Black Parents Raising Bilingual Kids Can Find Support With These 6 Tips

It can be challenging for non-native speakers to learn a new language. Black families raising Black bilingual kids might struggle to find community as well. But with these tips learning a new language is possible.

Tween boy and girl working with spanish flash cards
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When I decided to have kids, I was living in Africa—in Mozambique, to be exact. There, it is common to meet bi- and even tri-lingual children due to ancestry or circumstance. The official language is Portuguese but traditional languages are commonly heard around the home, and English is often a second language in school. I had severely underestimated the challenge of re-creating that reality outside of the continent, where Black bilingualism isn't seen as particularly special.

For me, in the United States, bilingual nursery schools were well beyond my budget. Online materials rarely had Black children as second language learners. Instead, I got the impression that there were many resources for English as a Second Language (ESL) for BIPOC heritage speakers (people who acquired non-English languages informally through exposure at home). Still, there were few representational materials for parents and educators teaching Black children a language that wasn't tied to their ancestry. I launched my bilingual children's book series to fill the resource gap and slowly started meeting like-minded parents who also took a DIY approach to raising their children to be bilingual.

If you're new to this journey, you may want to go it alone, but there's no need to start from scratch. Here are six tips for raising bilingual Black children in the United States today:

Create Homemade Resources to Display in Your Home

Kymberly Thomas, a Virginia-based mom teaching her 5-year-old Mandarin, jokes that she has pasted so many handwritten notes and posters around her home that she has made a verb of the famous Alice Walker book and movie, The Color Purple. "I make a lot of posters that I hang up around the house to remind me to speak Mandarin and to remind me how to say words and phrases," she says.

Making these materials herself has been useful because they are strategically placed and "are specific to what we're learning or the phrases and words we use most in our home." Thomas worked as an ESL teacher in Korea and saw how important bilingualism is for kids these days. To make it stick, though, she says that consistent parental involvement is key to fluency. A second-language class is "not something you can sign them up for and just walk away." Parents must participate and practice with kids too.

Start Working on Multilingualism as Early as Possible

While the debate about the best timing still rages on, parents resoundingly agree that there's no time like the present. Aunjahné Williamson, a homeschooling parent in New York, says she started exposing her kid to various languages while he was still in her belly. "Putting on educational shows in other languages is also a huge plus," she says to parents who want to introduce new languages into the household.

Research from the University of Washington found that newborns can detect the language spoken by their mothers, so multilingual moms can give kids a head start by speaking out loud in the languages they know. Similarly, a University of Kansas research study found that "a month before they are born, fetuses carried by American mothers-to-be can distinguish between someone speaking to them in English and Japanese." If you didn't birth a polyglot, don't worry. Now is the next best time to start!

Find a Community or Create Your Own

"Experience is the best teacher, so actually creating an environment so our child can converse with others who speak different languages has been the BEST decision," Williamson says. Her ten-year-old has been homeschooled his whole life and is now fluent in Spanish and American Sign Language. But she acknowledges that she had to create her own community to extend learning beyond books and mobile apps.

For non-Romance languages, that can be much harder to do. Thomas hired a one-on-one teacher to work with her daughter three days a week. She also started going to a Mandarin-speaking church with a nursery run by native speakers. "For many reasons, it's hard to find Mandarin playgroups, especially for our specific needs (not fluent, Black, and young)," she says. But she won't give up because she believes if more Black and brown parents teach their children foreign languages, "then more of us will have a village to help each other out."

Keep an Eye Out for Language Bias Against First Gen Kids

There are layers of privilege when it comes to being bilingual by choice, so it's important to understand how to navigate the implicit bias your kids might face as bilingual first-generation or immigrant children. "For a lot of my students who are first-generation, whose first language is really both [English and a heritage language], they've grown up with both equally and often their English is stronger than their parents' language. I always tell them to put both languages as their 'first language' on college applications because they learned simultaneously," says Jennifer Barefoot Smith, a multilingual high school guidance counselor who attended and taught at one of the U.S.' oldest dual-language Spanish and English schools.

In her experience, when heritage speakers and first-generation kids say that English is their second language, colleges sometimes question their English fluency and request that they take the Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL) exam, in addition to standardized tests. But some universities look for multilingualism as part of the entering class composition, so she says it's best not to hide a second or third language. If you're unsure how to navigate the college admission process, seek other parents and college prep resources to help.

Know That if Concerns Arise, You Can Find Solutions

While most people agree that multilingualism is an advantage, some parents fear that speaking two languages at once will cause their children to experience speech or learning delays. Research from Princeton has debunked the myth. But Black parents know that their kids are often held back from advanced classes, and they may be unwilling to risk an educator singling out their kid for all the wrong reasons. In these cases, it's important to remember that language isn't the culprit—racism is.

If you're concerned that your child is experiencing true learning delays, there are options. Barefoot Smith says trusted educators can test for learning disabilities and, depending on the situation, determine the best approach for new language acquisition. Typically, once the learning disorder is diagnosed and treated, learning can continue at a normal pace. If you fear your kid being wrongfully held back because of their accent or seemingly "imperfect" English, speak with school administrators immediately about a remedy or a transfer.

Teach Your Children To Appreciate the Culture Without Pressure To Assimilate

If your child is learning a language that isn't predominantly spoken by Black people, you'll have to get over the impulse to want them to "fit in" with native speakers. Language, like culture, is heavily layered. Learning another language won't help your child "belong" to another culture. But it can help them understand another culture better. Remember, the goal here is communication. If your child can express themselves, use the vocabulary needed to stay safe while traveling, and make friends who predominantly speak another language—that's a huge success!

They may always speak with an accent or not know the country-specific connotations of common words. That, too, is ok. Perfection isn't the point, and assimilation isn't the goal. If you'd like them to learn more about the cultures associated with the languages they speak, encourage a semester or school year abroad, but don't be shocked if they still come back feeling that they still have a lot to learn.

Nafeesah Allen, Ph.D., is an American migration scholar based in Peru.

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