Raising Bilingual (or multilingual!) Children: 6 building blocks for success (May 18)

Next parent seminar in Amsterdam coming up! If you are raising your children with more than one language (or thinking about it), come along and find out the six building blocks for a successful Family Language Plan. This seminar has been developed over a decade of working with bilingual/multilingual families and packs in theoretical background as well and practical planning. Looking forward to meeting my next group of parents!

Our host is the Jacaranda Tree Montessori, registration through this link: Raising Bilingual Children

The Perennial question – can children with SEN become bilingual?

… the real issue is not whether they should become bilingual, but how to best support them in their life with two or more languages. (E. Kay-Raining Bird)

I’ve written about the topic quite a few times over the years, because it is one that causes parents great concern. It is also a topic where misinformation is rife – one of the most common pieces of poor advice that parents get is from speech and language therapists, telling them their child is language delayed because they are bilingual. This is an incorrect presumption, but all too common. The following advice is almost always to drop a language, and of course, the language to be dropped is one of the home languages. The potential consequences for a child losing access to a language they have been exposed to all their life range from social isolation within the family to insufficient cognitive development, but they are always significant and avoidable. The article linked below is an interview with Elizabeth Kay-Raining Bird, who has been researching bilingualism in children with three different profiles: SLI (Specific Language Impairment), Down’s Syndrome, and ASD (Austism Spectrum Disorders).

The full article is on Francois Grosjean’s great blog Life as a Bilingual. 

Supporting Bilingual Children With Special Education Needs

Please, speak Cantonese to your children!

Waking up to a beautiful morning in Hong Kong!

This is a post that I wrote several months ago, and I am reposting it because I am once again in Hong Kong (Clearwater Bay School, the International Montessori School and LanguageOne HK) and I know this question will be an important one for many parents attending the Parents as Language Partners seminars. If you know someone facing this decision (for Cantonese or any other language) please share!

Obviously this applies to Cantonese-speaking parents… 🙂 but the underlying principle is the same, no matter what your home language is. I’ve been thinking about this issue since I visited Hong Kong in March, and met with many lovely parents who were all attempting to raise their children to be bilingual. So what’s wrong with that? Nothing, of course. What was wrong – if that is even the right word to choose – was that these parents were choosing *not* to speak Cantonese to their children, in favour of English. Again, what’s wrong with that? The answer is, of course, it depends. But for most of the families I met, what was wrong was that they were favouring an outside language over the language that their children need to be a part of their families, community, culture. They were making this choice for many reasons, but the ones I heard the most were to have a better chance of getting their children into an English-language school, and because English is “better” than Cantonese. In an effort to give their children the best start they could, several of these families explained to me that they had chosen to use only English (a second language for them) with their children from birth, for anywhere from 2-5 years. They had thought that Cantonese would be “easy” to add in after, and were finding that this was not the case.

So what are the issues in choosing to speak a language that is not your “mother tongue” to your children? Again, the answer varies according to circumstances (and I did this myself, so I am not adamantly against using another language with your children). But in the Hong Kong context, what is happening is a deepening divide between “high” and “low” varieties of language, with English and Mandarin in the front seat as the high varieties and Cantonese firmly in the back seat. In some of these cases the most pressing issue is the use of a non-fluent language as a parenting language. The potential issues when parents use a language that they are not fully fluent in as the main language with their children range from issues with bonding to issues of language development. Focusing on the language aspect, children need a robust and varied input to fully develop in a language, and to be exposed to a level of language that promotes on-going vocabulary and structural development as well as increasing cognitive proficiency in the language. The worst case scenario is that the children end up struggling in school because their language level and abilities are not age-appropriate due to lack of the right types of input. So in this sense, the parents choice to use English to help their children in English-language education may very well actually be working against them. Far better to arrive at school with a very well-developed home language and then build English on that strong foundation.

A second, but not secondary, issue is related to culture and identity. Children in Hong Kong also take “Chinese” in school, but rather than studying the Cantonese used all around them, they almost exclusively (in English-language schools at least) study Mandarin, which is a completely different language. So then the children are learning in and studying two foreign languages – but not their own language. In some cases, they may have enough family members speaking Cantonese to them that they can use this language too, but at least some of the families I met were in the situation of having school-aged children who had very little Cantonese. This means that the only language they can use to communicate with their extended family is English, rather than the language of their community and culture. These children are essentially third-culture kids being raised as strangers within their own culture.

So what should parents in Hong Kong, and elsewhere (this problem is not limited to Hong Kong, of course) do to give their children the best chance of being successfully bilingual and acquiring the languages that the children need and the languages that the parents want? My answer is to start at home, doing what you do best and what your children need first – your own language. Choose at least one parent to pass on the home language, and to be active in this process. If the other parent wants to use English, and is fluent enough for this to be a viable choice for a parenting language, then you can do both at home using the one-parent, one-language model. But the community language should not be sacrificed or neglected in the chase for higher status languages – the better you do your job at home with your own language, the better prepared your children will be to add other languages. The bottom line is that Cantonese children should speak Cantonese – for them, it is more important in the early years than any other language. It’s what makes them a part of their family, extended family, culture and identity. Give them this first, and then plan to add in the other languages (within reason!) that you think are important for your children too.

