Raising Bilingual Children from the Perspective of a Bilingual SLP

  • November 12, 2021
  • Raquel Martinez Suh

Hear from Raquel Martinez Suh MA, CCC-SLP. Raquel is a bilingual SLP, raising bilingual children and using her background as an SLP to help her parenting approach.

What has been your experience raising children in a multilingual environment?

Raising children in a multilingual environment has been a lot harder than I anticipated. Our home dynamics include my husband who speaks English and Korean, I speak Spanish and English, and my in-laws only speak Korean. My husband and I speak English to one another.

To be honest, it was easier when they were babies. At that time, I was at home by myself with them, so I sang, talked and read to them in Spanish. When my in-laws helped, my oldest would hear and be exposed to 100% Korean. By the time he was 12 months I witnessed that he understood everything my in-laws would tell and ask of him.  Then when my second was born, we hired a nanny to help a handful of hours a day while I took a part-time job. During that two-to-three-year period they were mainly exposed to English with some Spanish and some Korean. Then the pandemic hit and the Korean and Spanish diminished drastically, until I left my job. Today, I feel that the experience has been eye-opening for me, but natural. By that I mean that I don’t push one over the other. We have always read books since they were infants. And now, at age 3 and 4, they know and say, “first let’s read it in Spanish and then in English,” or vice-versa. Raising multilingual little humans hasn’t been easy especially when the dominant language is English.

What are you using from bilingual research/academic knowledge to support your parenting approach?

I use both a combination of bilingual research and my academic knowledge to support my parenting approach. Regarding the academic knowledge, to say the least, I follow a ‘respectful parenting’ approach. Within the five main areas of child development, I have put a lot of emphasis on their social-emotional development and their speech and language development. The cognitive development naturally falls within the speech and language development with my parenting style. I started reading to my boys when they were each about 5-6 months old, so the latter two development areas have naturally progressed.

More specifically, regarding their communication development, it has been exposure. Research shows that natural exposure is the most beneficial. It just gets integrated into them.  I really try to put into practice the cultural aspects of both our Mexican-American and Korean norms. We frequently bake together. Their ‘halmoni’ -grandmother- cooks a lot for them and would play the guitar or harmonica with them. I often observed their ‘haraboji’- grandfather- just talk to them like they knew what he was saying from the very beginning. Again, a very natural approach. As for me, it helps that I naturally explain things as I go; I am a descriptive talker. But together, my husband and me, we work extra hard at this.

As per the bilingual research I try to stick to one language at a time. For example, if I am reading to them in Spanish, I keep it 100% Spanish. I grew up code-switching, so I am very cognizant of making sure that I really try not to code-switch, especially in activities like reading. Same with my husband- when he reads to them in Korean or is around his parents.

How do you find the balance between being a bilingual parent and a bilingual SLP?

For me it is not so much about finding a balance – it’s just doing and prioritizing what is important to me, for my children. I think first and foremost I am a bilingual parent. The bilingual SLP just naturally intertwines itself in me as a bilingual parent.  I think of it as pushing what has always been important to the forefront with an added bilingual SLP touch. So naturally because culture is extremely important to me, I make it a priority to try to immerse my children in both cultures as often as we can.

I truly believe that the bilingual part whether ‘parent’ or ‘SLP’ just comes naturally. For instance, my oldest is now of preschool age and he very much advocates for himself. If I or my husband suggest Korean or Spanish reading time, he will either say okay and go get the books he wants or he may say, “I don’t really feel like doing that right now.” I am ok with it. So, we don’t enforce it, but we do encourage it. And often when we do encourage it, he is more open to it 100% of the time. It then becomes a more engaging experience. We may end up playing a trilingual naming game, which then ends up with us listening to songs in a particular language.

I was raised as a sequential bilingual and it wasn’t until university that I tapped into my true abilities as a bilingual. It has served me well, but I also know what could have enhanced it. Having that insight from personal experience helps me. All in all, it’s a natural balance – an intertwined balance.

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