We are a multilingual family, not even bilingual, but trilingual. This means we usually have three languages flying around in the house at any one time- English, Hungarian and Dutch. My mother tongue is Hungarian, Oh-so-lovely-Daddy is Dutch and neither of us speaks the other’s language, so we speak English. We met, married and started a family in England, so it all sort of makes sense.
Early on in our relationship we had already decided that we both wanted to pass on our heritage, including our mother tongue, to our children. We’d seen friends bringing up their children multilingual (mostly bilingual though) and I had experienced learning a language at a very young age. I was 4 when we moved to Australia and went from no English to fluent in 6 months (I kid you not! …and my younger sister was even faster.) Since then I have attempted to learn other languages too (Hindi, Russian, Spanish, German and Dutch), but never got anywhere with them really. This has made me even more determined to pass on the gift of an extra language, and with that the insight into another culture, to my children.
So when Little Miss was born in 2007 we embarked on living in a multilingual household. Here’s what we have done so far:
- Oh-so-lovely-Daddy and I ONLY speak in our mother tongue to the Littlins. This holds true for inside the home and outside, with friends or amongst ourselves. The only time we break this rule is when the Littlins are playing with other English speaking children and our message is meant for not just our child, but the other child too. Something that will affect the other child, for example “Little Miss please come here for a moment to put your sunhat on”. As soon as I am addressing my child only, like explaining something, I will swap back to Hungarian and Oh-so-lovely-Daddy to Dutch. (He and I still speak English to each other, though sometimes if it’s a 3-way conversation one or both of the other languages will be mixed in.) We have done this since birth.
- We have books in all three languages, but I will often “read” an English story in Hungarian (translating it on the fly). We have actually read very little English to the Littlins. In preparation for Little Miss starting school in September, I now give them a choice of what language they want the story to be read in. Their choice varies.
- We have lots of Walt Disney classics and other cartoons on multilingual DVDs, mostly Hungarian/ English. I have tried as much as possible to limit television time to watching these. However, CBeebies has such educational value in some of it’s programs, that I do put this on too. (I’ll touch on this a bit later.)
- We have enrolled both Littlins from the age of one into nursery 1-2 days a week (despite me being a stay at home mum), this was to get them interacting with other children and to be exposed to a purely English environment too. I knew, from my own experience, that English would not be a problem. I knew even this limited introduction to English will help them communicate fluently in it as they started talking.
Have we seen any negative impact of our choice? Well possibly:
- Both learnt to speak just slightly later- I’d say Little Miss was just above the average age for learning to talk, whereas Little Man was closer to the bottom quarter percentile.
- Initially, it was only Oh-so-lovely-Daddy and I who understood them, as they would come out with trilingual sentences. This made it difficult for carers and frustrating for the Littlins.
- Their vocabulary in each language is slightly more limited than their peers, (but adding the total number of words together, they are probably more advanced than the average.)
However, at the age of four and two and a half we have two very vocal children, who will switch from one language to the other at the drop of a hat. They can communicate with both sides of the family, which we are overjoyed by (and so are they!)
In fact, Little Miss loves languages so much she is eagerly learning sign language and her favourite programme by far is Mr Tumble. (We had done some signing with both of them as babies to help bridge the languages, maybe that’s why she loves it so much.)
The next challenge is school and learning to read and write in all three languages. I expect, as Little Miss will be in an English speaking environment most of the time from now on, our efforts to preserve and build on her current skills will become more difficult and require even more CONSISTENCY from us.
Are you raising your children multilingual? How are you doing it? Do you have any hints and tips to share?
I’d love to hear from other parents on how they are tackling raising multilingual children.
(if you have a related blog post please feel free to link to it in the comments section)