I’m going hors-piste this week (notice the code-switching…) to address something that came up in a seminar I gave this weekend. After I finished my mini-talk, a participant came up to me to tell me that she hadn’t considered that raising her child with four languages could be difficult.
A statistic that I often cite is that 60-75% of the world’s population is bilingual. I then go on to talk about why families need to plan for successful bilingualism. These two points seem incompatible – if so much of the world’s population is succesfully bilingual, why I am telling people that it is hard enough to do properly that they need an official plan?
The answer is found in the contrasting situations between most bilingual populations and parents who attend my talks. The areas of the world that have the highest numbers of bilinguals are areas where they practice societal bilingualism. This means that the whole community is bilingual, and in the same way. So, in Kenya, most children are raised with one family language, Swahili, which is the greater local language, and often also with English (as a post-Colonial language). When the whole community is doing the same thing, children get enough exposure to all of the languages involved, without any need for “planning” by the parents.
Living in the Netherlands, within a large international community, I tend to see a lot of families that are raising their children with two European languages, or one European language and one other. The bottom line is that if you are a Ukrainian – Italian couple living in the Netherlands, there is a good chance that you don’t have a Ukrainian-Italian-Dutch community around you. Therefore, the responsibility to provide enough of each language to allow for successful bilingualism is a greater challenge.
This is why I encourage all families who are raising bilingual children outside of their communities of practice to have a Family Language Plan. If you think about your current situation and make plans for contingencies such as moving, you have a better chance at providing the long-term support you child needs to be successfully bilingual.
Is it “hard” to raise a successful bilingual this way? Some families do it more easily than others, some languages are easier support. Families dealing with a need for three or more languages, or families who move often, need to think carefully about what their language priorities are and how they will reach those goals. This gives their children the best chance for success on their bilingual journey.