The interrelationship between securely attached relationships and bilingualism

The interrelationship between securely attached relationships and bilingualism
Benefits Parenting Bilinguals

The Interrelationship between Securely Attached Relationships and Bilingualism

A securely attached relationship between parents (or primary caregivers) and children is an important component in the connection that a child has or maintains with his/her mother tongue.  It essentially establishes a strong foundation from which a child can learn a second language. The benefits of creating and maintaining a securely attached relationship are well documented for the healthy development of children. These benefits include:

  • Positive self-esteem and better acceptance and understanding of one’s self
  • Greater empathy and understanding and more positive relationships with others
  • A strong foundation from which a child feels safe to explore and learn about their world
  • Long-term positive outcomes in academics and work (1, 2)

It is not by coincidence that most of the benefits that come from a securely attached relationship are the same benefits that most bilinguals demonstrate too.  We can logically assume that a strong interrelationship exists between a child’s relationship with her parents and the language her parents use when speaking to her.  We see this interrelationship play out in many ways.  From Urdu to Spanish, Mandarin, Vietnamese and more, many parents have successfully raised their children to be both strong bilinguals in native and dominant languages as well as highly capable adults by connecting with their children in meaningful ways in their native language and by nurturing their relationship throughout their children’s lives.

Children are more likely to grow up to be strong bilinguals when an expectation is firmly established that the children also have to respond to parents in their mother tongue.  However, in homes with strongly secure relationships and a value placed on the home language and culture, even when the children are not made to respond in the native language, as sometimes is the case when both parents have strong English skills, these children often still grow up embracing their native language later in life. In an interview with Think Bilingual Austin, Julie Simms, a Lebanese American, explained how her daughters chose to study Arabic, their mother tongue, on their own in high school.  We have family from India whose daughter was raised in the United States and grew up as a passive bilingual (understanding the native language but not speaking it). Once the daughter started college she decided on her own to learn to speak her mother tongue by enrolling in Urdu language classes.  A daughter of Chinese immigrants whose parents were told not to speak to her in Mandarin once she entered grade school decided to reclaim her heritage language and culture by relearning Mandarin with her own child.  In each of these examples, the attachment to language and culture remained as an intrinsic part of their secure attachment to their parents and/or primary caregivers.

Creating and maintaining secure relationship with your child is also vital in raising your child to learn a second language that may not be a native or heritage language. In my own experience, English is my mother tongue and Spanish is my second language.  I decided before my daughter was born that I would raise her to be bilingual by speaking to her in both languages.  In addition to speaking to her in both languages, I also rely heavily on community support and external language based programs to strengthen her Spanish language acquisition.  Notwithstanding, we have encountered many challenges over the years when my daughter would push back saying that she did not want to continue to speak or learn Spanish.  Yet, because we had established and maintained a securely attached relationship with our daughter and we had set Spanish as an important priority in our home, my daughter always came back to Spanish as a special language she shares with me, her mother.  Sometimes she even surprises me by initiating conversations in Spanish.  A few days ago I asked her if she likes speaking Spanish because this is a language we share together.   Her answer was an emphatic “YES.”

Parents do not have to speak the second language to raise a bilingual child.  Guided by the connection that a secure relationship provides, a parent can also nurture their child to learn a second language by providing their support and demonstrating interest. Parents can help their children learn a second language by learning the language alongside or by simply helping them in their practice.  In this way, learning a second language incorporates meaningful and explicit time together which adds more value to the relationship and does not take away from the interpersonal connection that a child has with her parents in her native tongue.

Debunking Myths

It is also important to note that for decades (even to this day), families who speak a language other than English at home have been told by doctors and educators not to speak to their children in their mother tongue at home.  These families are often told that they need to just speak English to their children so as to not confuse their children. We now know from years of research analyzing bilingualism that such advice is not only false but can also be detrimental to children’s success by impeding on the secure emotional relationships parents have with their children.  Parents whose first language is not English may not be able to connect with the child in English as effortlessly as they could in their native language, especially if the parent is not a strong English speaker.  Fear of confusing their child by speaking in their native tongue may create further division and distance in the parent/child relationship, making it difficult for parents to effectively communicate and relate to their child on an interpersonal level.  Such incorrect advice for a short-term gain in English can have long-term negative consequences as both the parents and the child miss out on developing the secure interpersonal bonds essential for helping the child navigate social emotional and academic challenges that he will encounter in the future.

Creating and maintaining a securely attached relationship between parents and children:

Connect on an emotional level every day :

Set aside time each day to connect with your children in a meaningful way on your children’s terms.  It may include listening to their ideas based on their imagination (even if it is not realistic or may seem absurd) without judgement or correction.  Or it may be simply being presence to help when they are doing something.  Spending time together over dinner and spending a few minutes together before bedtime are also great ways to connect daily.

Play :

Set aside dedicated time to play with your children each week by doing something of their choice. You may have only a half an hour to give or you may several hours; yet, whatever time you have to set aside each week just for them is a valuable investment in building a strong relationship between you and your children.

Listen :

Listen to your children. Enable them to feel comfortable talking to about your feelings, thoughts, desires, etc. This shows you have respect for them as human beings and they matter.

Try to Remain Calm :

Try to handle difficult situations between children and parents with love and understanding instead of out of fear, frustration or anger. It is not always easy and we all fail, but if we remember to reflect on how we can handle situations differently by being guided by love instead of fear or frustration, whenever the next difficult situations occur, our responses will continue to improve.

Modeling Good Behavior :

We are the leading models in our children’s lives and this fact in itself reminds us of our own behavior. Thus, we must always be mindful and reflect on how we treat ourselves and others and how we resolve conflicts and face difficulties.

Talk about Yourself and Your own Feelings:

Children want to connect with their parents, but sometimes they do not always understand how they can or should. Be open to talk to your children about their own personal feelings and share with them your own history, stories and experiences about your life as also relates to their own experience. For example, share with your children how it makes you feel when they ignore you or do not do what they are asked. Review pictures together of your life when you were little and talk about how you felt and about the different encounters you had when you were your child’s age.  Your child will connect with you on a deeper level through empathy and understanding.

Be Open-minded :

Although we are adults, we still continue to learn something new every day. Be open with the knowledge that we do not know everything and that there is much we can still discover and learn.  Your children will take notice and learn an important and valuable life lesson as well.

Guide your children with authority without being an authoritarian.

The distinction is not always obvious when we think of authoritative and authoritarian, but the difference is substantial. As  parents, we do not want to be our children’s best friend, yet, we do want to nurture a secure bond with our children throughout their various stages of growth. To maintain this relationship and bond, we, as parents, guide our children as authority figures or leaders with consistency and with love and understanding; unlike an authoritarian who imposes their will to demonstrate their power and who demand automatic obedience because they have the power.