When Family Languages are in Conflict

A different language is a different vision of life.

  • Federico Fellini

The vast majority of families I have worked with over the years have been in agreement about the decision to raise their children as bilingual/multilingual. Usually they come to me for family language planning advice because they want to “get it right” and ensure that their children are able to use both languages of the parents, and other languages (school, community) as well. But every once in a while, I work with a family in a situation of language conflict; they can not agree on language goals or priorities for their children.

Sometimes, it’s a direct consequence of a divorce/separation which leaves the parents in disagreement about language priorities. As many things become contentious as a family dissolves, so too can bilingualism, and language choice become a serious issue. This is often the case when one parent feels that their language is “more important” than the other parent’s language, and needs to be the priority. Juggling two or more languages in a family home is often challenging, but stretching two or more languages across shared custody adds an additional level of difficulty.

I’ve also worked with intact families struggling with language issues, where one parent is not supportive of the other parent’s language choices. This is particularly hard to deal with as it also impacts the children’s views on language. It can be extremely divisive when parents do not understand or value each other’s language priorities. In these cases, it is often that one parent wants to use a dialect or minor language in place of a “more important” language, and that choice is not supported or encouraged by the partner or extended family, who feel there is no reason for the choice.

And finally, I’ve worked with families in which one parent simply does not like the language of the other, or doesn’t being “shut out” because they don’t understand the other language. This leads to pressure to shift towards monolingualism in the family, to alleviate the discomfort the monolingual parent feels when confronted with conversations they can not understand.  Again, this creates tension in the family that the children can feel, and they may often then choose to stop using the disputed language, in an attempt to “keep the peace”.

In all these cases, the red thread is generally language status. In multilingual families, there are often differing views about the status – high or low – of each language, and this is linked to the perception of usefulness. If a parent determines the usefulness of their partner’s language as being low, they are more inclined, in some cases, to consider that language a hindrance, rather than a benefit for their children and family. I see this most commonly when the father speaks a high-status or majority language, and the mother speaks a low-status or minority language, and in these cases the children very often end up losing the mother’s language, which is at the least detrimental to their bilingual potential, and at worst, detrimental to the parent-child relationship.

In all cases, when we choose to marry someone who speaks a different language than we do, and we choose to have children with them, we have a duty to support our partner in their language choices, and make a family language plan that addresses the need for each language. This means that language choice must be respected, and supported, regardless of personal opinion or personal comfort level with other languages. The language we choose to use – need to use – with our children is highly personal and strongly linked to our own backgrounds and families. Each parent must be given the opportunity to choose the language that they feel best able to parent in, and that choice should come from the heart, and not from the head, or from someone else’s judgement. This holds true as well after separation/divorce; families need to plan for the children to continue to grow in both parents’ languages, to ensure they remain connected to the part of their identity that is linked to that language/culture.

In all bilingual families, it’s important to start from a place of mutual respect and support, and the understanding that the languages of both parents are equally important for children, regardless of the immediate or eventual usefulness of the language.

Keeping the window open: why “heritage” languages are important too

I feel like I can not be half of myself.

I’ve heard variations of those words so many times over my career as a consultant, from adults all over the world, all referencing the fact that they do not speak the language of one (or both) of their parents. Many of them are children of immigrants who chose not to pass on their own “mother tongue”, because it wasn’t useful, because they were told not to, because they wanted their child to “fit in” to their new home, just… because. The adults expressing this sentiment to me come from all kinds of language backgrounds, but what they have in common is a sense of loss. For some it is a loss of potential:

“I could have been bilingual!”.

For some it is a loss of history:

“No one in our family can speak my grandmother’s language now.”.

And for some it is a loss of identity:

“When I go to my parents’ home country I am a foreigner.”.

No matter what the reasons, they all feel that they have missed out on, and are missing out on, something critical to their sense of self. As parents, we make the best choices we can for our children, and hope they were the right choices. In the case of heritage, or family, languages, it can seem too hard to keep using them with reluctant children, too much effort for no good reason. Many children go through phases (sometimes years long!) when they resist using the minority language, opting for the easier option, or the more acceptable option. Faced with resistance, even the most dedicated parents can lose their way and eventually shift to only the majority language as well.

So is it really worth it to keep using a language that your child doesn’t really need, may never use? From the voices of the now-adult children, yes, it is worth it. We can never predict where our children may want to go in their lives. Those of us raising children with complex cultural identities can not know what our children will eventually attach to, which side or facet of “self” they want to live with or live in. Choosing to not pass on a heritage language – a language that connects our children with their family, history, own story – eliminates a choice for them, and limits their ability to explore their sense of self from all angles.

