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Review of  Growing Up with Two Languages

Reviewer: Karolina Dobersztyn
Book Title: Growing Up with Two Languages
Book Author: Una Cunningham-Andersson
Publisher: Routledge (Taylor and Francis)
Linguistic Field(s): Applied Linguistics
Language Acquisition
Issue Number: 22.4622

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AUTHOR: Una Cunningham

TITLE: Growing up with two languages

SUBTITLE: A practical guide for the bilingual family, 3rd edition

PUBLISHER: Routledge (Taylor & Francis)

YEAR: 2011

Karolina Dobersztyn, School of English, Adam Mickiewicz University, Poznan, Poland

The book “Growing up with two languages” is a guide for parents raising
bilingual children, the third edition of a book originally published in 1999. It
treats various aspects of life with two languages and two cultures. The changes
that have been introduced in comparison with the second edition include two
completely new chapters: “Looking back on a bilingual childhood” and “Research
and further reading”. The former takes the form of case studies which look at
ten different bilingual families from Europe, Africa and Asia, and cover the
time span of fifty years. The latter provides an overview of studies on
childhood bilingualism and suggestions for further reading.

The book is structured as follows. The Preface provides information concerning
the author’s personal experiences with bilingualism as well as changes in the
third edition of the book. In Chapter One, “Families with two languages”,
different types of bilingual families are identified. The following chapters,
from Chapter Two to Chapter Five, explore particular stages of growing up with
two languages: expecting a child in a bilingual home, developing a family
language system after the child is born and the child’s language development.
While initially the discussion focuses on children, in Chapters Six-Nine it
shifts to parents raising bilingual children, and deals with such issues as the
parents’ expectations regarding the level of competence of bilingual children
and various problems involved in bringing up bilingual children. In Chapter Ten,
“Looking back on a bilingual childhood”, bilinguals share their experiences of
living in a bilingual family. In Chapter Eleven suggestions for further reading
are provided. The book includes three appendices, a glossary, a subject index
and a bibliography.

Chapter One, “Families with two languages”, covers different types of bilingual
families and the day-to-day problems they face. The author distinguishes between
mixed language families and minority language families. For mixed language
families, where parents do not have a common linguistic and cultural background,
adapting to a new situation may pose a considerable challenge. Although at the
beginning the minority language speaker may make mistakes while communicating,
eventually he or she tends to gain language skills in the majority language. An
additional difficulty arises when children appear, as they have to be
accommodated in their parents’ linguistic arrangements. If parents choose to
expose their children to both languages a new challenge may arise, namely, at
some point children may refuse to speak the minority language in public because
it leaves them with the feeling of being “an outsider” in their own country. In
contrast, Cunningham argues that members of minority language families where
both parents speak a minority language are in a more favorable situation as the
parents share both a linguistic and cultural background. Their patterns of
language use are affected by the degree of integration into the community and
prospects regarding return to the home country.

Chapter Two, “Expecting a child in a bilingual home”, discusses the issue of
establishing a code of language use within a family before the birth of a child.
Cunningham points out that when a bilingual family expects a child the parents
have to take into account the child’s linguistic development when making plans.
For example, they have to decide whether they want their child to be able to
speak a minority language in order to communicate with relatives from their home
country. The parents may also consider their child’s ability to speak two
languages an asset in career terms. In addition, Cunningham focuses on parental
expectations regarding the level of competence of their children. She notes that
raising children to be indistinguishable from monolingual speakers of either
language appears to be unrealistic.

Chapter Three, “The family language system”, discusses two models of
communication that may be used within bilingual families: “one person-one
language” and “one language-one location”. Cunningham exposes major shortcomings
of the “one person-one language” approach. For example, children may avoid
contact with a parent who speaks their weaker language, and they may also
receive too little input in a minority language. In contrast, in the “one
language-one location” approach children receive a substantial input in a
minority language at home, and are usually highly motivated to learn a majority
language outside the home to communicate with their friends. While some purists
may reject the idea of parents speaking anything other than their native
language to children, Cunningham argues that children also benefit from
non-native input.

Chapter Four, “Language development”, explores different stages of language
learning, ranging from recognizing different sounds and producing words in
isolation, to building children’s linguistic awareness. Cunningham argues that
parents should have great sensitivity to a child’s linguistic development and
should be consistent in their language use to help their child distinguish
between languages. The author points out that different languages may be
dominant at different times and language mixing is a natural characteristic of
bilingual development.

Chapter Five, “The child with two languages”, focuses on the advantages and
disadvantages of growing up with two languages. Cunningham stresses that, on the
one hand, it is a unique opportunity for a child to learn two languages at home
from the parents; on the other hand, being bilingual is a challenge that
requires hard work and commitment. Various difficulties may arise depending on
the age of a child and the circumstances. For example, younger speakers may have
problems with distinguishing between two different sound systems and learning
equivalent words, whereas older children who move abroad may lose a year or two
in order to catch up before they develop majority language skills. In addition,
bilingual children may suffer if education standards happen to be inappropriate.

