Hearing your child speak for the first time is undoubtedly one of the most special moments and one of the biggest milestones you will experience. Given this, and especially given the vast range of myths and misleading research, it is little wonder that a lot of parents are wary of raising their son or daughter in a multilingual environment. Yet it is far easier, and more beneficial, than a lot of debunked but still prominent research would have people believe.
My wife is from Austria and I am British. We try our best to be conscientious parents who research, read and scrutinise things before jumping into decisions about what is right for our son and daughter. The bulk of everything we read about raising our children bilingual, in English and German, can essentially be distilled into two pieces of advice: both parents should stick to speaking their mother tongue in front of their child (whether speaking to one another or to their daughter/son), and both parents should remain committed to bilingualism by providing their child with ample opportunities to hear, speak and experience the two (or more) languages they wish them to learn.
As a consequence of living in a cosmopolitan, multi-cultural city where many of our friends with children come from different parts of the world, we have become aware of a few roadblocks to what may sound easier than it is.
A common issue is that while both parents share one language in common – typically English – it is less likely for both of them to be fluent in each other’s languages.
This quite simply means that when you talk to each other in front of your child, one of you will be forced to drop your mother tongue. This breaks the illusion for your child that there is a ‘mummy language’ and a ‘daddy language’, and can lead to your child favouring the adopted lingua franca. Fortunately for us, I speak enough German that I can understand what my wife says to our children (and to me), and I am able to reply in English.
Although it isn’t a quick fix, learning enough of your partner’s language to get by in front of your child is easier than you might think (and will – apparently – make you more employable and less likely to suffer from degenerative neural diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s).
Another issue facing multilingual families is the dominant language in their country of residence. For instance, if I want my daughter to regularly socialise with English speakers and enjoy English cultural experiences, then this will naturally be easier in England than in Germany. This problem is only amplified when – like us – you are expatriates living outside of your home countries.
Where we are based, English is spoken far more than German, and opportunities for our daughter to speak English present themselves both frequently and naturally without us needing to make a special effort. To plug the German vacuum, we’ve filled it with a range of German books, songs, and (as occasional treats) German language cartoons and TV shows. Teletubbies, Peppa Pig and Sesame Street – all broadcast in German and English. My daughter also has a close friend who speaks German at home with his German mother.
Now two-years-old, she can confidently differentiate between how Daddy speaks and how Mummy speaks. It is fascinating to see her effortlessly code-switching, a skill that still evades me after eight years of learning German. She already knows to address Granny, Grandad, Auntie Liz and Daddy in English, and Oma, Opa, Tante Viola and Mama in German. She can tell you the words that Mama and Daddy use differently to call everything from dogs to JCBs.
If she is ever grasping for a word, she simply says ‘this’ or ‘das’ for clarification, and like most little kids, she loves expanding her vocabulary. All of this is effortless to her and all other children between the ages of 0-7, thanks to the neural networking taking place in this phase of their cognitive development.
The aforementioned wiring of the brain that takes place in children, separating and differentiating between two or more languages from an early age, has led neurologists to note benefits ranging from higher cognitive functioning, stronger problem solving and learning new concepts, to greater levels of adjustment in relationships and managing emotions. There are definitely more advantages to bilingualism than simply being able to order a schnitzel or bag of crisps when holidaying in mum or dad’s homeland, or chatting up a Frau in a drndl at the Oktoberfest.
Even if you and your partner are both monolingual there is no need to fret. Befriending speakers of foreign languages and setting up two or three playdates a week from a young age (where your friends and their children speak exclusively in their native tongue) can bring the same benefits as having multilingual parents.
But the best part of all… for our little Lego Star Wars and Lego Marvel obsessed daughter, Spiderman and Chewbacca are the same in all languages.