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!

How Reading Builds Resilience

Family storytime plays an important part in building resilience in our children.

What is resilience and why is it important?

Resilience is essentially our ability to cope, or “bounce back” from stress and adverse situations. The long-term impacts of stress on our health can include a weakened immune system, poor attention, inability to problem solve, or regulate emotions. Being resilient is, therefore, imperative to good psychological and physiological health. Resilience is a coping mechanism that does not come naturally to everyone, but with the right support, it can be developed.

Resilience can be nurtured at any stage in life. However, if parents (and educators) are aware of ways we can help our children become more resilient, we can give them the best head start to tackle stressful situations. Stress and adversity is an inevitable part of life – it is how we deal with those situations (whether big or small) that determines how we can recover from them.

Beyond Blue explains the concept of resilience wonderfully with an analogy to a plane encountering turbulent weather:

“The ability of the plane to get through the poor weather and reach its destination depends on:

Plane in storm
  • the pilot (the child)
  • the co-pilot (the child’s family, friends, teachers and health professionals)
  • the type of plane (the child’s individual characteristics such as age and temperament)
  • the equipment available to the pilot, co-pilots and ground crew
  • the severity and duration of the poor weather.”

Being resilient does not equate to requiring people to be “strong silent types”. It requires a whole network of support and the ability to draw on that support.

What role does reading stories play in all this?

Some of the ways that you can help build resilience in your children include:

  • Building their self-esteem – finding ways to support and give your child confidence in their skills.
  • Building healthy relationships.
  • Working on problem solving skills.
  • Managing their stress and anxiety.

The simple act of reading to your kids on a daily basis can strengthen all of these skills. With some planning and understanding of resilience, you can make storytime even more effective. Some of the ways you can do this are:

  • Give your child your undivided attention when you read to them – go to a quiet, warm room away from distractions. Dim the lights. If you have more than one child, you may need to give them separate storytimes. There are benefits to joint storytime, but it can also be disruptive. Make the call on what works for your family.
  • Let your child have a say in what story is being read.
  • Set some (flexible)rules around discussions and questions during the story. Eg. questions to be asked at the end of each page. Make sure your child understands the expectations. This way, you can get your child to focus on the story without distraction while still allowing them to question/discuss the story with you.
  • Give yourself adequate time for storytime. Don’t rush the story. Also make sure there is enough time after for discussion at the end without your child/you being too tired.
  • Address all of your children’s questions compassionately – don’t make them feel silly about the questions they ask, or for their interpretations of the story.
  • Take the time to “debrief” on the story. Work through any conflict, problems, emotions etc with your child and discuss ways in which they were resolved.
  • Take the time to build compassion and understanding about the character’s feelings.
  • Above all, enjoy the time you are spending reading the book!

A note about mindfulness

Mindfulness is the process of “being in the moment”. It is a practice used in meditation and is widely being used as a technique to help combat stress, anxiety and depression. Practicing mindfulness, therefore, also helps build resilience.

While there are many various ways of promoting mindfulness, it can be a bit tricky with young children. Younger children do not always have the attention span, but with some gentle guidance you can engage with activities that can help draw attention to mindfulness. Reading, if done right, is one of those activities (check out Hey Sigmund for some other activities too).

When you are reading to your children, try to make the routine quiet and free from distractions. This way you can help your child focus on the story, the illustrations, their emotions, and their senses (the warm blanket on their bed, your voice, etc).

Reflection on learning

Rather than doing a review for today’s post, I wanted just to take the time to reflect on the opportunity that storytime provides us to better understand our children.

I find that we often underestimate our children’s capabilities.

We have a preconceived notion of what children can do and at what age they should be doing it. We sometimes also become dismissive of our children’s want/need to participate in conversation. It is for this reason that we are “surprised” by what our children do and say.

We are taken aback because we often don’t give them enough credit for their ability to listen, interpret and analyse – they are just children after all….

This is not to say that we should be treating children as adults; rather just taking a step back and being more aware to how in tune our children really are. They are often more creative and open to ideas than adults, who get stuck into a particular view on the world.

Once we are able to do this, we can challenge (not push) and grow our children’s learning capacity. We can trust in their ability to problem solve with some compassionate guidance.

Storytime offers a perfect opportunity to test the waters:

  • Read a story that you think may be a bit “old” for your child and ask questions about what they understand from the story. Keep doing this from time to time – children learn and grow quickly! Even if they don’t quite understand the story at first, take the time to explain and discuss.
  • Let your child pick their own story – don’t belittle their choice or steer them to something else that you think is appropriate. Chances are that they picked a book because it interests them. If they lose interest in it, they will tell you. Be guided by your child’s interest and try to foster it.
  • Always try to take the time to “debrief” after a story. This aids the comprehension process.

How Often Should You Storytime?

photo of a boy reading book
Photo by mentatdgt on Pexels.com

In short, whatever works for you and your family. The important point here is that you are setting aside some time to read to your kids.

While I was at my local library, I saw a poster with a quote from Mem Fox which read, “The ideal three stories a day are one favourite, one familiar, and one new, but the same book three times is also fine”.

I was a little taken aback by this quote – three books daily? Sure this is ideal, but is this realistic for the modern working family? Probably not. Good on you if you do manage this.

Being on maternity leave at the moment, I have the luxury of a bit more time up my sleeves for this sort of thing. As you can probably imagine by the theme of this blog, storytime is also a priority in our house – but, I will admit that we don’t read three books each day to the kids. Occasionally we may make this milestone, but it is certainly not the norm.

This milestone was definitely not achieved while I was at work (and only one child in tow). Realistically, we had to make a conscious effort to make sure my daughter got her single bedtime story, no matter how exhausted we were.

I feel a little torn about my sentiments toward the quote on the poster. Sure, we need to promote parents reading to their children, but there’s a fine line with adding to the already ever-present “mummy/daddy guilt”. As if there weren’t enough pressures to parenting. Now, you have Mem Fox telling you that one book at storytime is not ideal…(sigh)…

My philosophy on this is – quality over quantity. If you can manage three books a day and give each of those books the attention they need, then, by all means go for it. Personally, I can’t. We do storytime right before bed and I’m often as exhausted as the kids.

I would rather pick a book and spend the extra time on it alone. My daughter is extremely inquisitive – each page takes a good few minutes of additional questions, learning to spell/read, discussions about the illustrations, story line, etc in addition to the actual reading of the story. As she gets older, the age appropriate books get longer and more complex too.

If we were to do this with three books every night, we would have over an hour-long bedtime routine just for my daughter – which, quite frankly, doesn’t work for us. I love reading stories with my both kids (yes, even the 4 month old who doesn’t quite understand yet). I would hate to rush through this process because I felt the need/pressure to fit in three stories a night for each child.

While at the moment we do a combined storytime at my son’s bedtime, I feel this may come to an end soon due to differences in age and comprehension level. As much as I try to find even learning ground so that both parties can be involved, I’m wary of how long it can be sustained. If this does come to an end, this means two separate storytimes.

Like I said earlier, occasionally we do hit the milestone. Some days we attend storytime at the library; some times we make extra time during the day for another book or two at lunch; and I know my daughter gets stories read to her at kinder. But, as I said, I have a bit more time at the moment to try wiggle this in throughout the day.

Parents shouldn’t be beating themselves up about “ideals”. As long as there is some effort in giving your undivided attention to quality time over a book, they’ll reap the rewards. Also remember that it takes a village to raise a child and others (ie grandparents, library storytimes, daycare, kinder, etc) may also be contributing to your reading goals.

Quality over quantity.