Regina Quinn

Supporting Multilingualism in the Family

Sorry for keeping you waiting for so long, and thanks for being so patient with me. I am finally coming to this topic after all that time.

It took me a little while myself to come to terms with how I feel about speaking German with my children when we were in English-speaking company. It can feel a bit like whispering, which is regarded as highly impolite in company. After all, you might be talking about someone who is present. How would they know?

Then I read an article about bilingual families, which said that speaking a different language with your children than with everybody else should in fact not be seen as impolite as it is connected with educating children, which is of great importance and should never be undermined. It wouldn’t be unrealistic either to think that the people who are close to you, like friends, in-laws, neighbours, etc., are not likely to think you are exchanging impolite comments about them in a language they don’t understand, unless you do that in English as a habit, which would render all other consideration of politeness obsolete. People who know you also know your usual level of politeness and should have no reason to believe that when you change languages, you change in character, too. Keep in mind that how you speak also conveys a lot about the mood of what you are saying, even if the words are not intelligible to others. As long as you don’t point fingers and snigger, there is no reason for anyone to be offended.

After letting this way of thinking settle for a bit, I started to feel much more comfortable speaking German with my children in public. What I also found helpful in making myself and everyone else comfortable with me speaking two different languages in company is to translate what I said in German for whoever is with us. Most of the time it is enough to give a summary or even just the topic of what we are saying, just to keep the other person or people involved and give them the chance to take part in the conversation. Often conversations develop that we can continue in both languages without anyone feeling left out. It is important, however, that every time you address your children, you address them in your language and speak the other language (English in my case) when addressing the other people in your company. That way you are avoiding confusion in your children about what language they are expected to speak.

Another note on the sidelines. My children are three and seven years old now and are speaking German fluently, maybe with a slightly outlandish grammar at times, but they are also speaking German to each other. When their teachers or other people hear them speak German who are not used to it, they always comment on how lovely it is to hear them speak German. So really there is no reason to feel self-conscious about it. For the kids this is a completely subconscious process. It would have never been possible if I had spoken English to them in certain contexts. While children are extremely clever in terms of language acquisition, they do not have the mechanism that we adults have to consciously swap between languages depending on the situation. They can only connect a language to a person, not to a situation, so don’t overestimate them in this way. Be the person that speaks your mother tongue to them and who expects them to speak it back to you.

So be a proud speaker of your mother tongue, whatever it may be, and pass your pride on to the next generation. Good luck!

I stopped speaking my mother tongue to my children when they started answering me back in English. I would feel really silly speaking my mother tongue to them now. How can I do it?

I can empathise with that. I felt quite silly, too, speaking German to my children when they were too small to talk back. It didn’t bother me as much when I was on my own with them, but in public I felt like I was leading really pointless, one-sided conversations, a bit like talking to myself really. I’m sure it feels the same if your children are older and talking back to you in English.

The thing is, though, that if you are serious about your children becoming fluent in your language, you will have to maximise their exposure to the language. Even though the question sounds different from the one in my last post, the answer is pretty much the same. I hope you’re not too disappointed. In principle, raising children with two or more languages is quite simple. The difficulties are in the practical part, in the day-to-day details, as you probably noticed. So considering the simple part is to maximise exposure to the language, what follows is that you are probably the most important person to make sure that happens. Speaking your language to your children consistently is vital.

I can hear you asking “Yes, but how can I do it?” Well, at the moment, you are probably very used to speaking English with your children, just like they are used to speaking it back to you. To change your children’s habit, you have to change your own habit first. Even though it seems difficult, is is easier for you than your kids, as you know why you want to do it. So remember your reasons and your motivation when you find it tough. These techniques might help you: (You might remember some of these points from my previous post.)

