The XX Factor

Raising the (Bilingual) Kids We Wish We’d Been

Babies look like clean slates, and in the days before they’re born, we have rosy fantasies about the kind of kids they’ll be and the kind of kids we’ll raise. I’m prone, personally, to flip-flopping between trying to raise my kids the way I was raised (conscientious, fiscally responsible, without undue mental health issues) and trying to raise the kid I wished I was. That girl was multilingual, dropping casually into another language just when all of her friends were baffled. She rode horses like a cowboy, cut a clean swath into the water with her perfect jackknife dives, and could light a fire without a match.

Of all of those things, the one that seems easiest to give our kids is the gift of speaking another language. If you do it young enough, the reasoning goes, it’s totally painless, unlike all those years of struggling with useless high-school French. All you have to do to teach a small child a language is speak it to them. But there’s the rub. Most of us, even those of us whose parents spoke a second language, aren’t fluent in another language ourselves. This is where the nanny comes in. The New York Times is reporting another nanny trend. (As an ex-New Yorker, I love these stories; they make nannies seem like just another part of life, when in truth few people outside of big cities use a “nanny.”) Suddenly nannies with “foreign language skills” are in high demand. I will hire you, the thinking goes, and you will speak Spanish to my child, and she will learn to speak it, too.

The families interviewed for the article were mostly young, with babies and toddlers just learning to speak (arguably the perfect time to introduce language No. 2). One family, though, seemed to have succeeded: With a nanny who spoke Spanish, a father who spoke German, and a mother who spoke English, the mother says her sons “move fluidly among three languages.” It sounds so good. These families need nannies, anyway; why not use the nanny to give the child a desirable skill as well as change his diaper and push him on the swings? But I’m a dubious curmudgeon. I suspect this of being one of those things that sounds good but fails in the execution: As kids get older, the usual pattern is to spend less time with a nanny, and maintaining that second language is likely to become one of a shuffle of activities.

Or maybe I’m just jealous: The  Muzzy dvds of my optimistic young-mother days have long since been given away, even my China-born adopted daughter is rapidly losing her limited dialect skills, and our best intentions for sharing Mandarin as a second language as a family have gently boiled down to two hours a week of sporadic instruction from local college students. It’s all proved far more difficult than I ever thought. I conclude that it’s tough to fake this stuff: If you own horses, you grow up riding; a summer place by a lake or a family that summers by hiking the Adirondack trail will leave you diving and lighting fires like a pro. I’m not saying a nanny can’t teach a child a second language. But the things that really shape a kid take passion and commitment, and they come more naturally if they’re things which are already part of your life. Raising your kids to respect and share something that’s important to you is easier than trying to raise your kids to be somebody you never were. Especially if it’s Nancy Drew.