Consistency – you have heard it from me and many others: to be in with the best chance of raising a bilingual child, who can confidently speak the family languages, the recommendation for parents is to be consistent with their choice of language.
You may have decided that this is the way to go – you will be consistently speaking your language with your child! Full stop. … and then life happens. So many other things to think about; you don’t have enough hours in the day; others are not supportive; your child doesn’t play along – well, you know what I mean. You start with the best of intentions, but find yourself ever so often switching back and forth between languages. No one told you it was going to be this much of a challenge – what to do?
It has to be said that children can definitely become bilingual even if the parents switch between languages as long as there is enough exposure from elsewhere, so don’t panic – all is not lost even if your attempts to stay consistent are not always successful.
But let’s say you DO want to stick to your language when you speak to your children. What can you do? My recommendation is that you first think about what really motivates you to pass on your language by answering the question: “Why do I want to raise my children to be bilingual?” The reasons may be something along the lines of: stronger (extended) family bonds; your child can better understand you and your cultural background; you will be proud that your children can speak your language … plus all the other benefits bilingualism brings. Whatever the reasons are, they are the right ones for you. Note down these reasons.
Then ask yourself what happens if your child doesn’t learn your language. Imagine such a scenario in 3-5 years’ time – how does it affect you, your child and the whole family? Next imagine that your child does learn your language and think how different the scenario will be. How does this make you feel?
Now that you have identified what drives you – come back to here and now and think about the situations where you do not stay as consistent as you would like. What are the triggers? Does it happen mostly in the mornings when you are in a hurry to get everyone ready for nursery, school and work? Is it when other people are around? Maybe it is when your child answers you in the “wrong” language or some other specific situation.
Being aware of the circumstances will help you prepare yourself better for them. Be realistic, though, there is probably no point in deciding “Well, I just have to take more time in the mornings, so I don’t feel so stressed!” – is that really going to happen? Instead, think about the specific dialogues that take place – how do you quickly answer the question “Where are my socks?” so that your child understands your response, and you do not have to run upstairs and find them? Are you perhaps missing some words in your language which you need in order to discuss what happened at school? If yes, take the time to look up such words and use them frequently so that your children also get used to them. If other adults are influencing your choice of language, discuss the situation with them and explain why you from now on will speak your language with your child – by all means translate to others when you feel it is necessary.
Okay, so now you know your motivation and understand when your consistency slips, and you are better prepared. What if it still keeps on happening? There are some tricks that can help you keep on track.
Earlier I asked you to note down what drives you to bring up your child to become bilingual. Write these reasons on small pieces of paper and put them in the places where you most frequently forget about being consistent – maybe in the hallway and in the car? You can also record yourself expressing what motivates you – then listen to this recording from time to time. The power of writing things down or saying them aloud is quite amazing. And why not make keeping you language-focused a bit of a game? Ask your children to remind you if you are not consistent in your choice of language. Maybe there could be a “penalty” for you if you don’t – for example two bedtime stories instead of one. Children love correcting their parents. If you go down this route, you do have to stay composed when they catch you out. They will probably do it when you are stressed, upset or tired – will you be able to calmly accept their feedback?
Don’t be too hard on yourself if you struggle with being consistent – instead, focus on the positives. Give yourself a pat on the back for doing your very best to raise your children to speak more than one language.