I’m often asked how I managed to learn so many languages and how I keep them apart. Well I must say a big part of my abilities come from my mother’s motivation during my childhood. She was a busy woman, but very strong in her belief that she was giving me an enormous gift, that today, I can thank her for from all my heart.
I decided to write this to encourage mothers not to be afraid to speak several languages to their children, if they are bi-or multilingual and wish their kids to become part of a true multicultural world. I realized very early that having several cultures and languages is enriching. There is nothing better in life than understanding other cultures from the inside, including their sense of humor and their way of thinking. The more languages you speak the more you are able to find yourself in the right place and situation.
My multicultural experience started when I was 3 years old. Another language and culture entered my life. Thanks to my mom I kept up my first language. I spoke both languages at the same time, adding on the new one like a parallel world on the top. My brain got more and more flexible and I learned how to separate them. The third language followed when I was 10, just learning it at home. Actually that kind of passive learning was not bad either. I only realized it later when all the vocabulary I acquired was stored in my brain, and when I needed to speak it four years later, it seemed to flow out of nowhere. I started learning the 4th language at 15 years of age, the 5th at 20, the 6th at 23, the 7th and 8th at around 30, and today I’m learning my 9th one.
When my brother was born, 20 years ago I decided to help my mom with the difficult task of raising a bilingual child, understanding that with age one gets less motivated for all the extras about child upbringing. I wasn’t there all the time for him but my mom came up with other tricks to keep her language alive.
My own personal experiences strongly influenced my multicultural mothering choices from the moment my daughter was born. So when it was her turn I knew what to do but I had to choose between the languages I knew and chose to limit myself to 3. I knew it wouldn’t be easy, but I was prepared. I was lucky because we had the chance to move from France to Sweden before my daughter turned 2. At kindergarten she was immersed in one language, her father spoke a second and I kept up the third. She hardly spoke before the age of 3, but when she did she had a lot to say in all three languages simultaneously. I was optimistic and believed that the order and structure of each would come in due time.
Things became a bit more complicated when we moved to China four and a half years later. Two more languages were added: English and Chinese. The latter was added by a “storm” as it was a phenomenon moving from a Swedish to a Chinese kindergarten. A year later, English was smoothed in at an international school, even though she was part of the French section.
Today my daughter speaks five languages, not all very well, but I make sure I keep them up to a certain level. She will work out which she wants to continue with later, on her own. The most important job has been done though and I’m sure that one comes out of such experiences only stronger, not weaker as some people tended to think in the 70’s.
We live in a new era, in which we need to communicate with and understand each other more deeply to keep this world peaceful and to preserve the planet. That will be the task for the multilinguals we are educating today.
Svetlana Furman is a contributing author at Multicultural Mothering. She is an independent business consultant living between Paris and Stockholm, where she just moved back to, after spending over 3.5 years in China.
Her 9 year old daughter is attending the Lycee Francais of Stockholm.
We flew from Beirut to Abu Dhabi (“adi badi” as Rahul calls it) on Etihad Airways, the United Arab Emirates carrier, a couple of days ago. It was the first of 3 flights that would take us back to Chengdu.
A pretty, blond flight attendant with bright red lipstick guided Leila up a step and onto the plane. “Oh, they are so small,” she said, to no one in particular.
“They’re two,” I responded, not entirely sure what she based her judgment on.
A few minutes later, she walked by, offering us newspapers. For the first time since I’ve flown on a plane with my children, I bothered (dared) to take one. 4 out of 6 newspapers were in Arabic. I randomly picked The National, an English language UAE paper.
Well into the flight, Rahul fell asleep in Maher’s arms. Leila and I were hanging out. She was flipping through one of her books, so I pulled out the newspaper. The title action photo shot of a leopard pulling off a man’s scalp in Assam, India, was bewildering. The caption mentioned that they caught the leopard.
Overleaf was a picture of a baby, and an article about bilingual brain development. In the UAE people speak both Arabic and English, some also speak Hindi and Tegalog among other languages, because of the Indian, Filipino, and many other communities living and working in the UAE.
