When Yarah was born, it was clear she would be bilingual. I am German and my husband is British. It was somehow inevitable, but I also really loved the idea. I can still remember how I loathed those kids in the English class who had spent a year in the US and were fluent! How I wanted to be fluent in a foreign language, too!
Now I am (as you see), through a bit of work though, and it is clear that I would want my daughters to get the full Monty. And how else should they be able to talk to their English grand parents and cousins? They would be raised speaking German and English. That settled we moved to Spain.
The first year and a half was easy; Yarah spoke German to me and learnt English from her Dad. Steve worked a lot and Little One understood English but wouldn’t speak it. In the Crèche, Yarah started off being quiet (as is her nature) and taking it all in. Then from one day to the next, she started talking Spanish – trilingual.
English? German? Spanish? GO!
Through school we met a lot of families whose children spoke two or three in some cases even four languages. It is evident that some children find it easier to pick up languages than others. You might feel this has genetic reasons or that it ‘s socially acquired, but I would just like to share four tips with you that come from my experience in a multilingual environment.
My four top tips:
(1) Give your kid a firm association with your chosen language: When Yarah was little she didn’t know she was speaking different languages. We referred to English as “how daddy talks”, and that was fine. She associated a person with a language. Also, it was quite clear that we would speak German at home and Spanish in school. I also talked Spanish when I was there to pick her up. Note: I spoke “foreign” to the teachers, other children or mothers, but German to her.
(2) Stick to your language: So German and Spanish went ahead well, but her English suffered. Daddy would talk to her in English and she would answer in German. Is this not so sweet? Daddy didn’t have the heart to insist her to speak back in his own language. Often having fun time or delivering a message seemed more important than the language itself. Result: understanding fine, speaking zilch.
I think this is the first hurdle, the point at which you have to start putting some effort in – the earlier the better. Take it as a compliment: your offspring is clever, when she finds the easiest way to get her message to you. I, too, was tempted to give in when our second daughter, Annik, one day started talking to me in Spanish. This is our task: to stick to our language and insist as much as we can to get a response in our own language. Make it fun to talk, let her make mistakes, but don’t understand any other language she speaks.
There is only one place where parents are required to talk foreign to their kids and that is when talking about homework. I found this quite scary in the beginning but I tried and I must say I grew with the experience. And I learn a lot of stuff! This has two interesting side effects, too. One, you set an example for your kids: it’s normal to swap languages. And two, they get the chance to correct you! And man, don’t they love it, in particular when you are rowing?
(3) Find or create language environments: Learning in school or at home, speaking two or three language does require a certain effort. You must make this learning fun and natural; else your children are more likely to stop speaking it. Yarah enjoyed the luxury of having friends of all sorts of nationalities in her school. So, one afternoon she’d have a German-speaking friend round, the next an English speaker and then a Spanish neighbour.
As the English was not part of the daily family life for the children we started the English dinner, that is at the dinner table the lingua franca now is… English!
(4) Make it normal to speak two languages: Later, when they can speak two languages, most children go through a phase of wanting to be “normal”. They find it embarrassing when they have to talk “foreign” with their parents especially in front of their friends. They just stop speaking it.
My friend had to take her children back to Germany because of this. When they still resisted speaking German, she threatened them to stay in Germany as long as it would take them to speak German. Suddenly, the children started speaking their mother tongue, albeit with a thick Andalusian accent.
Well, I am aware that for me this is still a challenge to come. I try to make my daughters see the positive sides of speaking more than one language and also point out how common it is to speak different languages. Apart from almost all immigrant children – in Germany Turks and in the UK Indian and Chinese – who are bilingual there are various countries with more than one official language, like Belgium, Switzerland, Spain, but also numerous Countries in Africa and South America and China, just to name a few.
Now you know it all! This is possibly the longest blog post I’ve ever written. That shows you just how passionate I am about it. Children are little learning machines, they pick up everything they like effortlessly, help them just a little and you create a wealth of knowledge within them.
It’s worth it. Don’t you think?
Here is another interesting article about bilingual children:
“You’re sitting on a potential gift.”