Last Updated on June 21, 2022
Now people are so mobile that you will not surprise anyone with a multilingual family. For expats parents, this problem, which languages their children speak, take up a lot of time, it cannot be solved easily and forever. More precisely, this is the only way: no language – no problem, but this option is not suitable for everyone.
The main thing that you must remember is that there is no real bilingual child “by itself, out of air”. This is always the work of the parents, which may not be obvious to an outside observer.
If parents do not engage in this problem, they get quasi bilingual children who know only the basics of a second language, the so-called “kitchen” language or only understand simple talks without speaking.
You need strategy, rules and time.
Experience of parents with bilingual children
Over the years, I have come across many different stories.
– “I lived with my husband in Argentina and spoke to the child only in Spanish until he was five years old, because I myself even began to think and count in Spanish. And then I divorced and sent my son to Germany for a year to my father. When I arrived, he practically did not understand my Spanish and spoke only German. Now (at the institute) he learns Spanish from the beginning and speaks it worse than English. There is no advantage compared to those who never spoke Spanish. “
– “We spoke only German until the age of 6-7 in the family, then we were evicted to Siberia. There were only four German families, and we began to speak only Russian. When we moved to Germany, it turned out to be easy to learn German, even though we’re old”.
– “I spoke Romanian with the child, but at the age of five he refused to speak Romanian, and we switched to German.”
– “I moved at the age of 7 and immediately went to the first grade. German was hard for me, I had to go to Haupschule, then transfer to the real school, and then to the gymnasium. But after the gymnasium I practically did not speak Russian, did not read or write. After I met my wife, I began to restore the language, to get rid of the accent. To read to my daughter, I learned to read in Russian.”
– “My daughter spoke excellent Polish until she was 3 years old, then she went to the kindergarden and after a year she began to speak only German. She speaks Polish with a strong accent and only with her grandmother.”
And so on… You can see how easy it is to lose a language if you think it will learn by itself.
I will try to formulate the main points about bilinguals based on my experience and the experience of those with whom I spoke.
1. Bilingualism is not normal for humans, as it is sometimes claimed. Man is essentially a monolingual being. But he can be forced to learn two or more languages, since there are phases in his growth when he is receptive to any language.
At every convenient opportunity, the child will try to return to one language. Those who are naturally capable of languages (that is, people with a good memory and a good ear for music) will have less difficulty with several languages than others.
2. The best motivation for learning a language is necessity: parents do not speak the language of the environment – you have to learn the language of the parents and the language of the environment.
As soon as the need becomes not so necessary (for example, a Italian-speaking mother speaks German with a German father in Germany), parents have to make every effort so that the child does not refuse “unnecessary” language.
3. Language environment (kindergarten) does not guarantee successful learning of this language, especially for boys. Children know how to safely turn a deaf ears for “extra” language. They are content with the sounds in the game and the few words.
The problem usually becomes apparent at age 5. In most cases, it is solved by additional attention to German: a speech therapist, tutor, babysitter-tutor, etc. (but not the parents’ transition to German!).
4. The absence of a foreign accent in the preschool period does not mean that it will not appear later.
5. If you do not control your speech, switch to a mixture of languages, do not speak a lot with your child, read, watch films in your native language, then everyday, “kitchen” language may remain, but its level will be very low. If you mix languages, then the language of the environment (German) can be severely affected.
6. Maybe it is strange, but do not expect your child to learn to translate by itself. They say that different languages are “stored” in different areas of the brain. Without training, the child cannot translate at all. And if you are “person-English” for him, then you cannot understand the level of German at all, because when the child sees you, his brain switch the language on “English”. And your presence on German tests will worsen his results.
There are two basic strategies:
one person – one language
or (it’s more difficult for both child and parents) one situation – one language.
The first strategy has two options:
- both parents are foreigners and speak the same language, for example both are “person-Romanian”. Native speakers of the language of the environment, for example kindergarten teachers, are German persons. It is relatively easy for a child.
- each parent speaks his own language and the environment has the third language. It is more likely, that one of the languages will disappear (often father’s one, because fathers usually speak less with children).
If the parents speak different languages, and one of the languages match with the language of the environment (mother is a foreigner, father is German or vice versa), then it will be too difficult to follow the “one person – one language” rule all the time. Therefore in this option must be established strict rules, which situations are “German” and which are “foreign”.
Discuss the distribution of languages with your partner in advance and strictly follow the established rules. A parent – a native speaker of the environment’s language (German) must agree and participate, otherwise the likelihood that the child will speak the language of the foreign parent is very low.
1.Mixing languages in a parent’s speech is the worst options for both languages. Speak only one language in one situation!
2. The level of all languages must be kept under control all the time. The language does not develop by itself outside the linguistic environment. The amount of time spent on the language is very important. In simple word – the level of the language is directly proportional to how many time it is spoken. Less than 18 hours a week – and the language is at risk.
3. If the child refuses to speak the language:
- translate for him from German constantly in the “parrot” mode, without emotions and irritation. Sometimes ask for a repeat if it is obvious that he was not listening. It is important: not to be angry.
- explain why you want this language from him (“Do you want to communicate normally with me and your grandmother? But we don’t know German well / don’t know. Therefore you must speak English / Italian / … with me”).
4. Create a children’s library in family language. Choose modern, not boring, with good illustrations. Read to children every evening. Ask what mean difficult words (do not wait, when they ask, the children simple skip unclear words)
5. Listen audiobooks in your language.
6. Spend time with other families who speak your language
7. Learn your child family language as a school subject. Vocabulary, free speaking, idioms, free writing are more important in these lessons as grammar.
8. Try to teach reading on family language one year before school.
9. You should be proud with your language. Show the children its advantages!
Government, people and language are different things. When one man speaks English, it doesn’t mean that he is American. When one man is Ameriсan, that doesn’t mean that he likes Trump. When one man likes Trump that doesn’t mean, that he speaks English. The same – for all languages.
Do not be ashame to speak your language on the street – the children feel it very well. The language does not determine what kind of people you are and is not guilty for your goverment or other people, who speaks this language.
Next – problems and crises by age.