Universal translators, by Manal Ismail talks about the possible effects of bilingualism on babies brains. It discusses how cognitive performance in children up to five years old might be less developed in a bilingual child than in a monolingual one; but that by age five there would be a likely catching-up and overtaking phase. The article ends with the hypothesis that exposure to a second language “early enough” (that could range from up to 12 years old to up to 16 years old depending on the research) stimulates the right brain; the side that governs creativity. So the research is on by a professor at the American University of Sharjah to see if indeed bilingual children can be more creative than monolingual ones.
It took me all three hours of the flight to get through this, and the follow-up article about how that professor plans to implement a bilingual policy at a school in Berlin, and then try the same at a school either in Dubai or in Abu Dhabi.
My first interjection came from Ivana, the talkative Romanian flight attendant with bright red lipstick. She delivered us a tray of food, and attracted by baby on my newspaper, she peeked in. She asked what the article was about, and we plunged into a fifteen minute conversation about parenting. She is studying bilingualism and other topics in Child Psychology and Development at a University in South Africa, by correspondence, and claimed that babies can easily manage 5 languages. She lives in Abu Dhabi with her South African husband, for his work.
Rahul was asleep and Leila was still entertaining herself. Ivana and I went back and forth. That I was able to have such a conversation astonished me, and made me realise how things are evolving for us.
Ivana wants to have children. She can’t fly if she’s pregnant, so she’ll quit her job soon. The main reason to leave her work though are the long haul flights – 14, 16 hours to Sydney, Toronto, Chicago; they’re too tiring. She sometimes stays up 24, even 48 hours.
“I think I’ll be able to handle the nights as a new mum, after my job here.”
She inquired about IVF, and then went on to share parenting tips from her studies, observations, and from her magazine purchases in the UK! They were mainly along the lines of allowing children to be who they are; embracing their personalities and understanding that not everything our children do is reflects our parenting. I confirmed. My 2 same age children react to situations differently, even though I do almost the same things with them. They eat, sleep, fly, talk, play, and think differently.
She’s been watching the children on her flights for the last 2 years. Some sleep all the way, some are hyper-active, others read or watch movies, some eat, others don’t…
She said the Australian, British, and US kids often aren’t potty-trained until two, even three, whereas where she comes from, children are put on the pot from 6 months on.
I was amazed by all the “research” she’s doing. I didn’t know a thing about babies before I had my own.
It was obvious that Ivana really wants to be a mum, and I bet she’ll be a good one. She’s confident, excited about it, and full of energy. Already a solid start. Her main point, which I agree with fully, is to do it your own way; to take the tips, and then to adapt them to your own personality.
I was happy for the pleasant conversation, and momentary bonding.
When another, slightly irritated flight attendant called Ivana away, I returned to my food.
I changed Leila’s diaper. She fell asleep.
Rahul woke up.
Ivana had a short conversation with Maher and Rahul in French about their meal, and then an upbeat one about fashionable purses and shoes with 3 sisters in black outfits and hijabs (head coverings worn by some muslim women) across the aisle from us.
In the mean time I managed to read my articles.
The professor plans to have classes in both English and Arabic. So if they teach math in Arabic one day, the next day it will be English. Did you go to a bilingual school, or do your children go to one? Is this how it works at other bilingual schools?
Related article- Hearing Bilingual: How Babies Sort Out Language
Related site- http://www.multilingualliving.com/
Natasha lives in Chengdu, China with her husband and twin toddlers. They just returned after spending 3 weeks in Lebanon for Christmas and New Year with the children’s great-grandfather, grandparents, and uncles from their Lebanese side. They spent their time in a 200 year-old stone house, playing with dogs and eating way too much delicious food. Catch more of Natasha’s stories at Our Little Yogis, http://natashadevalia.com
Bea: Lives in Canada with her husband T and their twin toddler boys. Catch up with them at http://www.littlegrovers.blogspot.com.
When I discussed the subject of raising children in a multicultural family with my husband, we came to the same conclusion. Though my heritage is Italian-Irish, and T.’s is Korean we both feel Canadian. My parents immigrated to Canada when they were children and I was raised, for better or worse, in a single language speaking home.
