Multilingual Mobile Families: Thoughts on integrating the host country language

In a previous post (How important is the local language? )I discussed reasons for choosing to have your children learn the host country language. In that post, I focused mostly on general thoughts and monolingual families. In this post, I’d like to address the important, and difficult, question faced by multilingual families – Whether or not to integrate yet another language?
These are the factors that I think need to be considered:

1. How is your child doing with the languages they have already? Are they a thriving bilingual, and comfortable with all their languages (or at least with one or two)? Or are they already struggling, either with a diagnosis of some kind (speech or language delay, etc.) or just with language-acquisition fatigue?

2. How long will you be in the host country? Obviously, the longer you will be there, the greater the reason for introducing the host country language. And how many more “host countries” do you expect your child will encounter before they are adults? Although children can thrive learning many languages, not all children appreciate having another language thrown at them (rendering the one they just worked hard on obsolete) every 2-3 years.

3. How much does the “expat” population integrate with the local population? If you are living on a compound, isolated from the local community, it may be more difficult to introduce the local language in a meaningful way. If you are living in the local community, your children will have more chance to hear and practice a new language, and greater motivation.

4. How much time do you have and how much effort are you willing to make to have your children learn the language? Because it will take time, and you need a plan. I meet many families who just drop their children into local activities and expect they will “learn Dutch”. Often, they are surprised when it doesn’t work. Putting your child into Dutch swimming lessons and gymnastics classes does not ensure they will learn Dutch. Some kids may be very motivated, and very brave, and learn through attempts at communicating with local children. Many children will feel isolated and insecure and not make any effort to fit in with the Dutch-speaking children at all. They may be drawn to other non-Dutch children in the lessons, or simply be alone. Either way, it’s not likely to be a positive experience that encourages them and motivates them to learn Dutch. You may have better success with a Dutch-speaking mother’s helper, a neighbour child to play with your kids, play-based language lessons or other activities where the learning is guided.

And to reiterate a point from the previous post, if you choose, for whatever reason, not to have your children learn the local language, always be clear with them why you made this decision. At all times, uphold the status of the local language in your family language discussions, to ensure that your children do not acquire a dismissive attitude to “lesser” languages, which can be a pitfall of a mobile existence.

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