Parents who want to bring up their kids to speak the family languages can learn a lot from those families who have been successful at bringing up bilingual children. However, I also think that a great deal can be learnt from parents whose children grew up not becoming fluent in the family’s minority language. It is equally important to hear the views of monolingual adults who grew up in a multilingual family.
These are the most common reasons I have been given for a child of a multilingual family becoming either monolingual or a receptive bilingual:
“We didn’t really think about the languages”
This is perhaps the comment that I have heard the most often. Bilingualism does not happen by magic – unless the circumstances are ideal. In the perfect scenario, a child is consistently exposed to both (or all) family languages and interacts with several people in them. Parents who are bilingual often admit that they thought their children would just naturally grow up to speak the family languages, in the same way they did themselves, so they didn’t pay much attention to how much their children were exposed to the different languages.
Read this article about planning ahead for the bilingual upbringing of your child.
“We started too late”
Following from the above, when parents have noticed that their child was not learning a family language, they have decided to introduce their children to the lesser spoken language at a later stage. Other families may well have planned to raise their children to become bilingual, but of some reason or other decided to wait with the introduction of the second family language. In both cases, a change in the family language pattern is necessary – an easy thing to say, but a whole different matter to do in real life (in Pricken, the Swedish-speaking kitten you can read about my struggles switching to another language with my daughter). Several parents have said that they did not have the energy to insist that their children spoke a different language with them, or that they gave up because their children were not interested.
Read this article for ways to (re)introduce your child to a family language.
“Our children did not want to speak our language”
Some parents state that their children did not want to speak their language at all, that the kids completely rejected the language. I find it a bit hard to believe that the resistance would have been there from day one. A child will learn the language a parent consistently speaks with him or her. The question to ask is what happened before the child started to refuse to speak the language. Was there enough interaction with the child in the language? Was speaking the language a habit in the family? Was there a positive attitude to the language and the culture it represents? Was passing on the language a real priority for the parents?
“I spoke the language when I was small, but then I forgot it”
Quite a few adult monolinguals have told me that they remember being fluent in a family language when they were small, speaking it easily with their grandparents and other relatives, but then something changed and they stopped speaking it. The thing that happened is usually that they started nursery or school. Being immersed in the majority language all day, getting more friends who only speak the majority language, wanting to be like everyone else: the nursery or school start is a crucial time for a bilingual child. At this point it is more important than ever for parents not to switch to the majority language when they speak with their child. Many of these adults also state they wished their parents had insisted on them speaking the family language.
Read this article for things to take into consideration when a bilingual child goes to nursery or school.
“My parents spoke the family language with each other, but not with me”
In some families maintaining the family language has been considered less important than learning the community language as soon as possible. As a result, parents have avoided speaking the minority language with their children. While understandable, especially if a family has just moved to a country, the fact is that the children will learn the community language in any case. However, if they are never spoken to in the family language they will not learn to interact in it. Be proud of your family language and culture!
Read this article about minority language at home (mL@H) and why it has proven to be effective.
“We were told to stick to only one language”
Despite many researches showing the opposite, many families are still given the wrong advice of dropping a family language as a solution to various speech and language related issues, or been told that bilingualism causes confusion. Unfortunately, many parents have also followed this advice and their child has missed out on the chance of becoming bilingual early on in life.
Read this article about what to do if you are advised to drop a family language.
“We were too busy as a family”
Lack of time is probably the most frequently used reason for not doing something, we can all admit that. Then again, we may ask whether it is the true reason – normally we do find the time and a way to do something that is a high priority for us.
Read this article about all the benefits bilingualism brings with it.
In my book “Bringing up a Bilingual Child”, I walk you through the different stages of deciding, preparing and planning to bring up a bilingual child and give practical advice on how to do it and stick with it when life throws its curve balls at you.