My husband came to Canada as a small child with his grandparents and speaks Korean with his family. Because he has no formal education in Korean, and I’ve been told he speaks like an old country woman due to his dialect, he is not that comfortable conversing in his native language.
This is all a long winded way of saying that we only speak English with our kids at home. There will be the obligatory French language classes in school, but we have no plans to teach our kids Korean or Italian outside of a few phrases.
Both of T.’s grandparents have passed away, and he has a few aunts and uncles here in Canada. I’m sure they would love it if our boys learned Korean, but we do not see them often enough for them to have much influence over the boys language development. And three out of four adult relatives do not speak English though they have lived in English speaking Canada for decades so I do not have a well developed relationship with them.
I took some Italian language classes as a child, and again as an adult but I never really put it into practice and would be incapable of holding a conversation now.
Am I doing a disservice to my children by not teaching them more than one language in these early toddler years? If we as parents are not able to speak more than one language with our kids, should we invest in language classes for our kids?
I was born in Crete, Greece and raised in Maryland, USA, on a beautiful, 86-acre, off-the-grid homestead. My parents, products of the hippie era, were inspired by the simple, self-sufficient lives of the Cretan villagers, and we had no electricity or indoor plumbing in the hand-hewn house where I grew up. Instead of a TV, we had a trapeze in the living room. It was a paradise for kids, and I grew up with an innate love of nature and a keen sense of responsibility for the health of our Mother Earth. My parents strove to awaken in us an awareness of the effects of our actions and to provide us with an alternative to the modern lifestyle of rampant consumptive greed. They supplemented our public school education with frequent journeys overseas, and by the time I was 18, our family of four had toured nearly 25 countries, mostly on tandem bicycle.
As an adult, I continued to travel widely and for longer periods, eventually spending nearly seven years in India and Nepal studying the Tibetan language and practicing Buddhism. Before long, as hormones would have it, I fell in love and married into another culture, another race, another language, another dimension. Tsultrim and I come from wildly different worlds—he a monk from a tiny village in Tibet, I the product of an American subculture of left-winged eco-hippies. We were married in 2003, first on the black market in Nepal and later in our flower garden in Maryland. During eight tumultuous years of marriage, we have made nearly that many moves across the planet, from my country to his and back again, one of us always suffering from culture shock and social isolation. The learning curve has been, and continues to be, incredibly steep. Yet for some reason—no doubt our stubborn Taurean personalities and a fat load of karma—we’re still together, still laughing.
Along the way, we have been blessed with two gorgeous kids—our daughter Clara, aged 4 ½, and our son Tashi, aged 17 months. Admittedly, part of the reason I wanted to have a second child was to give our first-born a companion, someone who would truly appreciate the complexity of her multi-racial, multi-cultural, multi-lingual situation. I worried that she would be friendless and alone in her ever-shifting world, with no one to share the long airplane rides, discuss her weird parents, or understand who she really was.
We traveled in Asia during both of my pregnancies, but I drew the line when it came to their births—those were occasions when I truly needed my own family, culture, and language, everything that I equate with the safety and comfort of home. Both our children were born in my parents’ new home in Oregon, USA, gently lifted onto my chest by the loving hands of homebirth midwives. I love to think that Tsultrim’s graceful presence at the births of his children purified generations of Tibetan tradition, in which men have avoided (and been excluded from) the ‘filthy’ scene of childbirth.
Shortly after both births, we returned to Tibet bearing the new baby, washing our cloth diapers in the freezing winter water and soaking up the salt-of-the-earth goodness of Tsultrim’s beautiful family. These journeys were terrifying and traumatic for me, the fretting new mother of an infant, and with each passing year I have yearned more and more intensely for a stable home, for roots in nurturing soil, for a solid community of like-minded mothers and the support of my family. The carefree wanderlust of my youth has long since faded away, leaving in its place an anxious, fearful woman rapidly approaching her 40th birthday, still without a place to call home and no prospects for one on the horizon. The Buddha’s teachings on non-attachment and impermanence do little to ease the ache in my heart, the pull to plunge my fingers into warm brown earth. We are settled in the Chengdu mega-metropolis for the (un)foreseeable future, not living the lavish life of the typical expat but camped out in my brother-in-law’s apartment, while Tsultrim tries his luck at selling construction supplies in the booming Chinese economy. We all sleep in a row on the floor of our single bedroom, our clothes and medicines and children’s books stuffed into a few small shelves. Clouds of fog and smog hang heavy in the Chengdu sky, and miles of constipated highway snake around us in every direction.
