Educating children bilingually – this is a high goal. After all, you want your offspring to do better than you one day, to not have to slog through English vocabulary and French grammar during their school years, but to master several languages with ease. But: How do you get that right?? We provide assistance.
I am glad that Melanie Brigitte Weber, an expert in this field, actively supported me in this article. Melanie studied Japanese and American studies and worked with children as a language teacher in Japan. In addition, she knows multinational and multilingual family life very well, even from a private perspective.
Her wish was to bring both cultures and languages closer to the children, from a very early age. So Melanie knows the theory and practice very well and all her experiences of "multilingual education" flow into this blog post. Let’s go.
Accepting multilingualism as natural
Since when do people actually believe that only one language is spoken per person? If you look a little into the history of Europe and Asia, walk with open eyes and ears through Central European cities, through American or Asian cities, you quickly realize: Very few people have only one mother tongue. Why?
Within the individual continents, people have always been on the move a lot, for a long time people lived exclusively nomadically. Tribes and family groups moved around but were not completely isolated. Trade relations between different cultures exist as long as there are people. In this respect, it should actually seem natural to us nowadays if children grow up with more than one language, or?
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By the way, you can find a precise definition of the term bilingualism and a lot of information around it here.
On a side note, this blog post is titled "Raising Children Bilingually" – but who says you have to limit yourself to two languages? What works with two languages also works with three languages. Or four. If the conditions are right.
Why multilingual education?
There are many reasons to maintain more than one language in the family. One of them is simply because you can. Or perhaps because it is fun? I would think that these are the most important reasons! But perhaps the point is simply that ..
- Children have several nationalities and should be strengthened in their multicultural personality from the very beginning.
- a family lives "abroad" for work reasons and wants to maintain the language of the home country.
- Children should benefit from their parents’ education and grow up multilingual for educational reasons alone.
No matter why you choose multilingual education, it won’t be easy. Therefore, one should be aware from the beginning how serious multilingualism is and how priorities are set in everyday family life.
Cultural reasons for multilingual education
Digging a little deeper, the reasons look a little different. Of course, identities and power relations play a role when it comes to children growing up multilingual. For example, it has been a matter of course for generations that families from the Arabic region retain the language of their homeland within the family. Russian, Polish, Croatian families, on the other hand, sometimes even forbid their children to speak in their "mother tongue" at home.
Why is it? It has something to do with how people understand their culture and language, how they feel about it. In some cases, German culture is perceived as more superior and important than their own culture – children must speak German. In other cases, crops are given about the same value. Then it is taken for granted that children will learn both languages.
The conscious decision for bilingual education is important!
This is what you need to be aware of before deciding on a multilingual family lifestyle. If a culture is considered inferior, inferior or backward, these feelings are transferred to the language. Children are unlikely to accept the language in the family in this case. They can develop a passive understanding of the language, but will probably always be reluctant to speak the language actively or even to be alphabetized.
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Multilingual education means children are exposed to two or more languages from birth. Should they have both or all three (four?) accept languages as their own, this is only possible if they are also given the appropriate appreciation. And that’s toward the language and its associated culture, not just its speaking efforts.
REMEMBER: value each language and each culture equally! (And act accordingly in everyday life.)
4 strategies to educate children bilingually
We present four strategies for getting through everyday family life multilingually. Tip: Find the strategy that best fits your family situation.
One of them is the OPOL strategy. OPOL stands for One Parent, One Language – one parent, one language. This means that in everyday family life, one language is consistently spoken by the mother, another by the father. In this way, children learn from the very beginning to distinguish between the different language systems. At least that’s what language research says – de facto, children always mix languages and will always understand that parents speak other languages as well.
Another strategy is to always speak a certain language in a certain place. Raising children bilingually succeeds when languages are differentiated by situation: At home and on the playground, the family language is spoken; when shopping and visiting friends, the surrounding language is spoken. This also requires a certain consistency if it is really to be followed through to the end.
Also, the strategy of speaking only the minority language at home is not so easy to enforce in everyday life. It makes sense, of course, because children learn a language by hearing and using it frequently. So if the whole environment speaks German, the child attends a German-speaking kindergarten, but the mother would like to pass on her Italian background, only the time spent at home helps to provide the necessary practice.
The fourth strategy, which one hears about more often, is actually no strategy at all. It simply means that each person uses the languages as he or she sees fit. This makes for an authentic everyday family life, which is likely to be very relaxed – and even then children learn amazingly to distinguish between the different language systems.
REMEMBER: Find the strategy that best suits you and your family situation!
If you want to go a little deeper, you can read about the different approaches and strategies again here.
Authentic parents are always well received
When I think of scenarios from our everyday family life, Melanie says, the fourth strategy is what works for us. Of course, we agreed that mom only speaks her mother tongue and dad only speaks his mother tongue. And:
- that we only make do with English when the children don’t listen.
- That we practice and speak each other’s language together only when the children are already asleep in the evening.
Because they should, according to the dream, learn both languages with equal strength and, above all, without accent. So much for the theory. And such concepts somehow always work only in theory. Because, and this is not a joke, but German family life. Because then:
- The insurance agent came and wanted to talk to both of us adults together. In German.
- friends from Venezuela came to visit and wanted to speak a language that we adults all understand. So not the mommy language and not the daddy language. We agreed on Spanish. Partly broken, but Spanish. Definitely.
- a French work colleague came over and spoke his native language. That mom and dad are equally proficient.
- the paternal grandparents were visiting. Grandma wanted to cook with mom. mom had to speak dad’s language. (Anyways, the food was delicious!)
The children understood: Most adults speak at least three languages. Not all equally good, but they can converse. Kinda cool. And the children mingled happily. They survived several years abroad just as multilingual, were able to go shopping on their own, take advantage of childcare services, join sports clubs.
Reality check – raising children bilingually in practice
In most families, it may be difficult to consistently enforce an OPOL strategy or the one-place-one-language strategy. To raise children bilingually, the most important components are therefore a lot of love, a sympathetic ear and patience.
Often one language is stronger than the other. But this can change several times in the course of life. Not always the initially weak language remains weak. Children also speak naturally in the beginning as it comes to them. No matter how consistently strategies are followed: Children mix languages. This is a natural step in children’s language development.
REMEMBER: Stay yourself. In any language, with your children, with your partner. Authentic rules!
If you would like to learn more about the scientific background, you can find several studies here. For more insights on multilingual children and code-switching (mixing languages) and especially any myths, you can read Babbel’s Blog.
Bilingual education – delay in development or advantage?
Both. Children who grow up multilingual are about as fast as monolingual children in understanding language. But the active use of language is a bit delayed. But they usually start to speak in all languages at the same time or shortly after each other. The delays are quickly made up, usually already at elementary school age. Children develop individually, and that also applies to language.
Raising children bilingually, however, comes with several benefits for the children. We know from neurobiology that the brain cells of multilingual people are connected differently. The nets are denser, more complex. The memory capacity is higher. With multilingual children, mathematical understanding is often a little faster and more developed, they have a better spatial imagination and often also a different feeling for their own body. It would be too much to talk about a faster motor development – the body coordination is different, partly more difficult.
– Upload a language to your brain! –
Learning was yesterday. Today you load a language
simply to the brain. We show how it can be done.