method for the most part -- I do speak a lot of Swedish to her, or repeat what I've said in English, etc. as she gets English reinforcement from the 3 days a week she's in daycare and the rest of her surroundings. I've never heard her father address her in English (except for concepts that don't exist in Swedish, i.e. "Easter bunny.") He is home with her two mornings a week, so they get lots of one-on-one time.

When the three of us are together, often English becomes the default, just because our lives are in English for the most part. However, my husband and I are working on speaking more Swedish when the three of us are together. We read and sing in Swedish as much as possible, my husband even translates English kids' books on the fly. We also have a rule that any kids' DVD we possess will be Swedish. Unfortunately, we live in a smallish city and don't know (and are unlikely to find) any Swedish-speaking families for playgroups, etc. We see my husband's parents about once a year, either we go there or they come here, but that hasn't happened since her speaking skills started to blossom.

So far, it's crystal clear that she understands Swedish perfectly, but she doesn't use it nearly as much as we would like her to. I'm looking for tips on raising children bilingually, more specifically on how to encourage a bilingual child to use the minority language."

I've given the wrong impression (OK, somewhat deliberately to help guard my anonymity so I'm not outed to my family) but we only speak American English at home (except when my husband does his ridiculous Scottish accent) for the most part. Our part-time babysitter is originally from a Spanish-speaking country (she emigrated with her family when she was a kid), and she teaches a Spanish class for El Chico and she and I speak Spanish together in front of the kids, but it's not anywhere near raising kids bilingually.

So I am definitely not an expert on raising kids bilingually. But I know there are regular readers who are doing it (Menita, maybe Lisa C, maybe wix, and a few others who've slipped out of my mind right now) who I'm sure could offer their experiences and opinions. And we have several friends who are raising their kids bilingual with one parent speaking English and the other speaking the other language (or the parents speaking one language and a nanny speaking the other), so I've seen how it works for them.

From what I've observed with our friends, the kids seem to use one language primarily and use the other language only when they're with the parent who speaks it or others who speak it to them (meaning grandparents or others who only speak the "other" language). The catch is that the language the kids seem to prefer sometimes switches over time. I remember one playgroup at which a girl who spoke English with her mom and Italian with her dad was speaking Italian to all the kids. We'd never thought about it before because she had previously only spoken Italian to her dad and relatives in Italy, but one day she just started speaking Italian to everyone. (All the parents at playgroup were really amused, but the kids were very confused.) That lasted a month or so, then she switched back to mostly English, and by now (she's 4.5) she switches back and forth effortlessly.

All that is to say that I don't think it's surprising that your daughter doesn't use her Swedish as much if most of what's going on in her life is in English, because it seems to be a normal phase of language acquisition from what I've observed.

I'm guessing that the easiest way to shift the balance of English and Swedish would be to start speaking exclusively Swedish at home. The first couple of weeks would take a lot of mental adjustment for you and your husband, but once you got into the swing of it you wouldn't have to focus on it as much. She's going to continue to speak English from living here, but speaking Swedish at home will give it much more real estate in her brainspace. It sounds like you're flirting with switching over, but just deciding to have Swedish be your official language would probably help you get her to speak more pa svenska.

I think you covered media, and playgroups sound like they won't happen, so I've got no other reasonable suggestions. Does anyone else have anything for Shelley?