Even as I celebrate our children’s immersion into diverse cultures and languages and watch them grow and thrive in each, I wonder how I will share with them the lessons of my childhood, the deep reverence for the natural world that comes with being of and near the earth, season after season, year after year, in a place called home. Can a family of nomads engender a sense of place and belonging in its children? More importantly, will there ever be a place where we all feel at home, such that we can live a gentle, carbon-neutral existence on this fragile planet?
Desi: I’m a corporate refugee, quiet activist and child care provider. I write about grace, joy, hilarity, leg hair, and life looking after other people’s kids, over at The Valentine 4: Living Each Day http://thevalentine4.com/
I’ve written about Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, before. http://thevalentine4.com/2011/08/21/on-tigers-and-happiness/
I found the book fascinating, for a lot of reasons, not the least of which was Chau’s first chapter assertion that her parenting methods were “Chinese” by title, and “immigrant” by definition. I don’t get that. I mean, I am a (sort of) first generation Canadian. My mum was born here, but my father is from Nigeria. On some archetypal level, I think I might understand the immigrant drive for their children to achieve.
Maybe. I’m not clear on how that drive is significantly different from every parent’s desire for their kids to succeed.
I did do very well in school. And I also have an intimate understanding of what it was to be a visible minority in a predominantly white community. People look at you. People pay attention to what you are doing. They talk about it. And, though I took my share of racist insults, the vast majority of my classmates and administrators were by no means cruel. Just sort of separate. In the friends but not best friends, seeing each other but not dating, helpful but not involved, sort of way.
Or maybe it was just me.
Chau’s kids were academic achievers. Homework always completed, they did the bonus questions for extra marks, and studied hard all the rest of the time. And that’s my point, I guess. She approached parenting with the expectation that her children would do well. She put them through more grueling hours of practice and revision than I would. She committed more means and time to finding good private tutors than I would. She punished them more severely for low effort than I would. But our expectations of our children’s successes are not dissimilar. Like basketball players in the inner cities, like hockey players in rural towns, they practiced a lot as an extension of community. And excelled.
My kids will do well in school. I believe that firmly. I expect that of them. We are an afterschooling home with learning resources everywhere, and education in all its forms are integral enough to be family values, around here. I have no beef with rote learning, standardized testing, or memorization. I think we need to know the information in order to interpret it, and while these methods do not give us “knowledge”, they do imbed the data from which meaningful interpretations can be made. I think that kids’ work should be graded, that poor effort should be investigated and remedied, and that competition is only harmful when tied to self-worth.
I am aware that these are not necessarily popular views. If the backlash on Chau’s book is any indicator, these are very unpopular views.
But then I think of articles I’ve read about adults in their twenties and thirties who don’t know how to be happy, and all of the books and films devoted to defining and improving “happiness”. I think of parents calling into universities to argue on behalf of their adult children, data on the dangers of “over-praising”, reports about the growth of experiential learning, pioneering research into inquiry based learning, the Waldorf and Montessori approaches to teaching young children…. And a woman overheard on a call-in radio show who believes very firmly that all children in elementary school should be protected from standardized testing, grading, competitive sports, and measurable academic achievement. I think about the free-range kids movement, and the exponential growth of Kumon and Sylvan learning centres. About a dear friend’s conclusion that “the smart kids will do well in any school”. I think about the open concept approach of our most recent “student-led teacher conference”, and the parents who had no choice but to hear how my daughter is thriving in school. (Seriously. How is that helpful to anyone?)
On some level, it feels like we’re rushing madly off in all directions. And for some of us, that means bringing at least part of our children’s formal education back home.
