Wednesday, October 17, 2012


High schoolers don’t often agree, and thus it was a surprise to me fifteen years ago when I found total agreement among the friends I interviewed for a history fair project. The topic was whether growing up bilingual was an advantage in their lives. 100% of the bilingual interviewees - the project was on Americans of Latvian descent - were also confident that they would raise their children bilingually. One of my fellow American-Latvian high school classmates even joked that he would buy “Latvian Hooked on Phonics” for his children, and we exchanged funny stories about times we had spoken Latvian so that others wouldn’t know what was being discussed. “Latvians in Chicago” was the project, and discussing bilingualism was a secondary topic to the stories of three generations of Latvians in the Windy City but quickly took precedence in discussions with my friends.

Benefits through opportunities in travel surfaced early on in the interviews. Many of my friends had already visited Latvia but had also traveled extensively around the US and Canada to Latvian events: summer camps, scouting expeditions, youth association events and other cultural happenings. Bilingualism in travel turns out to be a multi-faceted benefit, as not only is it easier to navigate a country if able to speak the mother tongue, but a speaker of the native language will find it easier to complete everyday tasks, meet people and obtain employment. The motivation to travel internationally was also estimated to be stronger with the additional language under your belt; I doubt that any of my friends would have visited Europe at that young an age if not for the Latvian heritage and language.

Our family’s expatriate stint in France only reinforced my understanding of being bilingual and the connection with travel. The opportunity to move to France came about partly because of my husband’s previous French studies, and the extensive traveling we did during our time overseas would not have been feasible if not for his approach to - if it is a word - trilingualism. My knowledge of French was minimal, and I discovered the complexity of completing tasks without any language fluency; my husband took on the majority of household tasks involving any significant interaction with the locals until I managed to pick up a little French. Luckily this language capability soon accumulated in the form of grocery-store and post-office vocabulary.

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Also mentioned as a benefit of bilingualism in the long-ago history fair project was a financial benefit to speaking two languages. My friends listed their dual-language capabilities on their resumes, and many have since gone on to use their ability to speak a second language with international employers, where a second language leads to an understanding of other cultures, even if the languages in question are different. Working with international companies oftentimes brings exclusive advantages to those who speak the language of the country that the company headquarters is in, and it was widely noted by interviewees that being bilingual is beneficial to one’s career.

In our own home, a large motivating factor in deciding to raise our two boys bilingually is the mental benefit. Several studies have shown that bilingual children have advantages in switching between two tasks, are more adept at problem-solving, more successful at creative thinking and overall, more mentally agile than children that speak only one language. There is evidence that bilingualism delays the onset of Alzheimer’s disease symptoms, in addition to making it easier to learn additional languages. (During our time in France I would not have been able to learn as much French as I did learn without knowing Latvian; it is structured far more similarly to French than to English.) Although toddlers raised in an environment where multiple languages are spoken may take longer to say their first words, the resulting mental flexibility that develops is an asset in development. My oldest, Lauris, is finally speaking in sentences and can differentiate between I, me and mine (which I see as a big milestone in his development), but I will admit that I was very nervous when all his French playmates were speaking and he had not yet started. It helped to remind myself that even as he seemed behind on vocabulary, he did understand most of what was said to him in French and Latvian, and once he started speaking he quickly made up for lost time. In any case, I feel an immense loss over leaving France before he had the chance to truly learn the language; it makes learning Latvian seem that much more important.

But what is the primary benefit of being bilingual, the main reason we are raising our children to be bilingual? The one answer that rang loudest during that interview over a decade ago is the same I submit today: love! Love for Latvia, the Latvian culture, the Latvian people and the Latvian language. Language connects children to their ancestors, it binds us to a country that might be far away but is very close to our hearts.

Both my husband and I were born in the United States, but we identify ourselves as Latvian in addition to American, and being bilingual has been integral in shaping our identity. It is the often mispronounced name, and the Saturdays spent in school building vocabulary and learning grammar. It is answering questions about where Latvia is located, doing history fair projects on Latvians in Chicago and explaining that the language differs very much from Latin. Our language is the tie that connects me to a country thousands of miles away, a granddaughter born in the US to her grandmother born in Europe. My grandparents arrived in the United States after WWII not as immigrants but as displaced persons, and some of the only possessions that they carried with them were their language and their customs. Today speaking two languages is a privilege, not a necessity, and I reap the benefits every day.

