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|
- 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.
- 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?!).
- 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.)
- 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!
- 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.