“I can’t stay consistent!” – the challenge of parenting a bilingual child

by | Sep 9, 2015 | Being the parent in a multilingual family, Challenges, Practical advice | 0 comments

“I can’t stay consistent!” – the challenge of parenting a bilingual child
I hear you, you are not alone  – come closer so I can give you a virtual hug!

Not being able to stay consistent in the language use is the most common reply I get when I ask parents what their biggest challenge is when raising bilingual children. So how important is it to stay consistent, and what can you do to make it easier for yourself if you choose to do so?

Why consistency plays a role

The more exposure a child gets to a language, the higher the possibility is that he or she becomes an active speaker of it. The amount of exposure required depends on the level of interaction, the quality of the language the child hears, how engaged and interested the child is and what the parents’ attitudes towards the languages are. Due to the high number of variables, it is impossible to establish a set amount of exposure, which would guarantee that a child becomes bilingual. A third of the waking time for exposure is a good goal to have, but should not be taken as an absolute requirement, nor as a guarantee.

If both parents speak two languages (2P2L) – possibly this is also the case in the surrounding community – and do so to roughly an equal amount for each language, the need for consistency is less than if only one parent speaks a minority language. Research has shown that the probability of a child becoming bilingual in a family where only one of the parents speak the minority language, and this parent frequently switches to the majority language, is significantly lower than in families where the minority language parent is consistent in the language use.

Those are the facts, but they don’t matter much if you are in the situation where you feel that you really need to be more consistent and are struggling to do it.

What motivates you to bring up your child to be bilingual?

A good way of staying committed to any goal is to look at the underlying reasons why you are pursuing it. Do you do it because you want your child to gain all the benefits that bilingualism brings with it? Did you grow up bilingual yourself and want your kids to be, too? Is it just the done thing where you live or among your friends? Or is it to make sure that your child can communicate with extended family and understand you cultural background?

Whatever motivates you, ask yourself how you would feel if you did not reach your goal. Answer honestly and you will find out how important this goal is to you – if it really is important, the reason should motivate you to continue. If it does not, maybe dig a bit deeper into what motivates you to bring up a bilingual child.

Does the situation stress you out?

If the answer to this question is “Yes!”, then please, sit down, take a deep breath and think about the whole situation. Independent of what motivates you, is it worth it, if you are constantly stressed out and cannot enjoy the company of your child because of the language situation? I am all for passing on a language, but if the task becomes overwhelming and potentially ruins happy moments you would otherwise have with your child, then it might be time for a re-evaluation. Is there another way you can help your child learn your language?

Does the language you speak with your child affect your relationship?

Another reason to rethink the whole situation is if you feel that your bond with your child is not as good as it could be due to the language you speak with each other. Language should ease the communication and relationship building, not become a barrier to it. Maybe you could use a variant of the Time and Place strategy, so that you can always resort to the language that is easiest to use when it is time for a more challenging discussion.

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Ways to help you stay consistent

So you have decided to stay consistent in your language use and feel that you need some pointers on how to succeed? Like any other change that you want to implement in life, it will take time and effort. I would love to give you a “sure-fire way to always stay consistent” quick fix, but I cannot – because there isn’t one. What I can do it to give you some tips on what you can try out – choose whatever works for you!

When do you slip into speaking the majority language?

For a week, keep a language diary for yourself and note down the situations where you switch to the majority language. Do you see a pattern?
Is it when others are around and you want them to understand as well? If yes, have you asked the others if they mind? If they say they do mind, have you explained to them how important it is that your child learns your language?
Is it when your child answers you in the majority language and you have got into a habit of answering in the same language? How can you remind yourself to stick to your language? – your child will still understand you!
Is it when you are busy and it feels quicker just to say something once in the majority language instead of maybe having to explain it twice in your own? If this is the case, note down the words or phrases you think your child might not be catching and then practice these at a more peaceful time.

(I didn’t say it would be easy, did I?)

When do you manage to stick to the minority language?

Equally important as to know when it doesn’t work is to recognise the situations when you do succeed to stick to your language. Note these down in your language diary, too!
Is it when you have other people around who also speak the language? Can you do more of this? If not in person, over Skype or FaceTime together with your child?
Is it when you are reading a book in your language and speak about the book afterwards? What about reading even more books?
Is it when both you and your child are relaxed and just have a good time doing something together? Again, how can you find more time for such activities?
Is it when you speak about something your are really passionate about or very interested in? Can you have more discussions like this?

There are definitely more questions than answers in this post, but I hope that by answering these you will find a way to stop worrying about the consistency – either by deciding that it is not the best way for you right now, or that you will find a way to make it easier to stay consistent. Whatever you decide, please do stop beating yourself up about it! Some language knowledge is always better than none at all – and if you do manage it, be proud of yourself!

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Never miss a post! Sign up to the Multilingual Parenting newsletter and I will send you a recap of the week’s posts every Sunday. Every second week you will receive a more extensive issue with links to research articles and interesting posts from other writers, as well as handy tips and ideas! Want to read more like this? My book Bringing up a Bilingual Child is available on Amazon and in well-stocked bookshops. Do you have a specific question? You can send it to our team of Family Language Coaches and we will reply in a Q&A (questions are answered in order of arrival). If you are interested in tailor-made family language coaching, please, contact me and I will send you a proposal.



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