“I want booze!” “I want booze!” “I waaaant the boooooze!” screamed my 2 year old in the middle of Starbucks that fateful day when I sunk to a new low in my journey as a multilingual parent.
The lady behind me in the queue tapped my shoulder to ask with a half amused/half concerned look “Is your daughter asking you for booze?” Trying hard to stay as calm as possible under the circumstance, I replied “Yes, well she’s actually asking for watermelon in my native language. You see watermelon in Urdu is called ‘tarbooze’, except she can’t pronounce the word completely so she calls it ‘booze’.”
Oh the not-so-silent judgement and looks I got that day! Hashtag: parentingfail
To her credit my 2 year old was finally happy with a big cup of fresh fruit with lots of ‘booze’ (a.k.a watermelon) in it. The lady gave me a wry smile.
I learnt 2 important lessons that day:
- It’s dangerous when your child mixes two languages to make a request which sounds absurd in one language and extremely concerning in another.
- This was probably going to be the first of many hilarious stories I’d accumulate as a parent trying to raise multilingual kids.
But before I get ahead of myself, let me rewind a bit and tell you how I got to this point in my life.
Once upon a time there were two bilingual people who met and fell in love. They got married; they travelled the world and eventually started a family. They had two kids and decided to speak in their native languages to them and pass on their rich cultural heritage. This is where things got tricky…how could they pass on all 4 languages to their children? To further add to the language complexity, this couple were eternal expats; constantly moving from 1 country to the next, being exposed to more and more foreign languages, and living away from grandparents, family and friends. The couple turned to reading lots of literature and researched many articles on multilingualism but found the writings mostly concentrated on raising bilingual kids, not trilingual or even multilingual. So, they decided to come up with their own way of raising multilingual kids – mostly through tweaking 1 established language model to suit their specific needs and a whole lot of trial and error in between.
Welcome to our world! Those of you who know Martino and me, know how passionate we are about teaching our kids our native languages. What most people don’t know is that this is probably one of the toughest challenges of parenting that we face almost every single day. Before I go on to talk about some of the challenges and joys of raising multilingual kids and what I have learnt in this journey so far, it’s important to provide some context on our respective backgrounds and languages.
OUR LINGUISTIC BACKGROUNDS:
I am a native bilingual speaker of Urdu and English. When we lived in New York in the mid 80’s, my South Asian parents spoke Urdu at home to me and my sister, and we spoke English outside with teachers, friends, neighbours etc. (minority language at home, majority language outside). When we later moved back to Pakistan, I attended an English medium private school where I studied everything – Maths, Science, Biology in English. Growing up in Pakistan meant constantly mixing English and Urdu and borrowing words from 1 language and inserting it into the other, sometimes even mid-sentence. This constant switching back and forth will explain my number one struggle in raising multilingual kids – staying consistent in 1 language.
My husband also grew up bilingually, to a German mother and an Italian father who raised him in Germany. The language rule he grew up with was simple – speak one language with one parent, also known as the popular One Parent, One Language (OPOL) model. So he grew up speaking German with his mom and Italian with his dad. To this day, when sitting with both parents at the dining table, he will turn to his mother and say something in German. If his father says something, he will turn to him and reply automatically in Italian.
My husband and I met in the U.K while studying together at university. This meant that from day 1 we were used to speaking in English with one another. In the early years leading up to our marriage and soon after, we made the effort to try and learn each other’s languages. I learnt German and he learnt Urdu. We did this specifically so that we when we did have children one day, we could understand what the other was saying to them. I also understand a lot of spoken Italian although I have never formally studied it. When in doubt, I gesture wildly with my hands to make myself be understood – the Italian way 🙂
OUR LANGUAGE FRAMEWORK AS PARENTS:
When it came time to deciding which language(s) to speak with our children, we faced a tough decision. Given the success of the OPOL (One Parent, One Language) model around the world – we decided this would be our basic language philosophy. We both struggled with which language to choose though. I decided on Urdu; it is my mother tongue and definitely easier to learn it as a native speaker than later on in life. I also knew I’d most likely be raising my kids outside of Pakistan, so it was important for me that they understand the language to help maintain their ties to this part of their identity. I figured they would learn English in school anyway regardless of where we lived.
My husband really struggled with his decision; in the end he choose German which is quite literally his mother tongue. Since his parents also live in Germany, he thought it would be helpful if the kids could understand and speak German and feel at home during our visits back to his home country. In addition, since my German is better than my Italian, it made sense that he speak a language with the kids that I could understand too.
At the time of writing this, our 2 kids Mina is 3.5 years old and Mikail is 1 year old. So, our language model at home looks like this:
|Martino to Kids (and vice versa)||German|
|Me to Kids (and vice versa)||Urdu|
|Martino to Me (and vice versa)||English|
|Mina (age 3.5 yrs.) to Mikail (age 1 yr.)||Still developing but predominantly English|
|Secondary language exposure||Italian (Italian grandfather & Italian family), Chinese (school in Singapore) and Arabic (school and community in Dubai)|
Outside the home, our daughter Mina has been used to speaking Chinese and English initially, when we lived in Singapore. She spoke many words in Chinese until the age of 2.5 years old and could sing proper nursery rhymes in Chinese too. Since moving to Dubai however, her languages at school are Arabic and English. Her knowledge of Arabic already is amazing, she knows many words, songs and can count easily in Arabic too.
