Raising Children in a Multilingual Home

Firstly before I get into my post, I have to apologize for my lack of writing over the past few weeks….The family and I have just come back from an overseas holiday and I’m just getting over the process of re-adjusting two kids (and myself) to a 9-hour time difference!

In fact, this post is inspired by the trip from which we just returned. In particular, by my daughter’s cultural experience there and encounter with language other than English.

Background

I have always valued language and the importance of learning more than one. Here in Australia, while most of us are required to take a second language at school, most people of my generation do not fluently speak a second language.

Although most are well-travelled, Australians are lucky in the sense that English is widely spoken across the globe. Additionally, our country does not closely border others and English is the only official language. This in turn, has made us a bit lazy in the need to seriously learn a language other than English. When we travel, it is those around us (where possible) who tend to default to the global language of English.

Sure there are those, like myself, who grew up in a first/second generation immigrant family – we are often exposed to a second language and can communicate at a basic level (at a push). However, more often than not, we do not really learn to fluently speak our family’s native-tongue. This is a shame.

For my children, they have the opportunity to learn two additional languages. English is not my husband’s native tongue, and I also come from an immigrant family. For numerous reasons, English will be the primary language in our house. However, learning their father’s native language at a minimum must also be made a priority. Since we reside in an English speaking country and English is my primary language, there are challenges to do this. There needs to be a conscious effort as a family to make this possible.

Why?

For those who wish to learn another language as an adult, it can take many years of study, practice and immersion to get a proper handle of a new language. To have the opportunity to learn a language from an early age is a privilege that many take for granted. There are also the added benefits of getting exposure to a culture, not just a language, when you have family who teach.

In our particular circumstance, I also see it as an important opportunity for our kids to get some really special bonding time with their father alone. It is important that half of our children’s heritage is not forgotten as a result of our decision to reside in Australia – English-speaking, and quite frankly, quite isolated from the rest of the world.

Learning another language to the point where you can call yourself “bilingual” is difficult, but not impossible. A great portion of the rest of the world speak more than one language with ease. It is unusual in Australia, but not in many other places (like Europe), where borders are close, cultures have older histories, and the exposure to other languages on a daily basis is higher.

Language development requires a great deal of “brain-stretching” due to the speed and complexity at which we must use it. There’s written and spoken language – you cannot isolate the two, and must be able to read, write and speak a language. There’s also formal and informal – to function in a country, you must be able to speak with peers, navigate shops/signage/government offices, understand news, etc all at speed. It really is no small feat.

I have always admired those who seem to be able to pick up languages with relative ease. My husband is one of those people. I am not. It takes confidence to practice language in order to master it.

You need to make mistakes, query and sometimes be at ease with the fact that you may not get it right. It will take time and an open mind. It is for this reason that children are much better at picking up languages. They are not as inhibited as adults at trying, practicing, asking questions and accepting when they make a mistakes. They tend to move on and learn from experiences, rather than get embarrassed by them. They are also great at observing and mimicking, which is also an essential skill when learning a new language.

How?

The greatest challenge my family faces with trying to raise truly bilingual (and hopefully multilingual) children is the ease of defaulting back into English.

While there are numerous theories to the best approach to having a multilingual family, I think a “one-parent, one-language” approach will probably work best for us. This means that the children “should” speak English with me and another with my husband.

My children are at a great age for doing this – they are still young and they absorb language like a sponge. They also spend a lot of time in the home, so the habit can be more easily formed into the daily routine.

Being off the back of a trip visiting my husband’s family is a good time to start. Keep the momentum that was started over there, but back here in Australia. It will be a bit of work initially to get this started, as it is not part of our family’s current routine – but I truly believe that the educational and cultural benefits are immense. I also want my children to be able to communicate fluently with both sides of the family.

Storytime also plays an important role in developing language skills. While overseas, we picked up a few storybooks to help assist the children. The stories are familiar (Peppa Pig, Little Red Riding Hood, Three Little Pigs, etc) but in a different language.

Maybe through all of this I can pick up another language too!…

I’d love to hear from any of my readers who have successfully raised bilingual children! In particular where the parents have differing native-tongues. I’d love to hear your stories and tips for doing this!

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