Thursday, 24 January 2013

My Little Polyglots

Piia Rossi, in her guest post, addresses many of the fears that parents of multi or bilingual children have, in her own fascinating personal account of multilingualism in her family. 

My two daughters, 6.5 and 3 years old, speak four languages each. Three of them fluently and the fourth scantily but they understand it well. The kids consider multilingualism as normal; in fact they don’t seem to pay too much attention to the fact at all.

We don’t have huge theories or philosophies behind the language acquisition of our kids. Instead we are guided by the circumstances and what we consider to be common sense. I’m from Finland and my parents don’t speak any language other than Finnish. For me it was a no-brainer that my kids would learn Finnish, as otherwise they wouldn’t be able communicate with their grandparents and relatives. The situation is exactly the same with Slovak, which is my husband’s language. To be able to communicate in Slovakia our kids need to speak the language. The necessity of language in our case is not about the language itself but how it is a vehicle to the girls’ culture and roots. It would be a shame to deny them a full access to their identities purely due to the fact that they couldn’t speak the languages.

At home, English is the main language for us, as me and my husband don’t speak each other’s languages (we are not quite as talented as our kids are)! Both kids were born in Ireland, are Irish citizens and learned English in their early years. English has established it self as the base language for us. I think we consider English as their first language. Not a mother tongue, but something similar to that. As we now live in Germany, naturally both kids speak German  and they go to school and kindergarten here. I speak Finnish to the kids varyingly, I can’t say whether it is half-half or more, I rather go with the flow than keep check on the language. This is also the case with my husband’s use of Slovak.

Now, how does this play out in everyday life in our household? We have always been extremely relaxed with the language issue; no set rules, no huge philosophies and no particular methods. I have never read a guidebook on the issue, and usually avoid any research in the field. I believe that guides and rules on this matter would restrict our natural family life too much.

However, as I meet a lot of multilingual families I am aware of the typical fears and beliefs about multilingualism. I have listed here some of the most common concerns.

  • You can only teach babies 2 languages before the age of six, otherwise they get confused.
  • You need to be systematic with the use of language. What's most important is that you don't switch between different languages as this might cause the child to be unable to differentiate between them.
  • It's not good for parents to speak broken or accented language to their kids. It's much better that the parent speaks only their native tongue.
  • It’s important to correct your kids’ mistakes.
  • Multilingual kids’ speech will be delayed. 
Our personal experience is different to the list above, and I feel that often these worries are based on us parents having grown up in monolingual cultures and therefore not having the experience of multiple languages in a family. I think its helpful to remember that being multilingual is not a modern phenomenon. In fact there are more multilingual people in the world than there are monolingual people. Millions of people have done this successfully and think nothing of it.

In this light, I will go through the list above and offer some thoughts from our experience as being a quarto lingual family. 

The first point, that babies can learn only two languages or they will get confused, is just simply not correct.  I have two kids at home that prove that children can learn multiple languages and I meet families with multilingual kids on a daily basis, no problems there. People in bilingual communities take bilingualism for granted and often mix various languages in the same sentence; this certainly happens in my family and confuses nobody else but some outsiders. However, sometimes our ‘home made’ language makes me think of James Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake, where he invented a unique polyglot-language composed of composite words from some sixty to seventy world languages.

Being systematic and not switching between languages is not a rule in our family either, and it has not proven to be a problem for us. I can’t remember a single time when my kids were confused about what language to use with which parent. This is possibly due to the fact that we don’t force any particular language; whatever comes out first is fine by us. There was a brief period of couple of months when our youngest daughter and my husband didn’t have a common language (we took this as preparation for the teenage years) but she soon acquired enough vocabulary to be able to communicate with him. Also. I have noticed that the kids very rarely talk the ‘wrong’ language to an outsider as long as they have been told that this person might not understand certain languages.

The one-parent-one-language method just didn’t work in practice for us. Firstly, it affects the naturalness of communication in the family when you constantly need to keep yourself in check what language to use. It also means that other people, the other parent included, will not understand what is being discussed between you and the child, unless you all understand all the languages spoken in the family or you translate all communication.
In regards to using a broken language, my thought is that it is better for the kids to learn some language than none at all.  

For the third point, we all have accents and the grammar might not be perfect, but its good to remember that kids don’t learn language just from their parents. They copy their friends and other contemporaries. As long as the kids have access to other speakers of the language, read a lot, and can watch programmes that they find interesting, my experience is that this widened exposure to the language lessens the impact of the non-native speaker parent. With our kids the exposure to the Slovak language is pretty much left to my husband only as we have not found a Slovak community here in Germany and this has partly resulted in Slovak being the weakest of the four languages they speak.

In our family we don’t correct the kids' language. We have chosen positive encouragement and acceptance as a method of learning. We believe that the feeling of achievement is a right for every person, and that home should be the last place where one is constantly scrutinized for such a basic thing as communication. When the language has developed to a very good standard, but there might be some persistent ‘mistakes’, we have shown the correct turn of phrase.

We were never concerned about the possible delay in speech. Based on my experience there will be lots of talking in years to come so we just enjoy the quiet times. Not that we 
 ever measured in any way when they started speaking. I understand that development is similar with speaking as it is with walking; some kids learn earlier, some later. I have noticed that there can be a bit of concern from outsiders in relation to the speech development, and my advice here would be to trust your own judgment as you have the full facts of the situation. This ‘advice’ often comes from persons who are not multilingual themselves or not used to dealing with multilingual kids. In my opinion they most often refer to the above list without any real knowledge on the matter. I have met kids who really don’t speak a word for the first few years of their life and then one day open their mouths and produce perfect sentences in multiple languages. Ours, on the other hand started babbling early, not perfectly but in large quantities.

Now, I must admit that there was a time when I did have questions regarding multiple languages, and I did ask around how to go about it. This was when my daughter started school couple of months ago. My worries were with reading and writing as I was wondering whether she should learn to read in one or two languages at the same time or would it be better to learn German first and later on transfer that to the other languages?  Well, typically my kid didn’t go on theorizing about it but went and learned Finnish and German simultaneously without our explicit encouragement or restrictions. With English it is a bit more difficult as the phonetics don’t work the same. Nevertheless based on the evidence (literally written all over the flat) I believe she is going to get English also in no time at all.

One thing I know for sure is that whatever my husband and I have thought about the multilingual issues has paid little importance here at all. My kids just went and did their own thing. My conclusion on multilingualism based on my family’s experience is that through positivity, unlimited admiration and support children find they own way suited to their person and our role is to be at awe of the little creatures.
Little Polyglots/  photo by Tervetuloa kuvauksin

No comments:

Post a Comment