So yes, it is worth it to keep using your language with your child, even when they refuse to speak it back to you. It is worth it to try and create a real or virtual community of practice so that your child can experience all of their cultural possibilities. It is worth it to do your best to keep the window open, so your child has the potential to grow up to be a speaker of that language if they choose, and to be a part of that culture.

If you are an adult who wants to speak your heritage language better, stay tuned for my next post.

If you are a parent who us trying to pass on a minority language, here are some previous posts that you may find helpful:

#IMLD: Whole-family support for (very minor) minority languages

Heritage languages: Fighting a losing battle?

“But she won’t speak *my* language…”

Please, speak Cantonese to your children!

Obviously this applies to Cantonese-speaking parents… 🙂 but the underlying principle is the same, no matter what your home language is. I’ve been thinking about this issue since I visited Hong Kong in March, and met with many lovely parents who were all attempting to raise their children to be bilingual. So what’s wrong with that? Nothing, of course. What was wrong – if that is even the right word to choose – was that these parents were choosing *not* to speak Cantonese to their children, in favour of English. Again, what’s wrong with that? The answer is, of course, it depends. But for most of the families I met, what was wrong was that they were favouring an outside language over the language that their children need to be a part of their families, community, culture. They were making this choice for many reasons, but the ones I heard the most were to have a better chance of getting their children into an English-language school, and because English is “better” than Cantonese. In an effort to give their children the best start they could, several of these families explained to me that they had chosen to use only English (a second language for them) with their children from birth, for anywhere from 2-5 years. They had thought that Cantonese would be “easy” to add in after, and were finding that this was not the case.

So what are the issues in choosing to speak a language that is not your “mother tongue” to your children? Again, the answer varies according to circumstances (and I did this myself, so I am not adamantly against using another language with your children). But in the Hong Kong context, what is happening is a deepening divide between “high” and “low” varieties of language, with English and Mandarin in the front seat as the high varieties and Cantonese firmly in the back seat. In some of these cases the most pressing issue is the use of a non-fluent language as a parenting language. The potential issues when parents use a language that they are not fully fluent in as the main language with their children range from issues with bonding to issues of language development. Focusing on the language aspect, children need a robust and varied input to fully develop in a language, and to be exposed to a level of language that promotes on-going vocabulary and structural development as well as increasing cognitive proficiency in the language. The worst case scenario is that the children end up struggling in school because their language level and abilities are not age-appropriate due to lack of the right types of input. So in this sense, the parents choice to use English to help their children in English-language education may very well actually be working against them. Far better to arrive at school with a very well-developed home language and then build English on that strong foundation.

A second, but not secondary, issue is related to culture and identity. Children in Hong Kong also take “Chinese” in school, but rather than studying the Cantonese used all around them, they almost exclusively (in English-language schools at least) study Mandarin, which is a completely different language. So then the children are learning in and studying two foreign languages – but not their own language. In some cases, they may have enough family members speaking Cantonese to them that they can use this language too, but at least some of the families I met were in the situation of having school-aged children who had very little Cantonese. This means that the only language they can use to communicate with their extended family is English, rather than the language of their community and culture. These children are essentially third-culture kids being raised as strangers within their own culture.

So what should parents in Hong Kong, and elsewhere (this problem is not limited to Hong Kong, of course) do to give their children the best chance of being successfully bilingual and acquiring the languages that the children need and the languages that the parents want? My answer is to start at home, doing what you do best and what your children need first – your own language. Choose at least one parent to pass on the home language, and to be active in this process. If the other parent wants to use English, and is fluent enough for this to be a viable choice for a parenting language, then you can do both at home using the one-parent, one-language model. But the community language should not be sacrificed or neglected in the chase for higher status languages – the better you do your job at home with your own language, the better prepared your children will be to add other languages. The bottom line is that Cantonese children should speak Cantonese – for them, it is more important in the early years than any other language. It’s what makes them a part of their family, extended family, culture and identity. Give them this first, and then plan to add in the other languages (within reason!) that you think are important for your children too.

 

 

Raising Bilingual Children: Six building blocks for success (Amsterdam)

It’s that time a year again… once the school year is up and running, parents start thinking about how things are going with their little bilingual children. I meet more parents in the Sept-Nov block than at any other time of year! I visit many schools to provide parents with an opportunity to learn more about how to help their children become successfully bilingual. For readers who have children in schools that I don’t visit (sorry!) there is an open-invitation seminar next week in Amsterdam as well.

My “Raising Bilingual Children” seminar is one of my favourites; I’ve been working on it for years, and each family I meet contributes to my understanding on bilingual/multilingual families and adds to my “book learning” and research background. I pack as much good information as possible into the 2-hour session, along with some moments of humour and time for asking questions. So if you are raising your children with two or more languages, this session will give you a solid understanding of the elements for success, and how to consider your family situation to make the best plan possible (and then how to change the plan when you need to….).

Thursday, October 15, 20:00-22:00 at the Jacaranda Tree Montessori – you can register at the link below.

Raising Bilingual Children Seminar at the Jacaranda Tree