  • (Re-)Immerse yourself in your language. Read books and/or magazines, watch TV programmes or listen to radio stations in your language. Ring an old friend from your country for a chat. Meet other people from your country where you live, if that’s possible.
  • Immerse yourself in your language together with your children. Read children’s books, watch kids TV programmes and listen to kids stories together. YouTube and other websites are great resources, you might look out for websites that allow downloads of audio files. Listen to nursery rhymes and songs on CD’s and sing together. Don’t worry if you’re not the world’s best singer, it’s not about perfection.
  • Once the two of you get used to the sound of the language and it becomes a more regular feature in your household, it won’t feel as odd to use the language in other contexts and conversations as well.
  • Find other parents from your country and meet them and their children for play afternoons. It’s a great opportunity to exchange ideas and it might be easier for someone else to start talking to your children in your first language. Again, this will help the two of you get used to the language featuring in your day-to-day lives.
  • Don’t be disheartened if it feels like you’re talking to yourself while you are leading two-language conversations. The more you get used to speaking the language, the more your kids will get used to hearing it. Don’t be disappointed, if they don’t start to speak it immediately. It might take a while. But be patient. If you are consistent, they will eventually get the point, in a good way.

If you start to feel less odd about speaking, but not being answered, in your language, start to encourage your children to use the language in conversations with you.

  • Repeat what they are saying in English in your mother tongue. Keep translating everything they say to you or other speakers of your language.
  • If they try, but get stuck on words that they don’t know, give them the words, but don’t finish their whole sentences for them. Let their brains work out as much as they can themselves.
  • Don’t correct them too much at first. Let them try it out for themselves. But do help them by making suggestions if it sounds too odd or if they’re unsure how to say something. Remember that monolingual children go through the same learning process.
  • If they start mixing the languages, repeat the words they say in English in your language, if they don’t know them. If they do know them, try to prompt them by giving them the first letter(s) or syllable(s).
  • When my daughter temporarily started mixing English words into her German sentences, I often just asked her, completely innocently, about that part of the sentence. For example, she might have said that she put a plate on the table and used the English word for ‘plate’ or ‘table’. I would ask her “Sorry, what did you put on the table?” Or “Where did you put the plate again?” This works if the child knows the words and is young and innocent enough to not find it patronising. Not everybody might find that this trick suits their style, but it worked for me, and still does from time to time.
  • Give them lots of praise for trying, even if they get stuck, or their grammar is all over the place, etc. This happens to monolingual language learners, too.
  • Be patient if it takes them a little longer in the beginning. It might be a bit of an effort for a while until it becomes more natural for them. Also, it’s not just the language department of the brain that needs to adjust, it is also the muscles in the mouth and throat that need to learn new “tricks” to form new sounds.

I hope you found these few tips helpful and wish you every success in re-starting your mother tongue with your children.

I am so used to speaking English with everyone that I would find it hard to switch to my mother tongue when speaking to my children.

This is probably a common problem among people living outside their home country. The longer you live there, the more you get used to speaking the country’s (most common) language. It may have been a foreign language to you in the beginning, but after a while you realise, not without a measure of pride, that you speak it as fluently as your mother tongue. You may have lost or kept your accent, but you are fluent. Congratulations, this is a great achievement. Is it possible that you feel, however subconsciously, that the next step is to teach your child that language, that took you some amount of effort and time to master, so that he or she won’t have that problem? Or do you feel it is unmistakable prove that you have mastered your new language so well, you can now teach it to your child?

Both is quite understandable, if that’s the case. Just don’t forget that there is still another language that would give your child the opportunity to communicate with your family and all the other benefits listed in one of my earlier posts. Plus, you probably don’t want your child to struggle with your mother tongue as if it was a foreign language. So if you are committed, you will have to switch to your mother tongue when speaking with your children, even if you find it difficult now.

To make it easier for yourself, try to put yourself into the right frame of mind. Start by occupying yourself with material in your language. Read a book, newspapers or magazines, listen to a radio station or look at TV programmes in your language. A satellite dish often helps, as your children will also get the benefit of the language through the TV. If you don’t have one, try to find programmes on the internet. YouTube is a great source, but make sure you don’t leave your kids unsupervised with the internet. But to put yourself in the right mode for re-learning to use your language, these media should be helpful. Especially if you look at or listen to children’s programmes and read books or stories together with your children, you will get into the other-language mode together. Then the book, TV or computer can do the language-switching for you and you just have to stay with it after.

