In my previous post, I discussed the situation of bilingual families, in which the choice raise children with two languages, and the two languages to choose, is dictated by the languages in question. I’ve spent the last few days in London, which is truly a multilingual city. Parents are speaking with children in a plethora of languages and then seamlessly switching to English to talk to people around them. The mix of accents and languages here is truly impressive.
But what to do if you are a family with only one language, and you would like to raise your children to be bilingual? For expats such as myself, the choice of second languages can be as easy as choosing the language of the country you are living in at the time. Thus, I know many families in the Netherlands who are raising their children with Dutch as a second language – a new generation of English-Dutch, Italian-Dutch, German-Dutch and so on…
Parents frequently ask me “How long is long enough?” when they are only staying temporarily. Generally speaking, how long you need to stay to make the language worthwhile for your child depends on the age of the child. For children under school age, even exposing them to a new language for a short stay (1-3 years) is beneficial. For older children, the decision needs to be weighed against their educational needs and their motivation to learn a second language. Whatever situation applies, when making the decision for non-familial bilingualism, it is important to plan what your objectives are and how you are going to get there.
For many families, bilingualism is determined by having two parents with different L1s. It is always the right choice to raise children speaking the languages of both parents/families. I sometimes meet adults who were raised as monolinguals, with one of their parents choosing *not* to speak their L1 with them. And I can say that every one of these adults I have met has expressed regret about not being bilingual, and sometimes even greater regret at not feeling a part of the culture of one of their parents. This usually happens with immigrants – they feel that their children need the majority language (usually English) rather than a heritage language, and raise their children accordingly. Sometimes, the value in a language is not only in being able to speak it with others, but to use it as a door into a culture. When we live apart from one of our cultures, the easiest access we have to that part of our identity is through the written word, or through traveling to meet family. Without the language to do that, people can be left feeling isolated from a part of their own identity. So the easy answer, for bilingual families, is that the children should be raised bilingual, speaking the languages of both the parents. The usual paradigm for this is called “One parent, one language” (OPOL) and it is one of the most successful paradigms for non-societal bilingualism. If you have raised your children this way, I’d love to hear about challenges and wow moments along the way!
In much of the Western (especially English-speaking) world, bilingualism is still a bit of a novelty – I’ve often been asked why we are raising our children to speak two (now three) languages. But in reality, far more of the world’s population is bilingual than not. Estimates range from 60-75%, but no matter the exact number, bilinguals are definitely in the majority. So why are so many people bilingual? In much of the world, bilingualism is a way of life – one language at home, one language in the greater community, and often a global (or colonial) language on top of that. In Africa and India, for example, it would be harder to find a someone who speaks only one language than to find a bilingual. However, for people who do not live in a bilingual culture, why seek out bilingualism? For us (that is me and my husband who lets me have my way in all matters of language), the benefits of bilingualism are simply so unique that I couldn’t imagine making any other choice for my kids.
As an adult, I’ve lived in four countries, and learned two new languages. It’s not been easy, and it isn’t always pretty (to listen to!). By raising my children with more than one language, and the possibility of the transference of language ability to other languages they may choose to learn, I am hoping to open doors for them, and open their minds to other cultures.
For those who cheerfully signed up to follow me in July and then nothing happened… I want to offer my mea culpa. I’m not sure what prompted me to start a blog the very day my three children began their summer holidays, but it obviously didn’t work. Now they are back in school, and I am back writing, and intending to post weekly, on Mondays. Please bear with me as I drag my Luddite-self kicking and screaming into the world of high-technology!
I’ve just finished writing an article on maintaining Mother Tongue (for a new publication called The Underground, out in The Hague in November) and it started me thinking about the sometimes sticky topic of Mother Tongue. This is a subject that comes up often in the question period of my seminars. Historically, of course, Mother Tongue was the language spoken by the mother, and was likely to be the child’s strongest language. In the world of language research now, this term has been replaced with the more objective L1 (Language 1) and L2 (and L3, and so on…). So, what constitutes an L1? For those of us who were raised as monolinguals, L1 is the language we have heard since birth. For those who were raised as bilinguals, the term L1 actually applies to *both* of the languages heard from birth (or, arguably, from very young). For these lucky people, L2 designates any language learned later in life. It seems counter-intuitive to refer to two languages as “L1″, but in fact, this is a dual-L1, and in old-speak we would say that these people have a double Mother-Tongue. This is an important point to remember for discussions on maintenance and promotion of L1, which I will come to in later posts.