Between mom’s language, dad’s language and English as international language, the world of a multilingual family can be very interesting, stimulating and fun. Or it can be frustrating and confusing. Which will it be?
Coming from a country with 11 official languages, a national anthem consisting of 4 languages and many multilingual families, having two first languages (and neither of them English) is not unusual. The difference between us and most of the other multilingual families back home is that we’re homeschoolers, and therefore education also happens in more than one language, rather than the language medium of the chosen school. When moving to Dubai, we met many other multilingual homeschool families, and have decided to share some of our experiences of languages.
“Let’s start at the very beginning, a very good place to start. When you read you begin with A-B-C, when you sing you begin with Do-Re-Me…” When sharing your experiences, it seems a good idea to start with the background.
Before our first child was born, we were concerned about the conflicting advice we received from many people. Some say you should only speak you own language to your children, so you do not teach them your erroneous second language. Others say a child should only learn one language at a time, otherwise they’ll become confused and then they can’t speak any language properly. Others had other ideas. All this was very disturbing to first-time parents-to-be. As if the choices of “cloth diapers versus disposables versus diaper-free” and “breast feeding versus bottle feeding” and “disciplined routine versus on demand style” were not overwhelming enough, now even our languages were a potential danger!
After many hours of reading, checking up various professionals’ opinions, studying language acquisition in linguistics and comparing the results of studies done all over the world, we decided upon our strategy. Please, please do take note that this was our personal decision, and that does not mean that any other choice is wrong, this is simply the way we decided to do things.
We took the “one person one language” road to language. This means that dad will speak will speak dad’s language to the children, and no other language (to the child) ever, until he’s at least 4 years old. In the same way, mom will speak mom’s language to the children and no other language (to the child) ever, until he’s at least 4 years old. Even if there are other people in the company who do not understand these languages, each parent will continue to speak their own language when addressing the children. For the sake of good manners, after speaking to the child, you can summarise the conversation in another language so that everyone is up to date. But under no circumstance address the children in a language other than the one you always speak to them.
Right, time for an example! My family does not understand my husband’s language. Even so, when we visit them, my husband addresses our sons in his language, and they respond in his language. Only when the father-sons conversation is finished, does he tell my family “what it was all about” in a language they understand. Similarly, when we have English-speaking friends over, we speak English to them (the friends), but not to our children.
This might sound confusing, but it is not. Simply speak your language. It might sound like effort, and that it was, because sometimes it would have been easier to speak English when friends are around, rather than speaking one language to the children and another to the friends. However, it didn’t take very long to get so used to this, and now we don’t even think about which language to speak.
The really amazing thing is that our children respond to us in our own languages. The very first time I sent my son to my husband with a message (talking my language of course), and heard him deliver the message in my husband’s language (of course, because he’s speaking to dad now), I was dancing and jumping! He GOT it. And later, when our second son was about the same age, the same thing happened. They both got it. Years apart, in two different countries when it happened, but it happened.
Our family conversations might appear strange to other people, because I speak my language, my husband speaks his, and the children speak either, depending on who they address. Wonderful! Magnificent. Marvellous, I love it.
They speak two separate languages fluently, without mixing them up, or getting confused, or being unable to talk, or any of the other dooming predictions cast upon us.
What about English? you may ask. They need to be international after all. Well, since we have many English-speaking friends, and in most public places are served in English, they get a huge amount of English input. Also, since all those people consistently only speak English to them, there still is no confusion. Our older son (now 6) often replies in English with ease and confidence, although still with some grammar errors. Our younger son plays happily with his English-speaking friends, without worrying about their language.
So we’re off on a good start to homeschooling in a multilingual family!