We are raising Miss M to be bilingual. Over the course of our growth as a bilingual family, five key points have crystallised with respect to raising bilingual and multilingual kids. Clarify these five key points, keep them in mind and stay motivated.
Our motivation: why we are raising Miss M to be bilingual
Our goal is to have Miss M speak both English and German perfectly, naturally and without an accent. For us, perfectly means with perfect grammar. Naturally means with natural use of expressions and colloquialisms. Many people equate natural use of language with fluently and perfect grammar. However, even though phrasing may be correct, it still may not seem natural or relaxed to a native speaker. Without accent means without the accent of a foreigner. We are of course happy for her to have a German accent in German and an Australian accent in English.
Generally, both sides of our family are monolingual, except for the foreign languages they learnt at school. For my brothers, for example, this means that they can say good morning, sing a song about pizza and fries and ask for a beer in German. Other members of my side of the family learnt French or Japanese at school. To be able to communicate easily with her family, therefore, Miss M needs to speak their language. She needs to be able to tell her (German) Oma that her ‘Barbie neue Schuhe braucht’ (Barbie needs new shoes) and her (Australian) Grumps that she wants ‘Vegemite on her toast, please’.
Miss M also needs to be able to interact with both environments. She needs to be able to communicate fluently with other children at her kindergarten so that she can play easily and happily with them. We’d like her to be able to speak equally naturally and confidently to shop assistants and doctors, for example. This will ensure that she gets any help that she may need. As both are a part of her heritage, we want her to understand and feel at home in both cultures. This means not just the customs and traditions, but the more subtle aspects, too. Language is a big part of that.
Miss M’s language development
Initially, most of what Miss M heard was in English. I am self-employed and work from home. It was therefore logical for me to stay home when Miss M was born. I spoke as much English to her as possible, and read and sang to her in English. My husband and mother-in-law took care of German. Greater exposure to English meant that her English (our minority language) came along in leaps and bounds. In contrast, her German (majority language) was limited to a few words or phrases at the start.
When my mother became ill, Miss M and I spent prolonged periods in Australia. Spending time with family and wanting to have her cousins understand her significantly increased Miss M’s fluency in English. German was more difficult to keep up while we were there. Peter was not with us for much of that time. Although rather lopsided, this development was organic.
Before Miss M started kindergarten, her (spoken) English was fluent and quite strong for her age. Her German understanding was high, but she avoided speaking it wherever possible.
Then kindergarten happened and she wanted to communicate with the other children. This was, I think, difficult for her at first as her German was not strong. After just over one and a half years in kindergarten, Miss M’s German has significantly improved. It is now often her preferred language for many things. She will even speak to me German when she is thinking more about her message than how she wants to say it.
Your strategy depends on the circumstances
Our circumstances are simple in comparison to many bilingual or multilingual families. I am from Australia and Peter is German and we live in Germany. We both speak English and German and recognise the importance of raising Miss M to be bilingual.
Many families are much more complicated. Parents can have two (or more) different native tongues and live in a country with a third language. Some parents will only have a third language that they both speak, but which neither of them speaks at a native level. Others families will have a nanny or grandparent, who helps take care of their child or children and who speaks yet another language. Other countries or areas, such as parts of Brussels, Switzerland or Saarland in Germany, will have more than one community language. The combinations are endless.
Before she was born, we looked into what was the best way to teach Miss M both languages. We read various literature and I had a long chat to my Mum about it. Mum was an educator, with a focus on early childhood, and she was a fountain of information. I also joined a Facebook group on raising bilingual and multilingual children to get advice from other parents.
There are several possible strategies you can take when raising bilingual and multilingual kids. We use the OPOL method, or one person one language. It suits our circumstances. Another option is to have a house language and a community language, with the ‘change’ as you leave the house (minority language at home, or MLAH). Other families will dedicate certain times, days or circumstances to a specific language, such as when certain people are present (context).
Raising bilingual and multilingual kids: The 5 key points
Our reading, discussions and experience have solidified five key points with respect to raising bilingual and multilingual kids.
1. Be consistent
Whatever strategy you choose to use – OPOL, MLAH, context language, etc. – the most important thing is to be consistent. It will confuse your child if, for example, you are working with an OPOL approach but you keep switching to the other parent’s language. This was nearly our undoing: Peter would easily answer Miss M in English, as he is fluent. As a result, her German was not as strong as it should be and needed some concentrated attention.
You should be consistent with corrections too. For example: if your child speaks to you with incorrect grammar or a mixture of languages, repeat their statement correctly and in one language as part of your answer. Be careful not to overdo it though, as your child may quickly become disheartened and conversations will not flow. Effort and praise on your part should be consistent, too.
2. Stick with what you know
If possible and practicable, stick with what you know.