You might be wondering what happened to Italian? Well, the kid’s Italian grandfather speaks Italian with them. We wish we all lived closer so the kids could hear Italian from him and the rest of our big Italian side of the family more often, but it is already surprising to see how Mina picks up Italian very quickly and knows all the toddler essential words in Italian like “parco giochi”(playground) and “ciocolatini” (chocolate). We think both kids will probably have a passive knowledge of Italian and we hope they may choose to learn it more thoroughly perhaps later in life or school to stay close to their Italian roots. Our last name Ottimofiore (pronounced: Otti-mo-fio-ray) is Italian and we are a very Italian household when it comes to many things, especially food, so it would be a shame to lose this very beautiful language from our point of view.
THE CHALLENGES OF RAISING MULTILINGUAL KIDS:
- Speech Delays: All speech therapists will tell you that if your child is being raised bilingually or with more languages, it is common to expect some speech delays. This is true. What I’d like to stress is that this is very normal; so as a parent there is no need to worry or think you are ‘burdening’ your child with too many languages. It is quite common for a multilingual child to reach certain linguistic milestones, 6 months later than a monolingual child for instance. For example a multilingual child has to learn the word ‘dog’ in not just one, but 2 or 3 different languages which can take a longer time.
- Mixing 2 or more Languages: The first time my daughter mixed Urdu and German (a funny combination indeed!), I got extremely worried. I worried if we were confusing her. As it turns out, we were not. It’s perfectly normal for a child to mix 2 or even more languages they are learning. It doesn’t mean they are getting confused, it just means they are slowly building up their vocabulary and they might pick and choose words that they know in one language and use them while communicating in another.
- Kids Choose the Path of Least Resistance: Be prepared for it and have a strategy for dealing with it, together with your spouse. It’s natural for kids to choose the path of least resistance, but as parents, it’s equally important to be firm and stand your ground. We faced a huge surge in rebellion once Mina turned 3 and realized “wait a minute, Mama and Papa you both speak English, so why can’t I speak English with you?” Martino’s response: “Either you speak German with me, or you don’t speak with me at all.” This may sound harsh, but there is no room for negotiation on this one. He further explained to her that he comes from Germany, so he speaks German and he would like her to speak in German with him. She now goes around telling her classmates proudly at school “My Papa is German, and we speak German together.”
- Consistency vs Practicality: It’s very important to stay consistent in speaking one language, but as I have learned certain social situations, call for practicality over consistency. When Mina’s friend came over for her birthday party and gave her a birthday gift, I turned to Mina and said in English “Say thank you for your lovely present!” Had I said this in Urdu to Mina, of course she would’ve understood but the other child and the parent of this child would not, so as part of social etiquette, it is necessary to speak the majority language sometimes, such as in this scenario. I thought this would confuse my child, but as it turns out, she can now read social cues pretty well and knows exactly who to speak with in which language and when.
THE JOYS OF RAISING MULTILINGUAL KIDS:
- Being able to communicate easily with friends and family back home: An amazing thing happened on our last trip to Germany. After a week with family and friends there, Mina came to me and said thoughtfully one day “Mama, everyone here speaks like Papa”. It took me a minute to realize what she meant; she was referring to her observation that everyone in Germany was speaking German, just like her Papa. This was a wonderful discovery for her and she was mighty pleased at being able to understand what friends and family were saying to her. Understanding German cartoons was of course the icing on the cake!
- Being able to have a “secret” language depending on where we are: This is probably the best and most fun aspect of raising multilingual kids and of belonging to a multilingual family. With so many languages to choose from, we try to make it fun for the kids – in front of Italian relatives we may rejoice in speaking Urdu or in Dubai (where we currently live), our secret language is usually German.
- Multilingual kids are easily exposed to different cultures: They are used to variety, they are used to people sounding differently, and expressing themselves differently. Multilingualism has helped our children make sense of the world and learn about the latest new country we have moved to. Mina understands that she’s learning Arabic in school because she’s living in Dubai and it’s the official language of the United Arab Emirates.
- It’s a big gift and advantage in today’s world: Cognitively, being able to speak many languages is a gift because it’s much easier to pick up other languages later in life. Numerous studies show that multilingualism keeps the brain young and agile and reduces risks of developing dementia and Alzheimer’s later in life. In today’s global, interconnected age, being multilingual is a strong advantage. For our 3rd culture expat kids, it’s become a great way to instill a sense of identity in them as well, and teach them where they come from.
I hope you have enjoyed reading about our multilingual family and the struggles and joys that are part and parcel of this process. For anyone else in the same shoes or considering how to make multilingualism work for them, I conclude with:
MY TOP TIPS ON RAISING MULTILINGUAL KIDS:
- Clearly define your language system and how you will make it work for you.
- Clearly define your language goals – do you want your child to demonstrate an active knowledge (be able to speak and respond in a certain language) or passive knowledge (be limited to understanding a language but not speak actively in it)?
- Reach out to as many multilingual families as possible and find out what works for them. Sharing experiences can really help you on this journey.
- Don’t be too hard on yourself or your kids – it’s important to have fun in this process.
- Each child is different, you may need to adjust your expectations and re-think strategy.
- Reach out for support from family, grandparents and friends. Ask them to speak in their native tongue to your children.
- Simple things like having dinner together as a family at the table can help a lot in reinforcing languages, or reading in your native language while doing the bedtime routine.
- Perseverance, perseverance, perseverance – you’ll be tempted to give up so many times, maybe even several times in one day, there will be rebellions, confusion, and set-backs, but it’s important to take it all with a bit of humor and follow through. It might take a while but perseverance will pay off.
Are you raising bilingual or multilingual kids? I would love to hear what works for you and your family! Feel free to leave me a comment below.