If you are a parent then you know all to well how important it is to stimulate your child’s language development, though what happens when you live abroad and are responsible for this alone?
This is the reality for us expats who live in a different country and would like to give our children the gift of a second language.
Let’s let you in on a little secret that most people don’t know when raising bilingual children: they don’t get confused by speaking several languages, as a matter of fact, they could keep learning languages!
My children speak 3 languages fluently: Danish, English and Portuguese and along this journey there have been a lot of challenges – kind of like a science experiment in many ways.
Here is the first thing I’ve learned so far in raising my trilingual children:
1. We Need To Be Consequent
“” is the method to subscribe to as a bilingual parent. This basically just means that we keep to speaking one language with our children rather then switching between languages.
I have three children: Matthias, Livia and Kaela.
And in the beginning my great dream was to speak to Matthias in English, Livia in Spanish and Kaela in Portuguese – this way I’d be sure that they would get them all!
The truth is that it would create extreme amounts of jealousy between them “why do you speak Spanish with Livia and not with me?“, So I’m glad it didn’t happen.
This may not be the case for every expat parent, though it underlines the need to speak one language consequently to your children.
Worse Then a 90’s Mix Tape
Some expat friends of mine have decided not to implement the whole “being not only a parent but a language teacher for your child when abroad” thing.
They’re good intentioned, loving people that make an honest mistake: mixing two languages together with the child or speaking the foreign language with them.
Why is this a mistake? Because the child is smart and will happily take the easy way out…
This can go two ways:
- The expat speaks the local language with his/her child.
- The expat speaks their native language with his/her child though doesn’t require a response in their language.
#1 is usually due to an incorrect belief that the child will get “language confused” if they learn a second language and that “it will be easier for him/her in school etc”.
This is simply put untrue and an old wives tale to say the least.
Your child’s brain is like a mass of clay waiting to be molded, your’s on the other hand is pretty much molded, hence why you might transpose your difficulties with learning a language as an adult (confusion etc) onto the child.
Your child’s mind adapts to it’s surroundings and they will learn 3 languages fluently (case and point), 4 languages fluently if you invest in that or whatever you throw at them – just don’t be the teacher of them all 😉
#2 is another very common scenario and usually has to do with laziness (or knowledge).
I can’t tell you how many times my wife has said “they answered you incorrectly, make sure and correct their English” to which she usually gets a “oh, sometimes I forget” response.
We do get forgetful, comfortable, lazy or whatever the case may be (speaking for myself here) and it gets tough to continually be correcting our children. And if you are really the only one speaking English – or insert language here – to your child, it’s a lot of work!
Though it’s one of those things where the hardest part is getting ourselves to pick up that shovel to begin digging a hole, as we know that it’s hard work and just have to face it.
Once we get our hands dirty and begin doing it though, it only becomes easier with time.
2. We Can’t Give Up
When my son or daughter comes up to me and spits out a whole bunch of words in any other language then my own, my first reaction is not to fight it.
The easiest thing for me to do is to just ignore the little Danish or Portuguese wording or logical structure of the language, because I understand what they’re saying.
Though the correct thing to do is to bounce the sentence back to them correctly.
Here’s an example:
Matthias (my son): “Daddy, you no want chocolate?”
Me: “Daddy, you don’t want any chocolate?”
Matthias: “Ah…Daddy, you don’t want any chocolate?”
It Can be Taxing but It’s well Worth the Investment
After a long and tiring day, the last thing on my mind is correcting my children’s English…
The truth is that if I don’t, no one else will! And since it’s important that my children not only learn the language of their father and family and English as a universal language, it’s important that we as expats give extra time and effort.
It really is a win-win because it gets us out of our comfort zone and self focus making another person’s needs be the center of our thoughts.
This is not only a selfless act leading to boundless personal growth, but beneficial for our children on many levels.
3. The Other Language(s) Take Longer
One of the most common stereotypes about bilingual children I get is that “they will take a longer time to speak than other children”, let me hit this ball out of the park at once and tell you that this is not true.
Just take my little
terrorist daughter Kaela as an example, she has 2 years of action and fury on this earth and no language will stop her from communicating!
Her vocabulary is greater in the local language then other children her age and she has a working vocabulary in 2 other languages as well.
It’s not uncommon for her to turn to me and spit a bunch of words out in English (though sometimes jibberish), then turn to her mother and do the same in Danish.
Yeah there are some words mixed together but those will get ironed out over time.
As a matter of fact, she just ran to me with cup in hand at this very moment and said “jeg vil more water Daddy!” (jeg vil = is “I want” in Danish)
It Does Take Longer
The truth is that for every one word that any other child learns, your child will have to learn 2 (or more).
So if a typical 4 year old has a vocabulary of 1,400 words, then your child will need to match that number and have a vocabulary of around 2,800 words. I.E. your 4 year old will be able to speak as many words as an average 6 year old child!
This is something important to understand and where many parents think that the child has difficulties in learning their language.
If your child is out playing all day in Portuguese and comes home with new words he/she just picked up from hours of stimulation, you will then have to match those new words.
You will always feel like you’re chasing the effect of countless people’s language stimulation on you child, which is actually true.
So run this race and build your endurance as the payoff is huge in the end.
This was a very specific post for people who have children abroad though it is something very relevant as my inbox is reflective of. So I hope that this has been helpful in understanding how to deal with the challenges of a new language around you and what you should do.
How has it been for you raising a bilingual child abroad?
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