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The challenges of work/life balance and raising a bilingual child

Raising bilingual children is challenging for parents who have so many other priorities to juggle, which is why I tackled the hot topic this week in my Miami Herald column. In response, some parents wrote to tell me they feel schools need to do more to teach kids a second language. What are your thoughts?

Here's my article that appeared in yesterday's Miami Herald:

It's Nia Yasher's third go round at raising a bilingual child and this time she's sending her daughter to a Spanish-language school. Yasher, a Cuban-American insurance agent who grew up speaking Spanish in her home, has two older daughters who aren't fluent in both languages.

``Teaching our kids Spanish is hard for my generation,'' Yasher says.

When parents set out to pass two languages on to their children, many find it more difficult than they had assumed. Today, working parents who grew up speaking Spanish, Creole, Portuguese, Hebrew and other languages have so much else on their plates that raising a bilingual child often becomes complicated, overwhelming and the chore on their to-do list that they let slide.

But the recession is teaching parents a lesson: being bilingual -- even multilingual -- is a huge career advantage and learning it as an adult is challenging. CareerBuilder.com has hundreds of jobs advertised in almost every industry that seek workers who are bilingual. Unemployed, some professionals are enrolling in language schools or immersion programs, trying to find any asset that will help them land a job.

As many bilingual parents know, the key to teaching a child a language is consistency. That's just what Anna DiSilva finds most difficult with her 5-year-old, now in kindergarten.

DiSilva, born in Brazil and married to an American, says her daughter, Raquel, spoke only Portuguese for her first five years, but now English is the language she gravitates toward because it's what she hears most of the day in school. DiSilva, a daycare worker, says English is the language she, too, speaks most of the day at work.

``When I pick my daughter up, I'll start off speaking in Portuguese, but then my husband gets home and we're all tired and English becomes easier. I feel guilty and worried that she might lose the language.''

It's that guilt that is keeping Roberto Giuffredi of Step by Step Languages in Miami in business. Giuffredi says he's been surprised by the demand since opening his language school seven years ago.

Of course, there is no better way of learning a language than hearing it from birth. Yet Giuffredi has taught Spanish to about 600 children of Hispanic parents who typically have some Spanish spoken to them at home -- just not enough to make them fluent.

``The vast majority of my clients have high standards and expectations. They have one goal, for their kids to become proficient so later in life they will have an edge over their competitors.''

Of the 53 million U.S. children between 5 and 17, about 15 percent are bilingual, according to the U.S. census 2008 American Community Survey. Locally those numbers are much higher. Of the 677,330 kids ages 5 to 17 in Broward and Miami-Dade counties, 43 percent are bilingual.

Still, several factors complicate parents' efforts to raise a bilingual child. They include whether they are the first or second generation in the United States, whether both spouses speak the language, whether extended family are nearby to reinforce the language, whether the desire to assimilate is stronger than the interest in passing a second language on to offspring and fear of delayed speech skills.

Ana Lopez-Blazquez says as the daughter of Cuban refugees she went out of her way to teach her two children her native Spanish. But her home has three generations under one roof, with grandparents who don't speak English and are unable to reinforce her efforts while she was at work. ``I don't see the same dynamics in the generation that followed. Many of them have lost the language and it's a damn shame.''

Lopez-Blazquez, chief strategy officer at Baptist Health South Florida, views it from a practical perspective, too. ``Not being able to speak multiple languages is a major disadvantage in business.''

In an era where most families rely on two incomes, working parents may want to teach their children their native tongue, but lack the time and energy required to carry out good intentions.

Jeannette Kaplun, co-founder and chief content officer of Todobebe.com, a website for Spanish-speaking parents, says working parents already are tackling homework, housework and now economic pressures. ``We're emotionally exhausted,'' she says.

Kaplun, who herself is raising bilingual children, says it takes tremendous discipline and hard work. ``The older they get, the more they prefer to speak back to you in English. They resist and you have to resist, too.''

Kaplun offers advice to parents who feel overwhelmed: Listen to music in another language, watch Disney movies or cartoons, read books at story time, play games. ``It doesn't have to be seen as a chore.''

Of course, there's also Yasher's approach: outsource it. ``Personally, I speak Spanglish. At least with my daughter taking classes, I know she's getting the basics.''