The ups and downs of raising multilingual kids
It didn’t matter that I had spent years teaching languages and working with words as a proofreader and writer. When my kids were born, I found myself underqualified for a job that kept changing every month.
In the fantasy land that is pre-parenthood, I had assumed certain basic human activities (including talking, eating and using a toilet) would come somehow instinctively and my children would glide through the first months and years of their life smiling for pictures I would later send to our families abroad, while I cherished precious milestones in my heart. Ha!
I was born and raised in Argentina, where I lived until I was 22, and it had never occurred to me then that my children would grow up in a different country, much less that one day they might be raised in a trilingual home.
But here we are, ten thousand kilometers from Buenos Aires, my kids immersed in an English-speaking environment, their father a French speaker, and I, their main reference for Spanish.
Having worked with kids for years, effectively teaching languages, I was positive this would be a no-brainer. Natural. I’d speak Spanish, and the kids would pick it up the way I had, the way kids pick skills up, like making their bed or tidying up their room without being asked ten (thousand) times. Right? Then they would hear my husband speak French at 7pm when he’d come back from work and voilà – trilingual British kids.
The truth is I had no frame of reference for what my life abroad had become. I had grown up in a monolingual household, languages taught at school, but not really part of what I called real life. We never went on holidays to English or French-speaking countries, so my knowledge of languages was reduced to the classroom and Sony Entertainment Television.
I had never seen this before. All my cousins and aunts and uncles spoke Spanish and so did their parents. Or did they? My father’s parents had been born in southern Italy, in the region of Calabria, but had emigrated to Argentina as young adults after the Second World War, but by the time I came along, my dad was a monolingual Spanish speaker. When my dad was a child, his parents, both Italian, had been told off by school for confusing their children by speaking a different language at home. So they stuck to Spanish, or what Spanish they could speak, having picked it up on the go after they settled in Argentina.
I had been brought up with an appreciation for languages (especially when it came to what my parents called “my future”, that mystifying time in the distance where languages would come in handy). Without going into an in-depth discussion of what motivates our parenting decisions (patterns, anyone?), I thought it would be great for my kids to be exposed to different languages, the way I had been, which had turned out to be pretty useful since I moved to the United States at the age of 22 for university, where I met my now husband, who is French. Hurray for languages and “the future”!
The imaginary scenarios concerning my kids were soon put to the test, with my first child. He was fast to walk, but the talking did not come at the same speed. He had severe allergies that made feeding him a living nightmare. And he was nowhere near interested in using a potty.
It took me several years and many more tears to reach the conclusion that many things in life cannot be fast-tracked. Every family is different, and each child is unique, even within the same family.
To counterbalance the loneliness of raising a child in unique conditions I started attending baby groups with him, hoping to meet like-minded parents and also hear what their lives were like, and hopefully gain insight from those who had been doing this longer than me. We all talked about the struggles of getting kids to sleep when we needed it the most, about the joys of in-laws weighing in on every decision we made, how to change a baby in the most unusual of locations, and so on.
Less than helpful
I found lots of great advice and support from other parents, I also got a heavy dose of comparisons and eye-rolling. Anyone whose kids ate with a fork and knife by the age of seven months, or who spelled their names with pasta before the first birthday, or who talked in not one but two languages (because many attended language lessons at the age of two), left me wondering if I had missed something.
I hadn’t expected all these comparisons, and at some point it started to become overwhelming. Should I have signed up my children to multiple classes as soon as I’d brought them home from the hospital? By the time my first son was one, I was halfway through my second pregnancy, and I found it so hard to keep up with his walking, let alone the myriad children’s activities I know realized I was supposed to be taking him to. And still very little speaking.
I found myself swimming in the muddy sea of self-doubt and… guilt. I felt that I should have known what to do – after all, I had taught hundreds of children from around the world how to learn a second language! But I had never seen this before. I was new at being a mother, and I was also new at living with multiple languages simultaneously.
There was one thing I was getting better at with every passing day and that was putting pressure on myself. The more I compared myself to other parents, the more I felt that I was falling short.
By the time our first son was three, I asked to speak to a speech therapist because of my concerns, and he was diagnosed with speech delay. Not only that, they mentioned he might have some other developmental issues. After going to various specialists suggested to us, we were told he was fine in terms of his development, he was just taking his time to talk. The anxiety I had been neatly storing up for months didn’t make sense anymore. The nursery he attended didn’t seem especially worried but they also didn’t do much to get him to actively say stuff – there was no special interest in the struggles of bilingual families.