Chapter Six, “Practical parenting in a bilingual home”, investigates the
decisive role of parents in raising bilingual children. Cunningham offers
practical advice to parents about seeking support in the community, encouraging
children to interact with other children who speak a minority language, as well
as using age-appropriate learning materials. The author argues that providing
input in a minority language is as important as giving a child a chance to respond.

Chapter Seven, “Competence in two cultures”, explores the notion of
biculturalism. Cunningham points out that the decision about exposing children
to two cultures is not as straightforward as the decision regarding language
choice. According to Cunningham while children may acquire a language wherever
they are by simply being exposed to it, they cannot become integrated into a
culture without the support of the community.

Chapter Eight, “Problems you may encounter”, presents two types of problems that
parents may be faced with while raising a bilingual child. First, people who
live abroad may find that their language skills in the native language have
deteriorated in comparison with the skills they had in their home country. A
language strategy may also be disrupted by unexpected occurrences, such as
divorce, death of a parent and bringing up children with disabilities.

Chapter Nine, “Keeping it up”, focuses on the maintenance of previous linguistic
strategies. Cunningham stresses the importance of motivation and systematic work
in language learning as well as the positive effect of knowing a minority
language for a child’s future career.

Chapter Ten, “Looking back on a bilingual childhood”, provides ten unique case
studies in which people who grew up with two languages as children share their
experiences. Most case studies are based on Indo-European languages, while two
involve languages from other language families, i.e. Igbo (Niger-Congo) and
Turkish (Altaic). In addition, Cunningham describes the lives of her four
children brought up in a bilingual home.

Chapter Eleven, “Research and further reading”, focuses on bilingualism
research. Cunningham discusses studies dealing with children’s bilingual
language development and bilingual language acquisition, and suggests directions
for further reading.

The book concludes with three appendices offering advice about organizing a
workshop devoted to raising bilingual children, as well as supporting and
documenting children’s bilingual development. The book is accompanied by a
companion website which provides excerpts from interviews and information about
the author (

“Growing up with two languages” is an extensive survey of the lives of members
of bilingual families who experienced benefits and faced risks as a result of
living with two languages and two cultures on a daily basis. The book discusses
difficulties involved in bringing up a bilingual child, but it also offers
practical advice how to overcome them.

The book is primarily aimed at parents who raise bilingual children and
professionals who work with them, such as teachers and educationalists. As it
takes a practical approach to the bilingual families, it includes few references
to theories of bilingualism. The book is accessible to readers without a
background in linguistics, and provides a glossary of key terms. The book is
written in a clear style. The chapters are illustrated with examples placed in
grey boxes and individual contributions from members of bilingual families in
block quotations.

One of the book’s greatest advantages is that it explores virtually all aspects
of living with two languages. It considers issues connected with bilingualism
from the perspective of both parents and children, and also describes bilingual
families in relation to other people who interact with them. The book covers
almost all domains of language use, such as family, friendship, religion,
education and employment. In addition, it examines situations that occur on a
regular basis, such as bilingual education at school, and unexpected
occurrences, such as the divorce of the parents and the resulting restriction in
the input in one of the languages. In addition, it provides real-life examples
drawn from a variety of languages.

The book has limitations, though. It focuses on families in which either one of
the parents speaks the dominant language of the community and the other speaks
the minority language, or those in which both parents have the same linguistic
background, speak the minority language and live outside their home country. It
thus fails to adequately account for other types of bilingual families within
the typology by Döpke (1992), i.e. families in which parents have different
first languages, both of which are minority languages. While it is sometimes
possible to generalize from the examples provided to wider contexts, members of
such families would benefit from more detailed discussion of the issues they
face on a daily basis. Moreover, the book does not treat families in which there
is only one parent. In addition, the book’s coverage is unbalanced, with all
linguistic examples from either English or Swedish, while examples of cultural
contexts are drawn from a wide variety of languages.

Structurally, there is some repetition. For example, the issue of public
perception of bilingual families speaking a minority language on the street is
discussed not only in the section “Be prepared!” in Chapter Two, but also in the
sections “Language switching” in Chapter One and “Being different” in Chapter
Five. On the formal side, there are occasional misprints in linguistic examples
from Swedish, i.e.: blåbar (blåbär) (p. 5), klattra (klättra) (p. 5), dar (där)
(p. 36); gor (gör) (p. 58); snogubbe (snögubbe) (p. 59), manen (månen) (p. 59).

On the whole, “Growing up with two languages” provides a useful resource for
parents of bilingual families who want to bring up their children bilingually.

Döpke, Susanne. 1992. One-parent-one-language: An interactional approach.
Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

Karolina Dobersztyn is an MA student of English at Adam Mickiewicz University, Poznan, Poland. Her research interest centers on contact linguistics. She is currently working on patterns of language use of members of bilingual families in the United States. She relates language choices of bilingual speakers to the processes of language maintenance and shift.

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