I would like to emphasise that I am not a great fan of children spending too much time in front of the TV or computer, but if the media are used in a reasonable and constructive way, they can be incredibly valuable. For the German-speaking moms and dads, try I’m sure there are equivalents in other languages, too. The site offers mp3 downloads of stories, folk tales and even books. Most downloads are free. They can be listened to on the computer, and mp3 player or an ipod, for example. Amazon offers a vast range of books, CDs and DVDs in all kinds of languages that you and your children can enjoy together. If you are consistent, you will soon feel more comfortable using your language. It might take some patience, but if you feel comfortable, your children will follow eventually.

If you read my previous post, you may or may not have decided to speak your own mother tongue to your child exclusively. No longer mixing languages should mean no longer speaking English to your child. Maybe you haven’t yet made the decision because you are worried about how your child’s English is going to progress then.

My objective is to encourage you to make the switch to your mother tongue. It is a lot less scary than it might seem at first sight. All you need to do is trust the other people in your children’s life, who speak English to them. So here is some reading on the question you might ask yourself.

Will my children still learn enough English if I stop speaking it to them?

The answer is yes, they will. If your partner speaks English to them, there is nothing to worry about. But even if he doesn’t, your children will learn English as soon as they enter day care. In modern Ireland, most children go to Montessori classes from the time they are three and a half or four years old. Even if they haven’t spoken English up until then, they will pick it up in very little time. If they are in day care before that age and/or full time, that’s even less worry about their English for you.

How can I be so sure? For one, because I have a daughter who learned English through no input of mine whatsoever, and a son, who is doing the same thing. My daughter had been in day care from the time she was one year old and I went back to work. From that time on, all my efforts went into teaching her German, the English just happened. My son is only two and therefore not talking as much as his sister, but even though he is not in day care, he is learning English from his dad and basically everyone else in his life who speaks English.

I used to also notice this phenomenon in my home town in Germany. In the aftermath of the political and social upheaval of 1989, it was decided to re-settle the descendants of Jewish families that had fled Germany during the Second World War back to Germany. The Russian-speaking descendants of these families were given temporary accommodation in my home town and their children entered the local schools. While the families continued to speak Russian at home, (often the parents and grandparents didn’t speak any German for a long time,) the children started to speak German with the local accent in no time. Within weeks the way they spoke was no different from the local children.

If you start adding up the people in your children’s life who speak English and compare this number to the number of people who speak your mother tongue, you will probably find that the English-speaking list is longer. If you then consider the amount of time each of these people has contact with your kids, which is the most important factor, you will know how much of the time your kids are exposed to each language. (Do the same exercise for any other languages that matter to your family.)

The key to effective language acquisition is maximum exposure. In terms of your children learning English though, this shouldn’t be a problem, if they are living in an English-speaking country. So what I’m trying to tell you is that your child’s exposure to the English language is likely to be more than sufficient, with or without you speaking it to them.

In fact, depending on their age, your children have probably mastered a fair amount of English already. Listen to them speaking it. Does their accent sound like the local one or more like your foreign one? No disrespect, there is nothing wrong with foreign accents, but this tells you where they learned their English. Don’t be too disappointed; your task is a much bigger one: passing your mother tongue on to your children, so that it becomes their mother tongue, too. Especially if you are the mother. And in doing this, you are passing on much more than just a language.

Will my child get confused if I speak a different language to him than other people?

That will depend on how consistent you are speaking the one language to your child. Confusion is likely to occur if people start mixing languages, for example mom or dad addresses the child in one language now and in another language the next moment. I accept that you might choose to speak one language one moment and another language the next moment for a reason, like now you are alone with your child and later someone else is with you who might not understand your language. Therefore you switch to English.

Just remember that your child will not be able to follow that logic very well, if at all. The younger they are and the less fluent they are in the minority language, the more they will be confused by your switching languages.

To avoid confusion, you have to stick to a pattern of languages being spoken at home. Agree it with your partner first, so that everybody is in it. It takes both parents’ commitment. The pattern could be, for example, mom speaks one language, dad the other. Or it could be that both parents speak the minority language at home. Whatever you decide, at the risk of repeating myself, stick to the pattern you agreed. This is the only way to get your child to connect a person to a language and to automate the process of addressing and responding to someone in a certain language. Speaking languages is much like a habit, so it needs to be set up first and then cultivated.