One final admission: My family is using Rosetta Stone to study French, while our daughter attends a French Immersion school. She loves going through the program on my computer, and is always thoroughly annoyed with me when I tell her she has to stop. We’re doing this, in large part, because we like to learn new things together. But the other part? The minor part? The less socially acceptable, teensy bit embarrassing part?
We’re doing this because there are francophone children in her classroom, and I expect her to keep up with them.
I’m skeptical that this has anything to do with my ethnic background or “immigrant status”. I haven’t yet met a parent, regardless of parenting style or doctrine, who did not want more for their children than they themselves have. Though the individual definition of “more” does vary.
What do you think? This post is scattered like my thoughts are, I know. How would you piece it all together?
© Desi Valentine 2011. All rights reserved. Text and images are not to be reproduced or replicated without my written consent. Contact me at desivalentine4 at gmail dot com
Catherine: I’m a mom of twins living in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. I grew up in NYC and spent most of my formative years there although I was born in Warsaw, Poland. My husband is German. And my identical twin girls, Zoe and Luna, were born in Bangkok, Thailand, live in Vietnam and hold dual citizenship (US & German). Growing up I thought I had it tough being torn between two different worlds, but look at them!
Growing up as a global citizen may come with its particular set of challenges, such as not knowing a sense of belonging or losing touch with your heritage. But it’s the way of the future. Our economy is more globalized and interdependent than ever before. Just look at how the West is relying on Asia to be the engine of growth during the recession. The West doesn’t polarize the world as in the past. Rising stars in the East such as China, are contributing more than ever to the global economy and our lives. And thanks to technological advances and accessibility, we are linked as never before in human history – through online media. The world is getting smaller. In view of these developments, I believe that our children’s future success will depend on how well they relate to those different from them.
As a parent, I feel that one of the best advantages I can give my girls in life is the ability to communicate fluently in several languages. In our home, we each speak our native language to the girls. My husband speaks German to them in the early mornings, after work and on weekends or holidays. Our Vietnamese nanny and maid speak to them in Vietnamese each day except for Sunday; and I speak to them in my American English, which is the language they are most exposed to.
English is not technically my native language, but it’s the one I speak most fluently and have spoken for most of my life. However, this presents me with a dilemma as I essentially do speak Polish: Shouldn’t I pass that language on to my girls as well? But as I moved to NYC when I was 4 years old, I speak Polish with an American accent at the level of a fifth grader. I don’t speak it like a native anymore.
I keep finding in the research that you should choose one language to speak to your child and stick with it. But I have taken creative license with that, and I read the girls Polish poetry at bedtime. They probably won’t learn to speak it this way, but at least they’ll be exposed to rolling r’s, and the diversity of -sh, -zh and -ch sounds, which are so plentiful in Polish. I guess we’ll have to wait and see if the experiment will work.
So now that my girls are 15 months old, are we seeing results yet? Nope. I just got back from the pediatrician. Language was a bit weak on the Denver II test behavior chart. It’s used to track their social, fine motor, language, and gross motor skills development in relation to their age. Compared to the rest of the indicators, they seem to be about 3 months behind on language. They are only really using 3 words consistently so far (2 in English and 1 in German). But I’m not worried.
According to our pediatrician, children brought up in several languages do not learn to speak any later then their peers. I also found this in my research. There is apparently no solid, scientific evidence to suggest a delay in speech. However, I did come across anecdotal evidence among parents who sense that multilingual children begin talking a few months later than monolingual children. In the end, I don’t mind if it takes them a bit longer to begin asking “why?” a million times a day.
And I’m not too bothered about them actually speaking all 3 languages all the time. German is the minority language you could say, as they only hear it from Dad (although research shows that a child needs to be exposed to a language 30% of their waking hours to actively speak it, so it just might be enough!). But as long as they have the capacity to understand German, it will be that much easier to learn later in life.
Even if they don’t end up speaking Vietnamese once we’ve moved to another country, at least they have the capacity for tonal languages. It’s the connectivity of the neurons in the brain that will be stimulated and developed. That is what I’m primarily concerned with; overall brain development. Who knows, it may make them better thinkers and communicators than they would have been otherwise.