By the time he was three and a half I found myself speaking Spanish to him but also intentionally teaching him English. I had stopped working during my second pregnancy, but I had kept loads of teaching resources. We started with faces showing different feelings. “I am happy/ tired/ excited” and so on. Animals. Colours. We moved on to other topics. Throughout the first three years I had attended many rhyme time sessions at our local library, and my kids had been regularly exposed to stories and songs in English. Regardless of all the songs, videos, books and play dates, his vocabulary was still limited. My son clearly needed a more direct and intentional approach to English learning.
I’ll add that some approaches to language learning do not align with my view of languages and human communication, but if they work for you, that’s great. I’d rather use my mental energy for other pursuits. I’m not crazy about methods whereby parents only speak one language each and are not “allowed” to switch languages. While I speak Spanish most of the time, I don’t believe children might be confused if they hear me say something in French or English. Neither do I believe that telling them that I don’t understand when they speak to me in French or English will be helpful. Kids are clever. I’ve tried so many things these past nine years, and for now what has worked best when they speak to me in English and I prefer that they speak Spanish is to ask, “Can you say that in Spanish?” Sometimes children will stick to the language they feel most comfortable with. Sometimes not knowing a word might make them want to say a whole sentence in the easiest language. They’re trying to communicate. All or nothing approaches are not my thing (for languages and other things). Creating unnecessary anxiety by a rigid posture towards communication is not my thing. I’m not okay with shaming. Instead, I encourage them to ask about the words they don’t know. I’ll encourage them by reading to them, watching movies, singing songs, meeting up with friends.
What I had always known about learning – that we are different and learn at different rates – went out the window when I had kids. I found myself diving into the deep end of the irrational fears pool, fueled by comparisons and unhelpful adults with limited knowledge of and compassion for our situation as a family here.
Sometimes modeling is not enough – regardless of all the extracurricular activities, the modeling and the effort you put in, some children will still take more time to talk. Some children, even within the same family, have different skills, and find certain things easier, or can master them faster than others.
Every multilingual family I met had a different story to tell, so there was no one-size-fits-all magical solution to ensuring language learning. I spoke to families were both parents spoke the same language but lived in a foreign country, families who spoke one language but sent their children to a bilingual school, families that moved regularly from one country to another and needed to adjust to linguistic changes every couple of years.
This got me thinking about the bigger picture of languages – what is the point? As in, for you and your family, what is the point of speaking more than one language?
I think that for parents of multilingual (and would-be multilingual) children, it’s important to spend some time considering this, then go back and review your answers a few months or years later. Do you want them to learn a language to communicate in your mother tongue? To talk to relatives? To acquire a life skill? To impress your friends? To order food during your holidays abroad?
Whatever you answer is, bear in mind that the reasons may change throughout your life.
Languages, like many other skills, require regular upkeep. Putting in an hour a week is better than nothing, but if you want your child to be fluent you will need more input and more exposure than that. Manage your expectations.
Also, remember that comprehension tends to come first (whether it’s your first, second or tenth language), and output comes later. Children understand a lot more than they can say. So keep on talking to them, even if all you get is a nod or a grimace at the beginning.
If you have relatives (grandparents, cousins, you name it) who speak the language you want your child to learn, make sure you connect with them regularly and ask them to talk to your child in their language. This takes some of the pressure off you being the sole source of input. Again, manage your expectations – relatives are not language tutors.
Sign them up for a fun language class, or a class taught in the desired languages (you can find dance classes, theatre classes, or even sports in a foreign language, to practice the language in a different environment).
Organize play dates with other friends who speak the same language.
Be mindful of each child’s development and interests. What works for one of your children may fall flat with another one.
Keep in mind that consistent practice and exposure often count more than any natural ability.
If possible, expose your children to different varieties of your language. Spanish in Argentina is different from its counterpart in Colombia or Chile, for example. Even within Argentina there are many differences. Embrace the plurality of languages as a positive thing. Claiming to your child that one variety is the right one or the best one doesn’t make sense. Again, ask yourself, what is the point of languages?
Be kind and compassionate to other parents and their children (this counts for other aspects of life, not simply languages).
And if you’re seriously worried about your child’s language development, talk to a specialist, and maybe even get a second opinion.