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!

Children’s Library Essentials

adorable blur bookcase books
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

I’m all about efficiency and effective organization.

I believe strongly in these principles because they give us the opportunity to get the most out of what we are doing, or wanting in life. When we are disorganized, we spend more time on trying to correct the situation, than if you put an extra couple of minutes into early planning.

Being effective and efficient also means being less wasteful. It does not mean having to live overly planned and rigid lives – quite the opposite really. A little bit of forward thinking means the ability to have control over a situation and, ultimately, more flexibility and enjoyment. This is something I try to practise in my both my professional and personal life.

I guess you’re probably a little confused at this point as to what this has to do with your child’s book collection? Well, with a little forward planning, you can have the “ultimate” library for your child that serves them well up until school age. Additionally, you can do this with minimal waste (ie books that just sit and collect dust) and have a more effective storytime each night.

My intent here with this post is not to provide you with a list of “best books” for whatever age. There are plenty of these floating around the internet (possibly with some ulterior motives for affiliate sales too..). Plus, every child has different interests, so a “best book” list may not work for your family. Don’t get me wrong, these lists are great for getting ideas for books if you really have none. I tend not to use these lists – I’d rather take my kids down to the library for a bit of trial-and-error. We pick a pile of books that has grabbed our attention, do a quick run through of each and shortlist what we want to take home (usually about 5x books). Once we get home, we read them. Some are hits, some are not.

The point of this post, however, is more a case of providing you with some ideas and tools to get longevity out of the books that you choose to buy. This point is also relevant to the reviews I post. I hope to empart some ideas to other families, but it is about adopting those ideas into what will work for you. Ultimately, if it doesn’t work, you won’t enjoy storytime as much as you want to.

The most important thing is that you and your family enjoy the books you are reading. If you don’t enjoy the books, then the frequency and quality of storytime will suffer.

I also believe that the collection you have at home does not need to be extensive (or expensive). There are so many opportunity for your kids to be exposed to different books (eg kinder, childcare, borrowing from libraries, etc) that your collection at home doesn’t really need to contain much, if done properly and cleverly. Plus, you will probably find that your child has a couple of favourites that they will just continue to cycle through (over and over and over again…).

Flexibility

Flexibility, I’ve learnt, is the number one rule for parenting.

Remember that what may work for your child one month, may not the next, so try be flexible in how you approach book purchases. You may not have control either on the quality/quantity of books in your collection, as many books you have may have been given as gifts. In all honesty, the bulk of the books in our collection are the result of gifts rather than purchases. Being effective in this circumstance, is a case of doing the best you can, with what you have, and while catering to the interests of your child.

A good way to road test books is to try them first at your library. If you find your child continues to want to read a particular book (or series), consider a purchase or even find someone who has it (and purchase or trade from them – this is a much cheaper alternative to buying new).

Inevitably, your child will grow out of some of the books. If you don’t have any younger children, it may be time to think about moving those books on. Consider donating them. Alternatively, a book swap is also the perfect opportunity if you want to update your library collection to cater to your growing family, while getting rid of older books.

Your Children’s Library Essentials

My recommendations for the ultimate children’s book collection that will hopefully stand the test of time:

  • Board Books: My number one tip. Wherever possible, get the board book version! This is especially true for baby and toddler books. Books will get drooled on, drawn on and ripped (see images below of our poor old copies of The Hungry Caterpillar and Cat in the Hat as an example). Even though these are a sign of a well-loved book, keeping them in as best condition as possible means that you don’t have to memorize the missing pages, and you can give them a second home when you are ready to move them on.20180806_084646.jpgPoor ripped pages…20180806_084702.jpg
  • Single-Worded Books: Books that contain simple graphics with a single word on each page are great books for babies, but also find a second life in toddler and pre-school years when teaching words, letters, and reading. Get a variety of these types of books that deal with different themes: animals, numbers, colours, etc.
  • Books for the Senses: Similar to single-worded books, books that combine the sense of touch and sound also make great books for childhood learning. The addition of touch (eg fabric, textured graphics, etc) and sound (noise buttons), enhance the learning experience.
  • Books with Motion: Pop-up and pull-tab books are great because they get the children involved with the story. They also add visual interest and can add a layer of suspense to the storyline. Some good examples include The Spot the Dog series, Elmer the Elephant, Look Out Leon! WARNING: these types of books get damaged easily, so try to encourage gentle reading!
  • Books with Rhyme and Repetition: Stories with rhyme and repetition are much more enjoyable to read. They also are a stronger language teaching tool.
  • Books with Photo Illustrations: See my earlier post – Illustrations Alive! for more information on the benefits of these books.
  • Classics: Build your library up with the classics – stories you enjoyed as a child and classic books your child will enjoy now. Think of the timeless books like The Hungry Caterpillar, We’re Going on a Bear Hunt, etc. They’re called timeless for a reason – chances are your kids will also get a lot of enjoyment out of them too.

The Take-Away Message

  • Start small and build your way up. There’s no reason to go crazy with buying all kinds of books. Pick a few recommended ones to start with and build up from there. Let your child’s interest be your guide.
  • Think long term – which books could be good for babies, toddlers and preschoolers?
  • Make use of your local library! Stock your own collection with the favourites that are on repeat and borrow books for variety!
  • Stock your child’s collection with books that you like to read to them. There’s nothing worse than your child picking out stories and a) you try to push them to pick something else; or b) your story telling becomes luck-lustre! If you need to, store away books that are not age appropriate, or that you don’t really enjoy (maybe they were given to you as a gift). That way, every book your child asks you to read them is a winner for everyone.

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).

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.