I realise that it might be difficult for you to switch to speaking one language to your child all the time, when you might be used to speaking English to your child most or much of the time. After all, you are probably also in a habit there. However, as you are the adult, only you can start the process. It will probably be easier if the child is younger, but I would encourage you to give it a try, even if your child is already a bit older and maybe in school. It really is worth a try, because when they grow up, they will thank you for it.

Not speaking English to your child any more might fill you with apprehension for other reasons, I’m quite aware of that. It might raise questions like: Will my child still learn English well enough? And will other people think I’m being impolite speaking a language they don’t understand? These are valid questions and I will start answering them in my next post. For now, I hope I could give you some motivation and wish you success in negotiating the language setup of your family with your partner.

If you randomly stop people in the street and ask them whether they would raise their children with two languages if their partner’s language was different from their own, most of them would probably say yes. And some of them quite vehemently. But when the time comes, it suddenly seems a lot more difficult than anticipated. After all, children pick up their parents’ languages automatically, don’t they? It’s no effort for them, right?

Well, it’s true that under the right conditions, learning two languages is no more difficult than learning one for a child. The bad news is that the effort is required on the parents’ part. In fact, it will always be more difficult for one parent than the other. This is because one parent (or sometimes both parents) are speaking a language that is not commonly spoken in their surroundings.

Children are clever. If mum and dad both speak English, and everyone else speaks English, then why should they bother speaking anything else? In my previous post I tried to explain that the parent that speaks the minority language should be speaking it to the child(ren) all the time to ensure consistency.It’s the guarantee for success. However, I also realise that this is the point most parents find most difficult in their day-to-day reality. There might be various reasons for this. Please find below a list of possible reasons, which I collected by talking to parents in that situation.

  • I am afraid that my child will get confused if I speak a different language than my partner/than the teacher speaks in school/…
  • I am afraid that my child won’t pick up enough English if he/she learns my language as well.
  • I am so used to speaking English now that I would find it hard to switch.
  • I stopped speaking my language to my child when he/she started answering me in English.
  • I am finding it hard to switch between languages in conversations with both my partner and my child.
  • My partner doesn’t understand the language I should be speaking with our children.
  • I do speak my language to my child some of the time, but it doesn’t seem to have had much effect. Anyway, he/she understands the language, he/she just doesn’t speak it.
  • I feel impolite or uncomfortable speaking my language when I’m in English-speaking company.

Does any of this sound familiar? I recognise that these are all valid concerns and as they are quite complex, I would like to deal with each of them individually to give you some encouragement to follow through on your child’s second language. Please read on for some advice on how to deal with the problem of whether a child will get confused by different languages being spoken around him or her.

Also, if you have any other concerns that I have not listed here, please don’t hesitate to let me know.

How was your experience learning a foreign language? How many did you learn? How well do you speak them today? Which ones did you pick up easily and which ones did you find difficult? Did it have anything to do with how they were taught to you?

What many people might not realise is that the mechanism in your brain that allows you to learn languages is the same for your mother tongue as it is for other languages.  Many people also feel that learning a second or third language must be more difficult than it was to learn their first language. That is because the first language is usually acquired in a more intuitive way from birth on, while other languages are usually added later in life. By then we have established a certain way of studying, which we apply to learning new languages as well. If you have ever taken a language course in the country where the language is spoken, you might have noticed how easy it was to progress in the language during a relatively short period of time. This is likely because you were surrounded by the language all the time, ie. in your host family and school and in your spare time which you spent with other language students.

Our children go through a period during which they are particularly receptive to language acquisition. This period is from birth to about three years of age. During this time, they are hard-wired to pick up as much language as possible. This can be one, two or more languages. There is no limit, at least not a cognitive one. The limit may be more on the time available. A child needs to be immersed in a language for at least 30% of their waking time to learn it effectively.

What I’m trying to say here is that, if you want your child to learn your language effectively, you need to surround him or her with it for as much time as possible. And you need to start as early as possible. And don’t worry if your child is older than three. Remember your language study trip? You were quite likely older than three when you went, and you still managed to pick up a language in a very natural way.