I leave you with some food for thought: by some accounts, 80% of communication is non-verbal, what are the implications to multilingual/multicultural children?
By Maro: I speak English, French, Spanish (although it’s getting rusty), and not as much Italian as I should. I grew up in small towns not far from Ottawa, first on the Quebec side and then on the Ontario side, but my background and extended family reach from Armenia to Hawaii. My husband, Eric, was born in Montreal to Italian parents. He speaks English, French, Italian (although he denies it, since he doesn’t think his grandparents’ dialect counts), and a bit of Spanish. We have a baby girl, Myriam, who was born in March 2011. She’s working on her consonants these days- baba, dada, ida, lida, nana… but I’m not sure which language, exactly. I’m not sure she knows, either.
My name is completely Armenian, but I’m a mishmash of places and cultures: only one quarter Armenian, another quarter Italian, and the other half Anglo-Saxon American. My father, half Armenian and half Italian, was born and raised in France, so I have French roots (and a French passport), too. My parents met in the U.S. but immigrated to Canada before I was born.
When I was 18 I moved to Montreal to go to McGill University. During my twenties I spent a lot of time studying, working, volunteering and traveling in various places including Panama, Guatemala, Mexico, Madagascar, Zambia, Italy and France. I also spent some time working as a Naturalist in northern Quebec, and planting trees in British Colombia. I was, as some friends affectionately called me, a globetrotter.
Now my husband and I are back in Montreal, fairly settled and stable. We have family here, we have wonderful friends, and we both love our jobs. We’re even talking about buying a house, which seems a very adult and stable thing to do. Although wanderlust still strikes and we talk about living and working abroad at some point in the hopefully not-too-distant future, for now we are very happy in this vibrant and bilingual city. Montreal has become home.
One of my sister’s friends, who studied bilingualism, told me that although the traditional method of raising bilingual children is to have each parent speak one language, it is not necessarily the best strategy. Apparently children actually become more fluently bilingual when each parent speaks both languages, as long as they stick to one language at a time and don’t mix them up. Otherwise the child tends to be stronger in the language of the parent he or she spends the most time with.
I have never heard anyone else state this theory, but I’m really hoping that it’s true. I’m hoping that Myriam will grow up multilingual and not just confused.
The plan was that Eric would speak to Myriam in French and I would speak to her in English. However, living in this bilingual city has made us so used to flipping back and forth between languages that we’re finding it hard to stick to this plan. It doesn’t help that both of us are fluently bilingual but more comfortable in English than in French.
Eric usually speaks to her in French, but we speak to each other in English in her hearing. I speak to her in English, except that often I find myself speaking to her in French. Myriam and I spend a lot of time with other mama-baby friends, most of whom are francophone. So during our social activities I’m usually speaking French, to my little one as well as to my friends and their children.
It doesn’t end there. Myriam’s Nonno speaks to her in Italian, except that sometimes he forgets and switches to English. Her Italian great-grandparents speak to her in Italian dialects that probably no longer exist except in North American immigrant communities. Once in a while I spend time with Spanish speaking friends and catch myself speaking Spanish to Myriam.
Every night as I put my baby to sleep I sing her lullabies in English, French and Spanish. I should probably learn and include an Italian lullaby, just to be fair. Sometimes I wonder how long it will take before she realizes that lullabies have words and meaning. She probably just thinks that I sing a variety of songs because they sound nice. Maybe we should be more scientific about our method of raising a multilingual child.
Myriam is, in general, a happy and good-natured little person. But she studies things seriously. When she meets someone new, or happens to spot someone interesting while we’re out and about (in the subway, in the market, in the park…) she stares at them unabashedly and unflinchingly. I don’t think there are many people who could beat her in a staring contest. The people she stares at usually either coo and smile and gush about how adorable she is, or else look away uncomfortably and pretend they haven’t noticed her unblinking focus. I’m not sure if she’s trying to figure out the Meaning of Life, or if she just likes making people squirm. But I feel confident that if she has this level of focus and concentration at 6 months of age, someday soon she’ll be able to understand what we’re saying to her, whether it’s “go to sleep”, “fait dodo”, “duermate”, or “vai a dormire”.