Multilingualism in kids is great, isn’t it! Isn’t it? It sounds so easy- just making sure that in a multi- lingual home each parent speaks to the children in his or her mother tongue. Except that in this modern and international world, couples meet in different circumstances, and not all can speak with any degree of fluency (if at all) their partner’s language. And here’s where the linguistic complications develop.
I have met many multilingual families where the parents don’t speak the community language, or where they don’t speak their partner’s language, choosing to communicate in English or some other ‘middle ground’. What a wonderful, multilingual environment for the children- especially as, with one friend, her mother tongue is German, her partner is Arabic speaking, they communicate together in English, and they currently live in France! Their children have the best of a lot of worlds, and although they may not grow up 100% fluent in all those languages, they will certainly have a grounding in all of them, which will help them enormously in the future with language learning and life in general.
But how about the parents? This kind of situation can be a worry, especially for parents in families who follow the OPOL (one parent, one language) strategy. Parents who do not understand the other parent’s language can have a real fear of being left out of family conversations and not being able to fully follow their child’s language development. My friend speaks almost no Arabic, but now her eldest, aged 5, is able to converse fluently with her dad in Arabic, essentially cutting her out of the conversation. It’s not a deliberate action, and there is no animosity behind it, as exactly the same happens when there is a mummy- daughter conversation in German. The same happens with a family living in a new country, where the adults don’t speak the local language. It happens more often than you would think, with multi-national companies posting people to a branch location. In my situation we were sent to Austria for my husband’s work, with neither of us speaking German. Now our children attend Kindergarten in German here, and we play linguistic catch- up. Again, it’s great for the kids who are growing up bilingual, but situations like teacher- parent meetings are tough.
Ideally everyone learns each others’ languages, but that is not a realistic goal in every family. Many parents simply don’t have the time or the inclination to learn another language. The two best options when faced with this kind of situation are translating or using a common language. Translating is probably the solution most families go for, as it is the most inclusive. Settling on a common language to use when all members of the family are together is fine, but the minority language parent must work hard to use his/ her language when alone with the children. Aside from learning the other language, what can parents do to make sure they don’t feel left out?
- Buy bilingual books which have both the parents language included, or the mother tongue and the community language. This way, when the same book is read, both parents can be involved, and can also learn a little bit towards the ‘other’ language. (And if no books exist in both of the languages? Enlist a friend’s help to write your own translation, and add the text to the book- it will personalise it all at the same time!)
- Music is a winner! It’s amazing how much of a language you can learn through music. I can sing quite a few songs in German now, having learnt them with my daughter, and through hearing them on a regular basis. It’s an enjoyable way to learn and retain new words, for both adults and children.
- Involve yourself in as many community events as possible, related to the other language. Being able to speak a language isn’t only knowing the words, it’s also learning the culture and making friends in that culture. You can still insert yourself into that part of your child’s life, even without the words that go with it.
- Don’t be afraid to speak out about it. In that case of two home languages, if you feel left out and think your partner or child hasn’t noticed, let them know. Your partner might feel the same way- in which case you can work together on ways to have mutual conversations which include everyone.
- Make reading/ looking at pictures/ trips to the zoo etc. a group activity, even when one parent can’t understand fully. It helps to integrate both parents into the language, and allows the kids to see that both parents are interested in that language, with the result that they will have an increased interest too.
- On a slightly different track, it’s a proven fact that many dads don’t read enough to their kids (see my blog post: Dads need to read). This is a perfect situation for dads to get involved- they will be reading the books in their language, and this will help boys especially to engage with books. (Booktrust, the UK’s leading literacy organization, found that only one out of eight UK fathers takes the lead with reading to his children. The findings are worrisome because fathers’ involvement in their child’s reading is proven to boost academic success and leads to improved social and emotional well being.)
- A little bit of television goes a long way. I don’t advocate putting your children in front of the tv to teach them a language, or you sitting and watching for hours to pick up the community language, but a little bit will help pronunciation and fluency. Simple shows that are quite repetitive are good, or the news, if you’re already familiar with the topic.
Whatever you decide to do, the relationship between a parent and a child is more important than the language that is spoken. Learning the new language isn’t the key to a relationship. If you do have to give up on a language, don’t feel that you have failed. Remember that a language which has become “passive” for a child – meaning that the child can understand the language but is reluctant to speak it (also called receptive bilingualism), can re-emerge or be reintroduced later on. And when all’s said and done, some language knowledge is better than none at all.