Also, you don’t need to wait until your child has mastered the English language before introducing another one. It is best to keep both languages on the same level as much as possible, because if one language becomes an effort, the child might actually give up. So what do you do if your child speaks English pretty well and is used to speaking English with you? Is it too much of an effortfor either of you to switch to the other language? Your child is clever. He or she has probably figured out that most people speak English, including you, so there really is no point in speaking anything else. Except for the reasons you know.

The advice I would like to give you is: Do speak your language with your child ALL THE TIME. Make him or her answer you in your language, too, if you can. I promise you that you will see the benefits. How long that will take depends on the age of the child, the younger they are, the sooner you will see, or hear, the effects.

I realise that you might have a lot of reservations or actually feel quite self-conscious about speaking another language with your child than the one you are used to speaking with him/her. So please come back here for some encouragement in the next post. In the meantime, please see below some more theoretical background on learning languages.

  • A child needs to be exposed to a language for at least 30% of their waking time to learn it effectively.
  • Research also suggests that there is no limit on the number of languages a child can acquire simultaneously. The limit may be on time, rather than on the cognitive ability.
  • The time before a child’s third birthday is the best time to introduce him/her to new languages as the child’s brain during this time is hard-wired to acquire as much language as possible. So the earlier you start, the better. However, there is no proof that a child can’t learn a new language after that time. Any time is good, so don’t delay.
  • The most important thing is consistency. The best and probably the only way to make sure the child learns his/her languages effectively and doesn’t confuse them is to agree on who speaks what language and stick to it ALWAYS. For example dad speaks English and mom speaks French. Or, better still, the minority language is spoken by everybody at home and the child learns English outside the home, i.e. in school, in day care, etc. Speaking a language is a bit like a habit. If you are used to speaking one language with one person, it becomes a natural process and won’t be questioned. However, if the same person speaks one language now and the next moment another, then the child can’t learn what language is spoken when. This is in fact the reason why many children understand but don’t speak the minority language. They don’t know when to speak it, and as mom or dad speaks and understands English anyway, there is no need to bother with the minority language.
  • Don’t worry about not teaching your child English. If they go to school, they are exposed to English well over 30% of their waking time. Listen to their accent. Does it sound more like your foreign accent [no offence] or more like the local accent? That tells you where they learned their English. You not speaking English to them, even you and your partner not speaking English to them won’t make any difference to them picking up English. I promise.

Here I want to give you a brief overview of how you can expect your child to benefit from growing up with more than one language. If your child already speaks two or more languages, you might recognise some of the points listed below.

  • Research has shown that the ability to speak more than one language from childhood is likely to give the child a cognitive advantage over a monolingual child as it enables the child to understand and distinguish different concepts more readily. They are likely to progress faster academically, not just linguistically.
  • Bilingual children are likely to make faster progress in reading and writing.
  • They will find it easier to pick up a third, fourth, etc. language.
  • They will be able to communicate with the part of the family in the mom’s or dad’s home country, i.e. grandad, grandma, etc. who may already find it difficult not to be a consistent part of the child’s upbringing. A letter or video message from the grandchild can make a granny’s or grandad’s whole week.
  • It gives them the option to study or work in mom or dad’s home country and widen their horizon by getting to know life in a different country. This will also happen during visits in the country, when the child is more independent through being able to communicate without mam or dad as an interpreter.
  • It gives them the opportunity to access information, literature, TV programmes, etc. from another country without the need of censoring and translation.
  • It gives mom or dad the opportunity to share their favourite childhood books, cartoons, etc. with their child, which is really what every parent wants to do.
  • Nothing is more effective in giving them a true sense of their heritage and culture. Think of the literature, folk songs and folk tales that make your culture what it is and give your child access to it, too.

You might even have noticed your child benefitting in other ways than the ones listed here. Please stop by again for some advice on how to overcome the most common difficulties experienced by parents who are raising bilingual children.

For parents who want to engage their German-speaking children in short exercises once they have started to read and write, please have a look at the following suggestions.

Match words to pictures: Bilderrätsel 2 Bilderrätsel 1

Short story for reading: Der Regentag

and the same text with gaps to fill in: Der Regentag-Lueckentext

Use these two documents together to help your child fill in the gaps.

Simple crossword: Verbenraetsel

I hope you find these exercises helpful. Keep checking for new ones.