It is generally best for the development of a child’s language if they learn it from the person who is a native speaker. This will help ensure that grammar, intonation and pronunciation are correct. That is why we chose the OPOL method: I speak English to Miss M and my husband speaks German.
Learning is not merely about language acquisition. Most parents will find it easier to sing children’s songs in their native language and develop a closeness or attachment to their child. Terms of endearment will be more effortless in one language over another. I know only a few nursery rhymes or songs in German and to sing them does not feel natural to me. Instead, I delegated this task to my mother-in-law, who can actually sing.
Part of sharing your native language is bonding with your child. Of course, in sharing your language you are also sharing your culture. In some cases, this will involve sharing hand gestures (especially for sign language), mannerisms or language for specific relationships or situations (such as siezen in German (using a polite form of ‘you’) or onna kotoba in Japanese). It extends even to the question of what you leave out for Santa, assuming Santa even comes to your house.
However, it is not always possible to stick to your native language. Sometimes the second or third language will be one external to the home that neither parent speaks. A family may also choose to teach their child a language that only one parent speaks, but not as a native speaker. This can happen, for example, when a parent has two different cultural heritages but has only a passive understanding of one language. Alternatively, you might want to raise your child to be bilingual or multilingual, but the only languages you can pass on are some that you learnt at school.
If this is the case, don’t get disheartened. Sticking with what you know can also mean using the tools that you already know to acquire the new language: make the effort to speak it, listen to it and read it and ensure that it is used in your family. Be consistent in your practice and encouragement (also to encourage your own development!) and use the support available.
As each family’s situation is different, it is important to keep all five of these key points in mind when raising bilingual and multilingual kids.
3. Utilise the available support
Support comes in many forms. It could be a family member or friend who speaks the language. Teachers at a language school or bilingual kindergarten or other community groups can also be a great source of support and ideas. Community members can be particularly helpful if you are learning the language at the same time.
Even if they are far away, family members can help. My Mum selected several children’s books and bought two copies of them or got us to find a copy for Miss M. She would then read the books to Miss M via FaceTime. I would sit and hold Miss M and the book so that she could see the pictures and hear my Mum reading to her.
Books, movies and youtube are useful sources of language and it is easy to find things to suit all ages and levels of language development. Spotify, also, often has a huge range of resources, such as radio plays. If you can’t find something in the language you want on your local site, try logging onto the site for a country with the language you want (e.g. spotify .de for Germany). Please note: it is not enough for language development to park your child in front of a TV.
Facebook groups or other speakers of your minority language can also be great sources of support and confirmation of your approach to raising your bilingual and multilingual children. This can be particularly useful when you are faced with criticism. They are also a great source of inspiration and recommendation for books and other resources, such as homeschooling.
4. Each child is different
Your child will develop at their own rate. Not all language acquisition and development is the same nor will it happen at the same speed. Speech delays are common in children who are being raised bilingually but this need not happen to your child. One language will likely dominate, particularly for a time, and it is also common for children to mix the languages (words of both languages in a sentence) or make mistakes, such as speaking one language with the grammatical sentence structure of another. This is all normal.
5. Remember why you are doing it
Unfortunately, criticism can be common. Some will face criticism from a parent or grandparent who does not speak both languages and feels left out when you speak the minority language to your child. Some parents feel awkward speaking a language to their child when no one else around them speaks that language. This is often the case with babies as the conversation is rather one-sided. Your approach may also be criticised if your child’s speech is delayed or one (the minority) language is significantly stronger.
We faced criticism from our kindergarten director because she felt that Miss M did not understand everything in German and had difficulty responding. She even went as far as to suggest that I should speak German to Miss M at home until Miss M’s German improved. No, that was not going to happen. Not only would Miss M learn my mistakes, but her English would suffer – a language that was just as important to her identity and future. We stuck it out, just increasing screen time and books in German, and a few weeks later, Miss M began to prefer German to English in her conversations with us.
For most parents, the decision to raise their child to be bilingual or multilingual is part of a plan to set up their child for a bright future. Languages open doors. Raising your child to be bilingual can increase opportunities in their career and in life. Bilingual children are better at creative thinking and multi-tasking because they are constantly switching languages. Being bilingual has also been linked to delays in the onset of dementia and Alzheimers.
Raising bilingual and multilingual kids is also about showing your child another culture, probably your own. It is a way to ensure that your child can communicate with and get to know both sides of their family, and, by extension, both cultures. As language makes them more aware, they are often quicker to accept and approach other children of different cultures.
Keep these 5 points in mind and stay motivated when raising your kids to be bilingual and multilingual
Raising bilingual and multilingual kids is not always easy. It can be frustrating and slow and lead to criticism and doubts, especially from those who do not understand your strategy. Whether a result of choice or circumstances, the benefits can be enormous. So keep these 5 points in mind and stay motivated on your journey as a bilingual or multilingual family.