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Nov 062016
 

How to choose the common language in a multilingual family?

 

Question

Dear Coaches,

first of all, thank you for a very helpful website! I have also read the book Rita wrote about raising a bilingual child, which I found very helpful when starting on planning the way with the languages in our family.

First the facts about us and the languages: I am a Finn, speaking Finnish (mother tongue), English (almost fluent) and German (pretty good but still not fluent). My husband is half German, half French and he speaks German, French and English all fluently. We have a two-year-old-daughter and we live in Germany.

When our daughter was still a small baby we chose the “one parent, one language” -method. We decided that I speak Finnish with her, my husband speaks French, she gets German from the surroundings and when she goes to day care (I’m still a stay-at-home mother) and we speak English as a couple. We chose English as our common language because that’s the language we met each other in and I’m still more fluent in English than in German.

Our daughter only hears Finnish from me, but we go to Finland for long holidays (at least have done until now) and I sing a lot with her, read books in Finnish and she also watches Finnish children’s programmes every morning before breakfast. My husband is the only person to speak French with her regularly because his family lives a five-hour-drive-away (but still in Germany). We are planning to move nearer to them next year, or move to France for one year before moving near to his family. It’s all up to his work at the moment.

That was until recently. Now that she has started to speak a little more every day (still no sentences, just words and all mostly Finnish), we have been trying to figure out what language to use when we are all together, at the dinner table for example. Also, she seems to struggle to play with other kids at the playground because there is no common language. I think also the round eyes people give me when told we have four languages, started getting into me… So we decided to leave English all together (apart from when she is sleeping) and start to speak German with my husband and also when we are all together.

It’s still half-English half-German because I am struggling with it. But now I am second-guessing this myself. I am thinking we should go back to speaking English as well. Because when she will go to daycare (soon hopefully), she will pick up on German very quickly and she might not want to speak Finnish and French at all with us because she is used to us also talking German with her. So now I’m asking what do you think? Should we go back to speaking all four languages or just stick with the three?

I am more comfortable in speaking English with my husband and for him it doesn’t really make a difference. We would also not plan for her to learn speaking English from us (that might be a little too much) but just to hear it enough to understand it and learn it better in school when they start teaching it.

Thank you so much already in advance! This is really keeping my mind occupied because I’m not sure what would be best for her long term.

Best Regards,
Heli

Answer

Dear Heli

Thank you for your question and for lovely feedback – I am delighted to hear that my website and book have been helpful for you! You are in a similar situation to many a multilingual family, having several languages to choose between for your common family language.

Like with many other multilingual couples your common language has been English and I can understand that you continued speaking it after your daughter was born, it is the natural thing to do. However, I can also fully understand that you switched to German for the family language because of your concerns when your daughter started to interact with German-speaking children and was unable to communicate with them. I can also see that it was upsetting to observe others’ attitudes to your family’s language situation – and this strengthened your decision.

Let me start with your last point, about the “round eyes” people gave you. One thing I have learned from my own and other mothers’ and fathers’ experiences is that as a parent of a bilingual child, you have to develop a fairly thick skin against other’s opinions and attitudes. These eye-rolling people more often than not do not have a clue about being bilingual, let alone about how children learn languages. Hence my recommendation for all such situations: “Smile, move on and forget about it!”

Your dilemma is now whether to go back to using English instead of German as the common family language, as you are concerned that German may take over once your daughter starts German-speaking daycare. It is correct that she will pick up German fairly quickly once immersed in it several hours per day.

Depending on how confident she is in Finnish and French at that point, there is a chance that she might also want to start to answer you in German when she gets more fluent in the language. The best way to prepare for this is to make it a habit to always use the minority language (Finnish or French) when you talk to her directly. The tendency for a child to use the community language (German in your case) at home is more prevalent the more the child is accustomed to using the language with the parents.

In other words, the more frequently you use German with her at home, the bigger the chance is that she would prefer it when communicating with you as she becomes more proficient in German. If you and your husband were to switch back to using English between the two of you, this would naturally reduce the amount of German in the home. This would however also mean that she hears less German prior to starting nursery.

Children do adapt very quickly, but if you are concerned about her coping, maybe you can find some other way of exposing her to German interaction – for example, playdates are a great way to do this. I would also recommend that you contact the nursery in advance to make sure that they are supportive of your multilingual family and whether they have any expectations as to how much German she should know.

What you also need to take into consideration are your own feelings about the choice of family language. You mention that you are struggling to use German and do not always feel comfortable in speaking it. To me this is a strong case of switching back to English. Yes, it means that your daughter will grow up with four languages, but this is fine. It is very important that you are okay with the way you communicate in the home.

You are correct in saying that she will probably not learn English from listening to you and your husband speaking it, but she will gain an understanding of it (receptive bilingualism). However, this will help her a lot once she starts learning English at school.

Because of this, another thing you need to take into consideration is that if you choose English as your common language it would mean that there will always be many languages involved when you are all talking together (this was the case in my family and it worked fine). To maintain the habit of Finnish with you and French with daddy, I would still largely stick to those languages when speaking directly with your daughter. You do not mention how well you understand French or your husband understands Finnish, but you may have to get used to the idea that some things will have to be said twice so that everyone can understand.

I am sorry that I cannot give you a definite answer, but once you have take all the above into consideration, I am sure you can make the solution which works for all of you.

Wishing you a successful multilingual family journey!

Kind regards
Rita

 

Rita Rosenback

  Rita Rosenback Rita is an author, Family Language Coach, blogger and speaker, who was born into a bilingual family on the Swedish-speaking west coast of Finland. After studying languages in Finland and Germany she worked as a university teacher, translator, interpreter and manager of multinational teams. Rita is now a full-time writer and coach and has been living in the U.K. since 1998. Rita is the mother of two grown-up multilingual daughters, who are the inspiration for her book: “Bringing up a Bilingual Child”, an easy-to-read guide for parents, where she navigates the reader across the “Seven Cs of Multilingual Parenting: Communication, Confidence, Commitment, Consistency, Creativity, Culture and Celebration”. Currently English and Swedish are Rita’s main languages, but she instantly switches to Finnish or German or to her Finland-Swedish dialect when the opportunity presents itself (and when push comes to shove, she can communicate in a very basic Punjabi). Rita is the creator and driving force of this website, and she gives talks and holds workshops for parents and teachers on the topic of bilingual children. She also coaches families on how to make the most of their languages and raise their children to become confident speakers of the chosen languages.

 

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