Monday, January 23, 2012

Travel consequences: Raising bilingual kids

Over a decade ago when I hopped on a plane to Osaka, I didn't look far enough ahead to imagine that one of the consequences of travelling the world would be marrying someone with a different mother tongue and then jumping onto the journey of raising a bilingual child. No, I was just looking far enough ahead to wonder how much sushi I could eat when I got there!

But now I've got a little half-German boy who's starting to talk more and more, and the issue of bilingualism seems more and more relevant. I've recently got involved with Bilingual Families Perth, as well as following the great Multilingual Living website, and have been learning lots about the challenges of keeping a child bilingual in an English-speaking world. One oddity I've noticed recently is that while many people will say how lucky my boy is to grow up bilingually, just as many people (and sometimes the same ones) will also (hopefully unknowingly) hinder our efforts to help him do so.

Our bilingual boy
So this post has three purposes: one, to get my fellow travellers thinking about what their travels might lead to (in a good way!); two, to hopefully hear about the experiences of others; and three, to explain to everyone who knows us a little bit about our bilingual family. These questions hopefully cover most of the things people have asked us in the past or have been wondering about.
  1. Which language when? This has been tricky for us to figure out! We started with "one person, one language" but since our community language is English, our little boy would only hear German for a couple of hours at most each day if he only heard it from his father (who is at work during the day). Now we're working more with the "family language" idea: as a family, we speak German (and that means I mostly speak German to him when we're alone during the day) and when we meet up with other people we speak English.
  2. Mixing up languages? Yes, kids growing up bilingually will mix up their languages, but pretty much by the time they're at school they'll sort them out. People make a big deal about it, but forget that kids growing up with just one language mix lots of words up too (or just don't say stuff. Apparently a big reason for mixing languages is because they know a word in one language but not the other. Aren't they lucky?!).
  3. Kids get confused? Some people have warned us that (more nicely put) we'll make our little boy less intelligent by insisting he learns to speak two languages at once. I guess that since most English-speaking cultures have relatively less experience with bilingualism, this warning comes out of a fear of the unknown. But in fact the research shows bilingual kids have quite a few cognitive advantages, so there's no need to worry about our little boy. (Speaking of research, the oft-told "bilingual kids will have a speech delay" has also been proven false, both by research and our personal experience.)
  4. Are you talking about us? This astounds and, to be honest, offends me. It happened when my husband and I first moved to Australia - back when his English wasn't so good and speaking it all day was exhausting for him - and if we "dared" to speak between ourselves in German, the people around us would tell us we had to speak English. I have noticed this starting to creep into our lives again, when we speak in German with our boy (some things he just understands better in German, or we do it without even realising). If it bothers you that we speak German in front of you, please ask us nicely to translate and we happily will, but please don't say anything negative about the fact that we're speaking another language. It's hard enough to keep a child happily speaking two languages when most of his school mates won't, so we need all the support we can get. Okay, rant over!
  5. What's the goal? More a question for myself than everyone else, I learnt recently that it's important to decide what your bilingual goal is - just understanding, or just conversation, or reading and writing ability? My husband and I agree that ideally, it would be great if our little boy had enough reading and writing ability in German to give him the option of studying there one day, but whether or not we achieve that goal will probably depend a bit on his interests and motivation as he gets older. But we read lots of German books, talk lots of German, and will start writing German letters and emails when he gets old enough to do so.
So, hopefully that gives you all a bit of insight into our bilingual adventure. More than anything, I'm insanely jealous that our little boy can learn a second language so easily, without the endless hours of lessons and textbooks and study and frustration that we've both experienced with our second language! 

I'd love to hear your thoughts or experiences, so tell me what you think in the comments below.

