Raising children with multiple languages is a challenge and a pleasure. Some parents gather information before having a baby, others learn it by doing. What we all have in common is that we want our children to grow up as healthy as possible and
that they enjoy acquiring and learning all the skills they need for life. Therefore, languages are one of the basic needs, as communication is necessary for them to survive. In this post, I want to highlight five steps parents should consider when raising
children with more than one language.
by Ute Limacher-Riebold
Children all around the world grow up speaking multiple languages since more than half of the world’s population speaks more than one language on a regular basis. The whole journey is one with many unknowns that parents can either embrace hoping for the best, or prepare for. No matter how we start, we never know how our children will develop, how they will respond to the various expectations, and what support they will need along the way.
With the following 5 steps that are based on my E.N.J.O.Y. raising children with multiple languages© training for parents, I present an overview of the basic aspects parents should consider when embarking on a multilingual journey with their children.
Our children’s multilingual journey begins with us parents. The more we know beforehand, the more confident we are. Parents agreeing on some crucial aspects before the baby is born takes off weight from their shoulders during the intense time with a newborn.
Two main aspects to agree upon are:
1- Which language each of us will use when speaking with our children.
2 – Who else will be providing additional input for them in our languages.
We want to make sure all necessary languages are nurtured not only at home, but ideally by the broader community, since to raise a multilingual child, we need a multilingual village (I adapted an African saying).
It can help to consider our very own language history. What do we know about growing up with multiple languages? What languages did we acquire or learn so far, and how? And which of them are we using the most at the moment? Do we speak our partner’s language? Could we support the minority languages in our family if need be? Do we feel confident enough in the language that we want to pass on to our children? And if we choose another language instead: will we still be happy with this choice 10 years from now? No matter when we start introducing more languages to our children: raising children with multiple languages is a long term commitment.
Communication is key in every relationship as it fosters connection. Knowing what a healthy multilingual development looks like helps us to support our children at any stage. Navigating alongside our children through the different stages of language development is fascinating!
Our children’s multilingual journey starts around the 26th week of pregnancy, when unborns start to distinguish the parents’ languages. It continues after birth, when newborns seek contact by turning their heads towards us when we speak. This non-
verbal communication turns into cooing, first sounds, words, and first sentences.
Young children understand how to use different languages depending on who they address. When they mix all their languages, we know they are emergent multilinguals, and it is fascinating to observe them discover how languages work.
Our children reach the milestones of language development at their very own pace. The development in each language depends on the need to use it and input received in it. – A healthy language development is accompanied by encouragement and validation in each language.
Each family language situation is unique and deserves tailored solutions. We all have our very own language expectations, needs and skills. This can make us feel lonely at times, especially when we compare our children’s language development to that of others. Knowing that even twins and siblings develop at their very own pace and have their own language preferences helps us to focus on what each child is able to do.
Joining groups of parents in similar situations and listening to experts can be beneficial in many ways. We can get confirmation that our child is doing well, we’ll be encouraged to trust our instincts, or to reach out for help if necessary. Nowadays, early intervention allows us to avoid wasting precious time and frustration when it comes to helping our children to acquire languages.
Us parents know what’s best for our children. We observe their progress, we recognize their skills, their strengths, and their weaknesses.
We want to choose language strategies that allow our children to maintain all their home languages while learning others. Once we know where to find the right resources to provide age appropriate language input for our children at any stage, we’ll help them to make steady progress.
We want to make sure that none of the home languages suffer at the expense of the other. If our aim is for our children to become confident multilinguals, we have to continue fostering all the languages. I always advise setting realistic goals. If we want our children to not only understand and speak, but also to learn how to read and write in their home languages, we need to find ways to foster these skills. The latter ones are not skills that come naturally. They require formal teaching and they are skills that can be transferred from one language to the other. Language consultants and speech therapists, or teachers who have experience with multilingual children, can help to find the right resources and activities to foster the home languages.
Yes! – Celebrate!
I cannot emphasize enough the importance of regular assessments of the language situation. Acknowledging the single steps our children (and we!) make during this journey allows us to be proactive when adjusting to change; no matter if our children grow up with two or more languages – including dialects and sign languages – and no matter if they start from birth or later.
Our brain and mind are designed to process different languages. All our children need is a supportive language friendly environment for the seeds that we plant to be nurtured and cared for. It is up to us to provide the right conditions for our children to acquire and learn the languages they need.
All I wish parents who want to raise their children with multiple languages is to: Enjoy all the steps!
Ute is a multilingual Family Language Consultant and Intercultural Communication Trainer at Ute’s International Lounge. As a linguist and speech and language specialist, she offers tailored practical advice and trainings for parents who raise their children with multiple languages and cultures. She is a life long international who helps international families find the most suitable strategies to maintain their home languages and cultures, whilst learning others in a healthy way.
If you want to know more about how to raise children with multiple languages, join her Facebook groups: “Multilingual Families” or “Ute’s International Lounge”. You can also follow her on Twitter or on Linkedin. It is also possible to subscribe to her Youtube page if you prefer: Ute’s International Lounge.
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Are you looking for Dutch courses in Delft? Don’t forget to check this DMM blog post: Learning Dutch in Delft: 2019 update.