How to Raise Multi-Lingual Children

shelf of various language dictionaries

Lots of people are interested in raising multilingual children, for many great reasons. Speaking six languages myself, and four fluently, I know that being multilingual can come in pretty handy. Speaking several languages fluently increases job opportunities, makes international travel easier, and enables you to communicate with a lot more people a lot more easily.

Coming from a mixed background, I should have grown up bilingually. But because my dad suddenly passed away when I was only a year old, I didn’t. My mom didn’t speak his language, and that part of my heritage was largely lost. However, I am convinced that being exposed to multiple languages that early on helped me acquire languages much more easily later on. I’ve lived in quite a few different countries and usually end up speaking the language well, and learning quickly.

When I became a mother, I knew I wanted to pass on that knowledge, but was not exactly sure how. There are various theories on how to best raise multilingual kids. “One parent, one language” (OPOL for short) is popular, and to some extent that is what we have done in my family. In our case, this means that dad speaks Serbian with the kids, while I speak Dutch. But although Dutch was my “mother tongue”, somewhere along the line English became my preferred language (probably after living in the UK!) and my partner and I speak quite a lot of English together. We also have lots of friends in other countries with whom we communicate in English.

So, somewhere along the line, the kids picked up English just like that. The result is that we have trilingual children, who are able to comprehend and speak three languages. How did we do it? Well, we didn’t – the children did it, essentially by themselves. I do have some tips for parents who would like multilingual children, though.

Being multilingual yourself certainly helps. I am not sure how I feel about parents who speak a language poorly trying to teach it to their kids, but it is probably counterproductive. Lots of exposure to a language is key, but it should be good quality exposure. I strongly believe that, if you are not living in the country where the language you hope your child will acquire is spoken, they do need access others who speak it, in addition to the parent. Books and television help, but real people are so much better – especially if they can’t speak the child’s other language(s). If those people don’t live around the corner, skype works just fine, too!

That is how I found out my oldest picked up English, actually. She was on the skype with an American friend of mine, while I was finishing up some chore in another room. My friend asked my daughter where I was, and she answered her, in English! We were all really surprised at the time.

The other thing to be aware of is that the minority language or languages will need much more work than the majority language, spoken in the country where you live. At some point, your child will probably try speaking the majority language all the time. That’s normal, but I don’t reply to questions asked in the majority language, and will just ask, “What’s that?” in Dutch instead. They tend to get the hint.

Raising multilingual children is an adventure you share together – one that is a lot of fun, but for which you will need quite a lot of patience. Sometimes, linguistic development will not progress in the way you hoped. That is fine, and everything will eventually work itself out. Sharing my language with my children has been about sharing my heritage more than anything else. It might be difficult at times, but it is a gift that will last a lifetime.

Tania Tod is co-owner of the website www.tryingtoconceive.com

Photo provided courtesy of euze via Creative Commons license, some rights reserved.

Earnest Parenting: advice for parents who want their children to be multi-lingual.

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  • Jacquie May 13, 2011, 3:39 pm

    Hello Tania,

    I could not agree further, I actually just did a post about the subject, how very uncanny! It is very much in line with my experience. My husband is French and we live in London. It was a very important objective to have them raised bilingual and my husband really worked hard on it, applying the same approach, i.e. when children asked something in English to them, the stock response was “euh?”. One learning, though obvious when one think about it, is that we have 3 children and nbr 1 is not as fluent as nbr 2. Nbr 3 is just 10 months and is likely to be the most fluent of the three. It just is a consequence of having more and more people speaking French at home. I also agree that having other people around to talk to is an important trick though not always possible (we don’t have many French friends around…). The telly is helping and so do the regular holidays back home. As you said, hard work but it’s about sharing culture (hence loads of cooking with the boys and their dad) and it’s a gift of a lifetime indeed.
    J

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