22 comments:

  1. I'm from Chile and my mother tongue is spanish but I speak English as well. The point is in a 2 month trip to England, I met my future husband. We're very much in love but the point is he's Brazilian so we're not just talking about 2 languages here it's, me (Spanish), his (Portuguese) and English that we speak to each other. We've thought about the future and kids and we came up with about the same plan as you. We'll live in a Spanish speaking country and we'll talk to our kids in Portuguese and hopefully as they grow up they'll learn English at school as well. The thing is, as Spanish and Portuguese are so similar (some words are even the same), I was afraid they would mix them, but after reading your blogg I'm a bit less concerned. Good luck with your kid and thanks for the tips.

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  2. Thanks Valentina, and good luck with your multilingual journey! I've certainly learnt that kids are *incredibly* clever at a young age and can pick up other languages easily - as long as they get plenty of exposure. I'm sure your future kids will easily become trilingual since you've already started thinking about it in advance! Do have a look at the Multilingual Living website, there's so much info there and they also have a good forum for any questions you have.

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  3. I'm jealous of your little boy too! I'm a long way off having kids myself, but I've always thought that when I do, it would be great to raise them with more than one language. Kids pick up things so much more easily than adults, and given the way that exposure to more than one language can make you see the same object/concept from different angles, it seems a given to me that raising bi/multilingual children would have cognitive benefits for them. I think it's great what you're doing and I really don't understand why anyone would have objections to it.

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    1. Thanks Ally - yes, I didn't expect anyone to have any objections either but you'd be surprised!! Anyway you're exactly right, the research certainly shows that bi/multilingual children are able to think about things in a different way - much of it stemming (as I understand it) from the simple fact that they understand very early on that an object can have multiple different names. And lots of other reasons! Yes, he's a lucky boy!!

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  4. When we lived in Germany, where both my kids were born, I spoke English to them (as we were eventually going back to live in South Africa) and my husband spoke Portuguese to them, so they would learn our mother tongue. They had no problem speaking three languages and knew who to speak which language to. They would sometimes use the German grammatical structure though with verbs at the end.. But a few weeks after leaving Germany they quickly forgot German as they stopped hearing it. They were quite young though 5 and 6! Just last week I met up with a long time friend who is German and his wife is French and they live in South Africa, and he always spoke German to them, his wife spoke French, they attend the German school, but learn English in school and of course have to speak it outside school in their daily life. Kids have no problems unlike adults when we learn a language we try to do it correctly and learn the grammar, etc.

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    1. Trilingual is fantastic, I think! Funny how they "lose" it - do you think they would now understand German if they heard it?

      And your final sentence is so true. Kids don't think about grammar and rules (even when learning their first language), they just say what it takes to get understood, and that's how we should actually approach learning a language as an adult too but we're too worried about making mistakes!

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  5. My husband speaks only English, so does my son. I speak English with them but my mother tongue is Creole. I don't know if I will eventually teach my son Creole... where would he use it? But I will insist for him to learn French, another language that I speak. It's funny I have a draft post about "I'm not bring rude, it's my native language" because people think it's rude for me to speak to my friends in Creole. If I'm not speaking to you it should be ok! lol

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    1. Ooh speak Creole with him!! I think it doesn't matter if it won't be so useful for him in the future, the best time to learn a language is as young as possible and it will give him all kinds of advantages - among them being able to learn another language (French) much more easily. (Or if you speak French well anyway, speak to him in French when you're alone.)

      And I'm so glad to hear I'm not the only one who has been criticised for speaking another language! Your title is totally right - "I'm not being rude!". THEY are being rude! And I'm sure that these people who say this are monolingual, right?

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    2. I completely agree. It's all about 'getting the ear in'...I don't know how better to describe it. Being able to 'hear' a different language, hear a different accent, and dissemble words and sentences - to recognise (sub consciously more than anything) another language form/structure, makes it so much easier to learn them. It's that familiarity (even if not fluentness) that makes all the difference.
      I found I understood french friends when they were talking, even though I don't speak french, simply because i could pick out enough words to get the gist. The same with arabic - I could dissemble whole sentences and distinguish enough words that i knew to get the gist. It surely is the first step to learning a lanugage.
      I can decipher dutch, and even some scandinavian when it is written, just by having german language. I think it just gives you the tools to learn languages far more easily.

