Thoughts On Raising A Bilingual Child
A friend of mine, who is expecting her first child, recently asked me about our experience of raising Noah as a bilingual child (so far). Since it has always been such a given for us all along, that we would raise our children with two languages, I have always treated it as a very normal situation in our family dynamics and hadn’t really taken the time to stop and think about our approach, our learnings and what it actually meant for us. My friend’s question inspired me to write a little bit about our experience so far, and hopefully my words and reflections can help those parents facing the same journey, which seems to be ever increasing in today’s global world.
Robin is Australian and I am German so we always knew that we would raise our child speaking both English and German. This has been important to me despite German not being the stronger of the two languages for me. I may be German born but my schooling has been 100% in English since Grade 2, including university, jobs and then naturally finding an English-speaking husband. So apart from writing and speaking with my parents, brothers and extended family (whom I get to see 2-3 a year), I would only ever speak English. I always say that German is my mother tongue, yet English is my first language. Perhaps for all of these reasons, it has been even more of an importance to me that Noah properly learns German. And knowing that I can make that happen just by being disciplined, committed and enthusiastic, gives me motivation enough. It is an absolute gift and I wouldn’t want to take that away from Noah.
Noah is 16 months and started saying his first proper words a a few months ago (around 13 months). His word count may not be very high just yet but his understanding, in both languages, is certainly on par with what is to be expected for his age. One day I’ll probably write another blog post on this topic when I have a few little monkeys running around speaking both languages. I feel like we are still very much at the start of our journey of raising bilingual children, that I may not have too much credit for writing this just yet, but I’ll at least write about our experiences so far.
Here are a few steps that we’ve taken, which I think are very important in the whole process, now that I look back and reflect upon it all:
1. Agree: As parents you need to agree and be on the same page on this. It is absolutely essential for any of this to work. Will you speak two languages? Are both sides of the relationship comfortable and ok with it, even if one side may feel left out at times? Thankfully this was quite easy for Robin and myself. Although he may be left out once Noah starts properly speaking German back to me, Robin is the most supportive partner I could hope for in this little bilingual journey of ours. I think he’s secretly hoping to learn more German himself (haha) so he is pushing and motivating me to really make this happen, which I think is wonderful. In any case, agree, feel comfortable and get excited as a couple.
2. Plan: Come up with a plan/strategy on who speaks which language to the child. You’ll always have a ‘majority’ language (the one spoken between the parents – in our case English) and a ‘minority’ language (the second language you want your child to learn but that doesn’t get spoken frequently or ever between you as parents – in our case German). Stick to this. I only speak German to Noah and Robin only speaks English to Noah. Together as a family we speak English so Noah will obviously hear me speaking English but when I address him directly, I will try my best to always speak German. I said ‘try my best’ because I am also just human and although I always try my best to stay disciplined and consistent, the reality is that we are living as a family and sometimes I want Robin to understand what I say so the odd English obviously will come out of me, even when I direct it at Noah. Although I will shortly stress the importance of consistency, I do believe it to be ok to say a few things in English here and there. I spend 80% of Noah’s waking time with him (at least) and sometimes 100% for weeks at a time, where I will only speak German, so I stay relaxed if some things go through to the keeper at times. Some may argue differently but this is me sharing our approach and so far it seems to be working just fine.
3. Exposure: It is said from research (not proven scientifically) that for a child to start successfully speaking a language, it needs to be exposed to that language 30% of its waking time. This may just be an estimate but it’s a good enough estimate to give you an idea of what levels of exposure need to be considered in the process. Apart from ‘exposure’ which is THE most important element to all of this, the next most important element is the organic need to use the language. The child needs to feel a need to speak the language (whether it is the need to communicate with father, with mother, with grandparent, with nanny) in order for the learning progress to continue naturally and successfully. Again, if you have set a plan of who speaks what language with the child and you stick to that plan, this ‘organic need’ will automatically develop.
4. Consistency: Consistency is key. I cannot stress that enough. It is ok to have the odd mix up (which is so normal, especially at the start when all of this feels awkward), but the last thing you want to do is confuse the child. Stay consistent in speaking the language you set out to speak with your child and ask your partner to do the same. Together as a family you can speak the majority language but stay consistent when speaking to the child individually.
5. Support: It helps making friends with couples that are following the same journey. If you are staying home with your child all or most of the time, try to find some friends that speak the same language. In my case, since I speak the minority language with Noah (German), it is such a help having friends that speak German to their children. Sometimes it’s not possible and that is ok too but it certainly helps. Playdates and eventual friends for your child, with whom they can speak the minority language will be an absolute gift.
6. More support: Apart from friends, there are a whole heap of resources, which will make learning the language a lot easier and more fun. Books, movies and toys for starters. I will read books to Noah in German, whilst Robin reads books to Noah in English. I find ourselves having so many English books and hardly any German ones (a product of us living in English environments all the time) but that doesn’t worry me right now because I just translate as a turn pages, or I make up stories, so Noah will still hear me reading to him in German.
7. Time: Invest the time in teaching your child the language. It doesn’t just happen magically. Yes, children are sponges in these early development years but that doesn’t mean that they just pick up things out of no where. A child will learn your language if you consistently speak it and make a conscious and thoughtful effort to do so. The whole process will most likely also involve money here and there, whether it’s the eventual language classes, international schools, or just the mere trips back ‘home’ for your child to be exposed to the language and feel the need and desire to speak it. We will most likely live in English speaking environments for most of our life going forwards but I already know that no matter where we will be, a trip back to Germany/Europe once a year will be a given for our family.
8. Long term commitment: You are in it for the long haul. Be clear on that before you choose to start this journey and get excited about it! It will involve patience - a lot of patience – and do not worry if it takes longer than you expect it to take. Always remember that every child is different and although some may start talking earlier, others start walking earlier. Don’t ever view it as a competition and stay relaxed about your child’s development. And never forget to praise, praise and praise some more. You will find so much joy in it all, because after all, watching your child develop at his/her own pace is one of the most amazing things to witness in life.
9. Expectations: Set your expectations at the start that it won’t always be easy. I know we still have so much to experience and learn on our little journey of raising bilingual children, so I cannot speak for all the things that may come your way, but just know that it is ok to have hurdles along the way, like with everything in life, right? You will have times where you may doubt yourself, times where you doubt your approach, and times where you have people telling you otherwise. All of which is normal I believe. I remember after Noah was born I suddenly had a little newborn in my arms, whom 1. You don’t really know what to say to yet and 2. Doesn’t even speak back to you, and I was expected to all of a sudden speak German to this little newborn whilst I always speak English with Robin. It felt awkward and unnatural. A few months down the track it started feeling more normal, and a few holidays with my German family definitely helped. Now, a year later, it feels like the most normal thing in the world and I would quickly say that it now feels unnatural to speak English to my own child. So be patience and trust that what you are doing is right. Things will fall into place for you quicker than you think.
10. Biggest gift: And if there is one thing that you should know is certain, you will never regret it. Raising your child with more than one language is an absolute gift and your child will definitely be thanking you for it one day. So enjoy the ride, work hard at it and trust that you are doing the right thing.