Raising Multilingual Children

Last week I had the pleasure to attend the book launch for Raising Multilingual Children by Julia Festman, Gregory J. Poarch and Jean-Marc Dewaele published by Multilingual Matters, introduced by Professor Jean-Marc Dewaele at Birkberk College. Here are some of my thoughts on the talk and the book.

raising multilingual children cover

Professor Dewaele is an entertainer. He started by giving us a run down on how the book came about, over coffee breaks and drinks at conferences among several linguists who are multilinguals raising multilingual children. He then launched into exploring why bilingualism might have had a bad press: parental fears of children growing up ‘semi-lingual’ with identity and cultural crisis as well as the continual societal skepticism of bilinguals/multilinguals from a political-ideological stance. He then reassured us with ten reasons for raising multilingual children in light of new and growing evidence of its advantages. My personal favourite has got to be multilinguals are found to have ‘fewer essentialist beliefs‘, meaning that when you asked a group of bilingual children if ducklings raised by dogs would bark instead of quack, they were more likely to believe it possible as compared to monolinguals. In other words, multilinguals tend to be more open-minded and flexible thinkers. Also on top of my list are raising multilingual children being potentially a massive cost-saver (think of all the language lessons you might have to pay for!) and ‘why-not-if-you-can’!

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Multilinguals tend to be more open-minded and flexible thinkers.

We were shown videos of language moments of Jean-Marc’s daughter (Livia, a budding linguist studying at Oxford) when she was displaying all sorts of linguistic sensitivity as a toddler, such as protesting the French pronunciation of ‘cowboy’ knowing that it’s an ‘English’ word. (You can read Livia’s own account ‘still trilingual at sixteen, almost quadralingual’ here.) Without spoiling any more amusing anecdotes Professor Jean-Marc also shared on his journey of raising her daughter trilingually (French, Dutch and English in London) using OPOL (one-parent-one-language), most of which can be found in the book, I’ll just write about what stuck out for me in his talk. I’m raising my two-year-old in Cantonese and English and potentially a bit of Spanish, French, Japanese and I’ve read the book before the talk.

Multilingual children are born and raised linguists.

Even Professor Dewaele had his initial doubts on whether multiple languages such as introducing a fourth language (spoken by the daughter’s child minder) would overwhelm the young mind. But he went ahead and discovered that, at least in his case, there’s no adverse effect whatsoever. In fact, we now know from research that babies have the amazing innate capacity to distinguish among languages from the start (even before they can babble). Basically there is no danger of brain overloading because of exposure to too many languages. The issue has always been how to encourage production (speaking and writing) and maintenance of those languages as a child grows up.

There is no danger of brain overloading because of exposure to too many languages.

Another point raised by the audience is whether ‘bad grammar’ will be learnt if the parent speaking the language is not a ‘native’ speaker. The current evidence says it shouldn’t be a worry. Children exposed to a language early on are able to filter out grammatical mistakes given sufficient exposure to the language. It is also worth remembering that multilingual children would make similar errors as monolingual children as their languages are developing.

Children can filter out bad grammar given sufficient exposure.

On encouraging children to speak the minority language (language not spoken in the community), Jean-Marc describes it as ‘a psychological manipulation to use your language‘. For young children, it’s all about making it fun and cool to use the language through play, songs and games to set the language foundation and sow the emotional seed. As they grow older, it’s about continually nurturing and consolidating that emotional attachment associated with the language while recognising that there might be phases when teenagers are simply being teenagers and just want to fit in and rebel. Having built a strong foundation to the minority languages and being consistent with their language policy from the start, Professor Jean-Marc spoke about becoming gradually more ‘relaxed’ in their household language policy as Livia started school, allowing the community language to creep in on occasions when there is a clear vocabulary gap and for emotional expression.

A psychological manipulation to use your language: Is it fun? Is it cool? Is it a secret language? Is it emotionally engaging?

The take-home-message is that rejection of a language or the refusal to speak it might be temporary. Parents might want to take a flexible approach as well as involving the child in the decision making process of what language is to be spoken when as they grow older.

If the foundation is laid, rejection of a language or the refusal to speak it might be temporary.

A name that popped up in the talk is Dr Xiao-lei Wang, who documented in three books her own journey of raising her two sons trilingually in Mandarin Chinese, French and English in the US. In her latest book Maintaining Three Languages: The Teenage Years, she discussed some difficulties she encountered during these rebellious years (You can read about this book here).  Incidentally, I also found her first book, Growing Up with Three Languages: Birth to Eleven, useful with practical strategies for laying that initial foundation.

Returning to Professor Jean-Marc, another key message is that raising multilingual children is certainly no easy ride. It requires ‘constant unrelenting effort’. He agrees with Dr Wang that our goals as parents have to be raising happy children, prioritising communication and taking care of ourselves as parents.

So what might be missing from the book? When looking at any multilingual families and their experiences, we must not forget the contexts. One aspect less discussed in the book is how the particular language dynamics of the household can affect the emotional bonding of the family as a unit. In Professor Dewaele’s case, his family happens to be all trilingual in the three languages of their household. So there is not really the feeling of isolation or exclusion a parent can sometimes experience over family conversation if one of the parents does not understand or speak the other’s language well enough. It also happens that the three languages involved are considered ‘prestige’ languages, meaning that it is less likely for the family, especially the child, to feel ’embarrassed’ to be using any one of those languages in public. Another point to remember is Jean-Marc has an only daughter so there is no sibling effect, where the community language is likely to become even more dominant as it usually becomes the language of communication among siblings. Although in the book, you will also read about Julia, the other contributor of the book, describing her experience of raising her two children.

Raising Multilingual Children has five chapters:

  1. Ten reasons for raising a child multilingually before school
  2. The multilingual children of the three authors
  3. Learning methods and language policies for early success multilingual acquisition
  4. Developing a good language policy for the family
  5. Fostering a multilingual home and dealing with concerns

Overall, I find the book does a fantastic job of fulfilling being ‘rigorous but not academic in tone’. The last three chapters are particularly useful if you are looking for hands-on practical tips.

Good luck on your multilingual parenting journey!

Here is an interview with Professor Dewaele in 2015 on early multilingualism which reinforces some of the messages above.

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About Connieay

I have taught English in Japan, Qatar and Egypt. At present, I'm taking a short break to raise my little munchkin and finishing a Masters on TESOL/Applied Linguistics. My teaching life started in Tokyo back in 2009. And yes, I was there during the massive earthquake in 2011. That day, I was in school waiting for my students to arrive. My very young learners did come after the quake and we all hid under the table during the numerous aftershocks we shared. That night I continued to teach my classes and was stuck in school as all the trains were stopped. I was taken in by the lovely Miss Satou and shared that eerie night with her shaken dog Oscar which kept licking my face throughout the night. Before teaching, I lived and worked in London as a science editor and researcher. I enjoy dancing salsa and love travelling. Having a Chinese root means food is crucial to ensure my happy existence. Teaching is an experiment that I hope to carry on for a long time. I am interested in multilingualism, CLIL and how the brain is involved in learning. If I were a bird, I would be an albatross, a bird with stamina, persistence and the ability to go far and high. I value long-term relationships but am perfectly happy being independent and can endure solitude if necessary.
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