Question

My sister has a friend whose daughter speaks German (from her father), Afrikaans (her mother) and English (kindergarten). So I know it is possible. However, I am going to be a bit of a devil’s advocate and pose some alternative viewpoints:

1) My wife was a teacher in Russia, and when we moved to Australia she was asked by some Russian women to teach their children to speak Russian. I got the distinct impression that those kids hated spending their precious Saturday mornings taking Russian classes when they would much rather go play, go to the beach, or run around on the sports ground. In the end the time and effort that goes into learning another language is time and effort taken away from something else, and that something else may be more worthwhile than learning a language that is not used in the society where we live.

2) South African friends of ours emigrated to Australia when their young children were already fluent in Afrikaans. Several years later it became apparent to them that their children were not communicating deeper emotional issues with them anymore – just the normal communication necessary to get along. When they delved into the matter they discovered that their children had become more fluent in English and found the extra emotional effort required to communicate, in Afrikaans, a sensitive issue that already required emotional effort to be too much of a barrier to overcome. The parents (both Afrikaans speaking) somewhat reluctantly allowed their children to respond to them in English, even though they spoke Afrikaans to each other and to them. That solved the problem.

3) You mention that, for a child to learn a language, 20%-30% of his/her communication needs to be in that language. My wife speaks Russian to our 3-year old son and I speak Afrikaans to him, but he hears us speaking English to each other and he hears only English at child care (3 days per week). I did a rough estimate of the amount of time he spends being exposed to each language and it was 50% English, 35% Russian and 15% Afrikaans. Once he goes to preschool, two of the days that he spends with my wife will fall away and his exposure to Russian will also drop to 15%. It seems to me that we will have to spend significant additional effort, beyond merely speaking to him in Russian and Afrikaans, for him to be fluent in each of those languages plus English. I don’t want to run the risk of encountering the issue that our friends encountered, and I wonder whether the opportunity cost in other growth opportunities foregone is really worth learning two languages that would neither open any real avenues for him in the future.

Regards,
Francois

Answer

Hi Francois,

Thank you for your very interesting and insightful questions!

1) Without knowing the exact details about the children of the Russian families, it is difficult to comment on the specific case. Questions that arise from what you describe are: Did the children have any prior knowledge of Russian? What age were the children? Was the teaching age-appropriate and engaging for the kids? Did the children have a real need for Russian in their lives – i.e. was Russian used in their homes at all? Any activity or hobby you choose to pursue will of course mean that that time is taken away from something else, and it will be a question of priorities. Whether or not the language is commonly used in the society does not, in my mind, come that much into the equation. Russian is part of the children’s heritage and would enable them to stay in touch with Russian-speaking relatives and friends. They would also be able to understand the Russian culture better if they knew the language. In addition, Russian could be of a great advantage to them later in their working lives. Also, knowing how many adults have said that they regret not learning their heritage language as children – as opposed to no one regretting doing so – there is a strong case for learning the family language. However, I would also like to see parents make more efforts themselves to motivate their children to learn and want to speak the language and not just rely on outside tutoring.

2) A parent’s bond with his or her children is more important than the choice of language. If bilingualism becomes something that negatively affects the relationship between parents and children then you should do exactly what this family did – use the language which feels most comfortable. It does not have to mean that the children completely stop speaking the language – maybe normal everyday discussions could still continue in the minority language. The children may well still grow up to become bilinguals and in any case, they will have a solid understanding of it.

3) The recommendation is that, ideally, children should be exposed to a language for 20-30% of their waking time for them to acquire a language while growing up. These numbers are however not based on research, but rely on general observations of multilingual families. Does it mean that 15% is never enough? Definitely not – I know this from my own daughters, who learnt their father’s language with what was certainly much less than 20% interactive exposure and very little other exposure. They are now grown-ups and are fluent in three and four languages respectively, including their father’s language. Every family is different, but for us it worked – as parents we were both consistent in the language use with our daughters, and the language choice became second nature for us. I did not feel that we put in “significant additional effort” and neither do the girls remember it as such. I would not say that they have lost out on other growth opportunities either – my elder daughter is now a lawyer and the younger one is a trainee doctor. Any language can be beneficial for your son’s future career, but most importantly, knowing the family languages would allow him to better stay in touch with his heritage. Clearly, you have thought a lot about the topic, and I have the feeling that the two of you would do really well at passing on both Afrikaans and Russian to your son – English he will learn anyway, but you should choose what feels right for you and will work in your family circumstances.

Wishing you all the best and do let me know if you have any other questions. All the best!

Kind regards,
Rita

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