As I realized when hitting stop on the tape recorder during that interview of my friends many years ago, the Latvian language is the one thing Latvians have that no other people in the world have. But it was to be another dozen years before I would fully understand the benefits that learning a second language would give me. When my parents made the decision over thirty years ago to teach me Latvian and English, I was given a gift. That gift of a second language has opened doors, created opportunities, and left me with an insight into and appreciation for different cultures and different worlds than my own. And the realization that has come to me today is that I possess no greater gift which to give to my sons.
This essay is my entry into the Inspire Language Learning: Blogger Challenge.
As the winner will be determined by a combination of facebook "likes" and a jury panel, please help me by hitting the "like" button below!
Thanks to Russell Ward for bringing my attention to this contest! You can check out his entry over at In Search of a Life Less Ordinary.


  1. I agree wholeheartedly! My daughter, who was born in Canada, speaks 3 languages. Her father and I are Polish. We lived in Ontario (predominantly English speaking province). However, my daughter went to a French Immersion school, so half of her schooling was in English and half in French. At home we spoke Polish. Now, my daughter and I live in Poland so my daughter is immersed in Polish on daily basis even though she attends an American school here. Her transition to Poland would not be so easy, however, if she didn't know some Polish in the first place.

  2. Liene, I sincerely loved reading this essay. I teared up as I read about what a gift that second language was, binding you to your grandmother in her homeland. I am fluent in three languages. One of them, a Filipino dialect, I almost never have the opportunity to speak, since it's more rare for someone in that region of the Philippines to be able to immigrate. Amelia learned German very quickly while we were there, and it was incredible to watch her transform into a German child (mannerisms, facial expressions, and tone) when she spoke it. She also forgot it quickly, but I know that if she chooses to study it someday, it will just make sense to her. Probably the same goes for Lauris and French.

  3. I love this post! Having at least one child that is bilingual amazes me, just to see how easily he cans switch between languages. I hope he never loses that!

  4. As two children of Latvian displaced persons, we never had a second thought as to what our primary home language should be! You didn't learn to speak English until entering kindergarten, and contrary to uninformed warnings - never had difficulty because of it! For you, same as for me, you probably do not even remember not understanding or speaking English. In fact, you probably don't remember that you used to "translate" for me at the grocery store, because, I suspect, you thought that I didn't understand English! To all of us in our extended family, the fact that Latvian was our first language - our mother tongue - has never been an encumberance; we are all richer in many ways for it. I feel especially blessed that all four of our children are fluent in Latvian, that we still speak Latvian to each other, and that in fact, our first two grandchildren - the third American-born generation - are saying their first sentences in Latvian! A debt of gratitude to our parents (in many cases already bilingual before immigrating to the US, because that's what people in Europe do), our grandparents (who often learned their third or fourth language - English - in middle age; not an easy feat), who in turn inherited their understanding of multilingualism from long-gone ancestors.

    Being bilingual has not only been an intellectual benefit to your and our generation - since reinstated independence in Latvia has allowed it to become part of the European Union, doors open for freedom of travel and employment opportunities.

    I am PROUD to read your essay!

    Inga (Liene's "mammīte")

  5. Sveiks Liene...I remember not being able to speak English when I started this school but this did not hinder me in the least in learning it! My Father in Law (many years later) told me that children like this can often end up learning the language really well which is certainly true in my case. One thing I do regret though is not teaching my children Latvian...and my Daughter wishes I had of! Good Luck to you xo

  6. Being bilingual is a huge benefit in life and when I have kids, I'm starting them on languages as early as possible! :)

  7. What a thoughtful and erudite post, Liene. It was a pleasure to read. Thanks so much for sharing your background - it filled in missing parts for me.

    I am a strong advocate of learning foreign languages. You can read about why in my post at

    Best of luck in the competition!

    J x

  8. Thanks Liene for the link share! Glad I brought attention to the competition for you and you felt inspired to write such a thoughtful post. It's a long road ahead for me on this path to raising my children bilingually but I'm looking forward to it for the reasons you note above and more. Cheers and good luck!

  9. Terrific essay - and I love the graphic. And I especially love your #1 reason you're raising the kids bilingual... LOVE! I wish we could be more intentional about it, but it's hard when neither my husband and I are completely fluent in another language. Your kids (and you) are so lucky to have this experience.


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