I am currently pregnant with our first child and my husband and I are trying to make a family language plan.
I am American so my native language is English, but I also know a good amount of French and a few words and phrases in Ewe. My husband is Togolese and speaks Ewe (a local language) and French (the official language) fluently and has a decent understanding of English, but not as good as my level of French. We converse currently with a combination of English and French.
We would like our children to be able to speak Ewe and be able to read and write in both English and French. We currently live in Togo, but will probably spend some time in the US and will most likely live in a different African francophone country in the future. We are considering the OPOL method with my husband using Ewe and myself using English.
I am wondering how much French we as parents should introduce to our children before they would learn it in school? Should we use primarily French to speak as a couple? Should we read books or show TV and movies in both French and English?
Once our children are in a French school, how can I best teach them to also be able to read and write in English without them just dreading more work (especially as they get older)?
Also, currently the community languages are Ewe and French, but once we leave Togo, how can we encourage the learning and usage of Ewe when our children’s only exposure to it will be from their father?
Finally, if we live in another African country most likely our children’s friends will speak the local language of their country/region. My husband and I will take language lessons in the local language, but our understanding may still be rather elementary. What else can we do to promote our children learning a fourth language other than just allowing them to play with children who speak it?
Thank you for your help!
Thank you for your question and well done for thinking about your language plan for your multilingual family – with this many languages in and around your family it is important to think ahead!
Depending on where you are going to live in the future, and of what age your children will be in each country, there are many variables which cannot all be covered in a short Q&A, but I will answer based on the information you have given.
Your plan to use one parent, one language (OPOL) with both of you speaking your native languages: you English and your husband Ewe, is the natural choice. Because you will most likely move away from Togo, the most important thing is to make sure the children get a solid foundation in Ewe. If you live in the US for some time, this will give your children’s English skills a great boost. It is also a lot easier to find resources to support their English, than it will ever be the case for Ewe – this is why the foundation is so important.
You do not mention whether you plan for your children to attend nursery before going to school in Togo, and if you do, in which language. If they were to attend nursery in French, they would pick up the language very quickly from there – the same does apply for school as well. It is however a good idea to discuss this with the school in advance, so you know what their expectations are for the level of French.
Since your husband is not fluent in English, I can imagine that French will be the common language between the two of you for now. This way your children will naturally be exposed to French as well. Of course, once the baby is born, there will be more English in the home as you will be speaking it with your child, so your husband should get more used to it. I would not worry too much about arranging additional exposure to French – I would even choose English TV programs above French-speaking ones, but I would not make that the only criteria. Watch the high-quality programmes that you like, in whatever language they happen to be!
With regards to reading books, I would recommend that you stick to English and Ewe, just to make the use of the languages rooted habits both for yourselves and your children. If your kids attend school in French, this is the language that will become their strongest one and the more used they are to using it at home, the more likely it is that they would prefer French over Ewe or English when speaking with you or their father.
Reading books is also essential for teaching your children to read and write, so this is another reason to stick to your respective languages. Fostering an interest in books paves the road for learning to read and write, and you may find that your children will naturally want to learn. What I would recommend that you do is to look at it as something interesting that opens new avenues: keeping in touch with family and being able to read interesting books. Write messages and letters in English and have your family send them to your kids. Most of all, do not think of learning to read and write English as something that should be dreaded! Our own attitudes matter so much for how our children feel towards something.
Maintaining Ewe after you move away from Togo will take a lot of commitment from your husband, so establishing the foundation while you are in the country is vital. Also, when it is time to move, take with you as many resources, books, DVDs, comics etc. as you can (shipping packages across the world is expensive!) You can also ask other relatives to record songs, rhymes and bedtime stories, and remember to stay in regular contact through on-line video calls. For further ideas on how to maintain those all-important relationships read this post: Bilingual children and long-distance family relationships. The most important aspect is however the children’s habit to always speak Ewe with their father.
If you were to move to another African country with a new language, what you will most likely find that even if you and your husband were to take lessons in the local language, your children will quickly outshine you when it comes to learning it. Again, how to approach this depends very much on the age of your children, so I wouldn’t worry about it too much for now. Arranging opportunities for the children to be with other kids who speak the language is indeed very effective.
Wishing you a successful, truly multilingual family journey!