I am very happy with how my daughters have grown up to speak several languages, and I am looking forward to supporting the coming generation of our family in the quest of learning to speak more than one language. Looking back, there are certainly a few things I would have liked to have known when our multilingual family journey started.
The speed at which language develops can vary considerably between siblings
My elder daughter started to speak early and also translated words at a very young age. In contrast, her younger sister took a lot more time to start speaking – well, she spoke a lot actually, but the rest of the family didn’t know her language. At three years of age she understood both Swedish and Punjabi very well, but she gave us answers in a language only known to herself, and it didn’t resemble any of the other languages spoken in the family. This led to frustrating situations for her when she would understand what we said to her, but we didn’t know what she wanted to communicate to us. I can understand how unhappy she was with us, since she knew all our languages, but we didn’t comprehend hers! Had I known about baby sign language (did it even exist in the mid-90s?), I certainly would have tried it!
– I wish someone had told me that it will all sort itself out and she will grow up to be a happy bilingual.
Get a second opinion if you are told to drop a language
Due to the relative lateness of her language development, we were recommended to take our younger daughter to a speech therapist, which I did. After a fairly basic analysis, I was told in no uncertain terms that our family’s use of several languages was the cause for the delay. We should change to only speak one language at home. Understandably, moving from speaking three languages to only one was not an option, as it would have been too hard and upsetting to change the way we spoke as a family, but it did put some doubt in my mind. So much so, that I postponed the idea of teaching her my other mother tongue, Finnish. When we moved to the UK, she had to quickly learn English (as well as maintain her Swedish and Punjabi), so Finnish was again pushed down the priority list.
– I wish someone had told me to get a second opinion from a speech therapist with experience of bilingual children. Bilingualism does not cause language delay!
When you are worried, speak to other parents of bilingual children
I don’t remember thinking about speaking to other families raising bilingual children about the questions and challenges we had. Why? Probably because it was different back then, as we didn’t have instant access to a lot of families like you can have today through forums and Facebook groups. Yes, I am talking about a time before the internet – amazing how difficult it is to even imagine that now! Still, I know we were not the only ones, and I am sure I could have found other similar families, but instead, we struggled along on our own. Had I heard some comforting words from other mums and dads, I might at times have slept a bit better at night.
– I wish I had reached out to other parents and spoken about the worries I had. A problem shared is certainly a problem halved and quite often it turns out to be no problem at all!
A child learns a new language really quickly when immersed in it
When we moved to England, my younger daughter didn’t know any English at all. She was six years old and spoke Swedish and Punjabi. I do remember worrying about her going to school in England, and I will never forget the moment, about a month before we moved, when she asked me: “Mum, what will I do if I don’t know what the teacher asks me to do?” I felt like a really bad mother, putting my child in such a difficult position. All I could do was to promise I would be there with her if she needed me.
During her three first weeks at school, she didn’t really know what was going on, but somehow it didn’t bother her. The teachers and other pupils did a wonderful job of making her feel included and accepted even without a common language – she enjoyed going to school and never said she didn’t want to go. From the fourth week she was able to describe her day in more detail, so I knew she was picking up some of the language, and after three months she started to speak English. I will never forget the day, about two years later, when she came home from school with a big smile on her face, proudly presenting a “Best speller in class” award!
– I wish someone had told me that children have an amazing capacity to quickly learn a new language when surrounded by it and when interacting with other speakers of it.
(This is an extended version of an article initially published in 2013.)