Raising bilingual children?
Post written by: Fiona Dubuisson.
Let’s share experiences!
Mother: Fiona, Nationality – British. Languages – English (mother tongue) and French
Husband: Olivier, Nationality – Belgian. Languages – French (mother tongue) and English
Child: William, 3.5 years old
Bilingual Parenting Method: Minority Language (i.e. French) at Home (mL@H)
As parents raising bilingual children, no individual journey will be the same, but here are some of our experiences and tips, hoping that some resonate with you.
- Remind our children how special and unique their language abilities are
We were walking around the supermarket a few days ago and an elderly gentleman heard that William and I were talking in another language and he said to William…
Man: “Wow, what language are you speaking in?”
William: “French, I speak French and English”
Man: “That is so clever, well done you! I can’t speak any other languages. I’m very impressed.”
William looked very proud, and so he should be in my opinion. Regardless of some strategies that say we should not praise our children for their accomplishments as they then come to expect it all the time, and they deal less well with failure… I equally feel that it is so important that we remind our children how special and unique their language abilities are, as learning multiple languages is no easy feat. From experience, the more William is praised for demonstrating his language skills (whether it be by me, family members, friends, or even strangers like the above), the more he is likely to use them.
- Just go with the flow
I know this is classified by some as one of the worst, most annoying adages a person can utter and I am not implying that as a bilingual parent we do not make any goal and we do not work towards that said goal but I feel we need to stop worrying so much and putting ourselves under excessive pressure.
I am a member of many bilingual parenting discussion groups on social media and it makes me genuinely sad to read, day in day out, so many people posting about everything that is going wrong and asking how to solve issues etc. I completely appreciate the value of such groups and do not mean to undermine their usefulness, as I know they are a great sounding board and idea generation mechanism but… I think this quote is a perfect summary of reality:
“You can’t make your child speak a language. However, you can set the stage so they will want to speak it” The Bilingual Edge
The more we pressure them into doing something and show explicit concerns around their bilingual progress, the more likely they are to start showing resistance to doing it, and subsequently the less likely they are to engage in it and succeed in it.
Over the last few years with William, I can definitely say I have become a lot more relaxed in relation to him becoming bilingual, ensuring I put neither us as parents, nor William as the child under pressure, making bilingualism in our lives as fun, comfortable and normal as possible.
- Learn with our child(ren)
“Never stop learning, because Life never stops teaching” Unknown
I believe that teachers must be role models for students, and that a teacher who loves learning will cultivate students who love learning. I also believe that this is equally applicable to being a parent, as we are such important role models for our children. Whilst I am obviously a mummy to William, in the context of our bilingual journey, I do, however, consider myself a ‘teacher’, as the exposure he gets to French, as the minority language, comes primarily from me as the primary caregiver and it definitely keeps me on my toes!
Whenever I come across a word/phrase I do not know/have forgotten the meaning of in French or if I just want to validate that I am telling William something correctly, I make a concerted effort to look it up in the dictionary. Initially this happened a lot more frequently, as the vocabulary I needed to use in connection with a baby were not words I ever learned on a vocabulary list, used in dissertations at University or in the workplace. But even 3.5 years down the line, there is at least one instance each day when we look up something together as it crops up, often in books we are reading or whilst chatting. William encourages me to do this too, immediately asking me to check vocabulary as soon as we get stuck.
Don’t forget to share your excitement and passion for learning with your children as it will lead to their love of learning too!
- Flexibility is the way forward
We started out on the bilingual parenting journey aspiring to achieve the ‘idealistic’ scenario whereby we would stick 100% to the mL@H method, but we soon came to the realisation that this was simply not possible to maintain. Here are a few examples of how we have applied flexibility…
Normally when at home, we maintain speaking the minority language, French, and translate when required for English-only speaking family and friends. But I had to draw a line at play dates at home with William’s toddler friends. I found it not conducive, not aiding development, not facilitating interaction, and simply not possible to speak concurrently to our son in French and to his friend(s) in English.
Reading only French books at home is another challenge as that is what would ideally happen under mL@H. But William loves going to the local library each week and it needs recognising that the fun for a child at the library is touching, feeling the books and the immediacy of being able to then take them home and read them, which can only be done with English books. He also gets given and we buy second hand books and they are always in English. We do have a sizeable repertoire of French books, but we have equally as many in English. To have a house solely containing minority language books would be a sizeable financial investment and difficult for us to maintain, so we are simply accepting the situation as it is.
A few months ago, I read an article on the Multilingual Parenting website: “Generally mL@H families always speak the minority language, independent of where they are – it is unusual to switch language at the door step (although there are families who do this).” Rita Rosenback. We were one of those ‘families who do this’ as we thought it was the recommended approach, but we subsequently started talking about ‘slightly’ adapting our family language plan. Perhaps, in addition to at home, we could speak French inside and outside the home to increase exposure to French? Having introduced this change, William’s verbalisation of French has increased from roughly 30% -50%, steadily increasing further.
Remember the bilingual parenting journey is personal to your family and should be dynamic!
- Forgetting biculturalism?
One evening a few months ago, I was reading a parenting magazine and came across an article around bringing up bilingual children that referenced ‘biculturalism’. I recollect feeling rather stupid for not having reflected on the concept of bringing up William to be both ‘bilingual’ and ‘bicultural’ before, like I had completely missed a trick. Whilst we go to Belgium, where my husbands’ family/childhood friends are from, a few times a year for short periods of time and they will visit us, the article was a wakeup call.
I knew that William’s answer to this question would be ‘no’ and my stomach sank: ‘Do you know where Belgium is?’ I then felt even worse as I started going through the other questions I would want William, as a bilingual child, to be able to answer/grasp which I knew we had not sufficiently helped him with to date, such as ‘what is the world’, ‘what is a country’, ‘where do they speak French/other languages’, before even getting started on an awareness of different cultures (music, food, or activities etc.).
I decided to snap out of any negative spiral, and simply take the opportunity to start teaching William more about the world, so as a first step we purchased a world map poster to go on his bedroom wall from the local library the next day. We talk about the places we’ve been, the places we are planning to go, dream destinations and places where our family roots are, where are friends are from, where different languages are spoken etc.
I really feel that it is great if we can teach our children about lots of other cultures so that they develop an appreciation for the world around them, and cultures other than their own. It builds tolerance and acceptance, as well as being interesting for them.
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