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    3. So true Andrea - I agree about Dutch, and the Scandinavian languages - amazing how much I can understand just from German. And exposure to any foreign language as a child is a major advantage.

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  6. I am totally into bilingualism, a great advantage. Your son will deal with it okay, I am sure. We felt so strongly that we sent our younger daughter to the French Lycee and neither of us spoke French very well. She spoke in French the whole time at school. We took her to France in the holidays.

    He's pretty young and would pick it up later even if you just spoke to him in one language now, but I am sure you are doing it the best way.

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    1. That's fantastic that your daughter learnt French so well despite not having fluent French speakers for parents - good on you for giving her those great opportunities!

      Who knows if it's the best way (I need a crystal ball!) but he seems to be coping well so far and it's nice for my husband to be able to speak his native language at home since he uses English all day at work.

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  7. I think bilingualism is great and am shocked at how u were treated in Aussie.

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    1. Thanks for the support! I think people who don't speak another language don't understand why you might want to speak the other language now and again. I'm trying to educate them!!

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  8. The anonymous post referred to the original artical, and not the above post. Just want to make that clear.

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  9. Wonderful post and thanks for sharing your experiences Amanda! It's something I've been thinking a great deal about since we're now in a tri-lingual household: Swedish, English, and Yoruba and my husband and I would love all future children to be able to speak all three. We know it's a lofty goal so we'll definitely be referring to this post when the time comes.

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    1. Lofty but absolutely possible Lola, especially if you're already thinking about it now. I highly recommend the Multilingual Living website and forum, it's a great way to connect with families having similar fun! Plus I think one advantage you'll have over us is that you're living in Europe where lots of people are bilingual - it's much more "normal" - so you should meet a lot less resistance. Good luck!

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  10. I wrote a post a little while ago about wanting to raise a bilingual baby. I speak german quite fluently, but my partner is as skip as they come and doesn't speak anything other than English. (or Australian as the case may be).

    We hope that with me talking to the baby in german, german books, music, net downloads of tv shows and movies, and hopefully a fortnightly pre-school class on the gold coast, that that will provide enough exposure to the language. The trick will be to get my sister, mother and father to remember to talk to the bub in german also.

    As far as objectives go, with a very Australian environment, and no german friends nearby, as much exposure as possible will be the best bet.

    It worked for me. I had holidays every 3 years or so to germany, my father talking to me in german...sometimes, and that was about it. I studied german by correspondence for two years during high school, and then spent 6 months in germany during uni. After the first two months, I was more or less fluent. A couple more years in germany a few years later and I had people asking me which part of germany i was from, and now, even after not having lived there for ten years....it's not too bad~!

    Anyway, I think having a native speaker for a parent, and a mum who is also willing to contribute leaves your little one with a fairly good chance to at least understanding german, and having basic german language, which is only a short step to fluency down the track!!

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    1. Andrea, I wouldn't be so worried that your husband doesn't speak it - in most cases (certainly ours) the mother is the one who spends the most time with the baby (especially in the early years) so that will mean plenty of German exposure. Sounds like you have lots of excellent ideas. And as with your experience, lots of early exposure combined with some intensive exposure later will make for an excellent chance of fluency!

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  11. After spending ten months in France, and attending the local French village school my kids were pretty fluent in French language. But come back to Australia and it fades pretty quickly. Now after nearly five years my 15-year-old and my 11-year-old will understand some of what a French person says, but they will always reply in English. I wish we could spend some more time in France so that they could develop their French language skills more. It just seems impossible to learn successfully in Australia without the native speakers. Even some of the French teachers they have had in school in Australia have been pretty poor French speakers.

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    1. That's a shame Caroline and I agree that here in Australia it's particularly tricky - I'm hoping that the German connections we've made at our German playgroup will stand us in good stead for the next few years.

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