Raising children bi-/multilingually is a very personal decision – one my family has never regretted and a lifestyle we enjoy profusely! True, it is not always a walk in the park and, together with school, childcare, work, family and household, etc., can be a very overwhelming and challenging task, but it sure is worth it! And just like us, bi-/multilingual families all over the world are faced with a myriad of decisions about their children’s linguistic upbringing, which are not always apparent or easy. Rather the opposite – they can be mind-boggling and confusing, but with the right road map, tailored to your family’s unique situation, you can easily navigate the ebbs and flows of your own bi-/multilingual universe.
Language and its development is one of the central topics in parenting and how families allocate and manage language(s) within their own environment can have profound implications not only on the child(ren)’s educational and cognitive development but on their well-being as well. For example, what if your child speaks multiple languages but none of them to the extent appropriate for their age? That might pose an issue to their cognitive development. The topic of language is also deeply affective, one that permeates every aspect of family life and could influence its balance and harmony. Therefore, creating a setting that would encourage and cultivate your child(ren)’s bi-/multilingual development, satisfying the concrete language needs of the family, is of paramount importance.
Children first encounter language at home, where the acquisition process begins. But when faced with two or more family languages, different from the societal and school language, whether planned or not, things start to get more complicated. We all have different visions, aspirations and expectations for our children, but the one question that keeps popping up, regardless of the situation at hand and the combination of languages, is ‘How to best approach and manage it all?’ –How many languages is too many? Will all the languages only confuse my child? Do I only need to use one and the same language all the time? Do I necessarily have to speak my first language to my child and what other options do I have? What to do if we move to a new country and how to manage any new languages added to our repertoire? How to make the most appropriate school choice? How to make sure my child(ren) sustain(s) my home language? … An endless storm of questions swirling about and it could be very demanding. After all, every parent wants to make the best decisions and pave their child(ren)’s way to success – to help them succeed in school and become the best version of themselves that they can be. Some parents prefer to approach bi-/multilingual childrearing more casually and expect that children are ‘sponges’, able to magically absorb it all somehow. Potentially possible but highly improbable! When we do not have a family language plan we run the risk of jeopardising our child(ren)’s linguistic development. Issues might arise along the way and they almost always do. Bi-/multilingualism is indeed a true gift we can give our children and by planning for it and creating a language management strategy that would enhance family interactions and immensely support child language development we can be proactive and take concrete steps to ensure its success.
Parents are the architects of their family language plan and even if it might seem fairly straightforward to some, crafting one does need careful consideration. The most appropriate way to plan for success is choosing a strategy that would fit your unique family needs and ensure that you have the people in your immediate environment on board. But how to best approach it?
- Sit down and think about your goals. Then plan how you can achieve them. Consider, for example, where the input for each language would come from, how you can address literacy, which school(s) would work best, what after-school activities you would aim for, etc. If you are raising a bi-/multilingual family abroad without extended family or a close-knit community of home-language speakers and/or suitable resources, you need to be able to rely on your language strategy and plan on how to source materials.
- Besides having actionable strategies at hand, you need to educate yourself about various aspects of bi-/multilingual development and childrearing because even the most well-thought-out plan would find its nay-sayers – to be fair, usually well-intentioned but often ill-informed people, who will try to convince you to do things differently.
- Remember that a language plan is not set in stone. It is a dynamic strategy that adapts to your changing family environment and requirements – moving to a different country or your children growing up, for example. Every stage of life brings about new language demands and we need to stay open and flexible to fulfil them.
- Having family discussions every step of the way is crucial. If you want to ensure your language strategy’s success, include your children in these discussions, provide them with reasons why they need to do certain things, when sacrificing some of their free time, and give them an opportunity to voice their opinions and concerns. Stay open and flexible, truly listen and try to compromise as much as possible. This will also strengthen the family bond and will enhance your child(ren)’s socio-emotional development.
Ultimately, your child(ren)’s well-being and happiness are the most important factors you would need to plan your strategy and decisions around. Whether you decide to focus on two or three languages, which school or after-school activities you choose, etc., if your child is not happy with the decisions, they would need to be re-considered and re-evaluated. Their bi-/multilingualism should not be a source of misery, but rather – one of joy and enrichment. Once you’ve found solutions everyone is pleased with, stay consistent but flexible. There are multiple ways to approach that process and there is no right or wrong one, regardless of popular opinion. What matters is – what is important for Your family every step of the way.
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