“I have always spoken English while my wife has always spoken Finnish. Both kids are now fluent in English, Finnish and Swedish, our son is fluent in German and our daughter is fluent in French. Multilingualism is of huge benefit to kids.”
"I love being an intercultural parent. I love feeling like our home is a special place and it's exciting to see how our children feel comfortable in both cultures. One lovely memory I have is when our daughter started translating for the other parent (since she didn't realize we could understand the other language). She would have a chat with the one parent and come to a decision (e.g. what to have for breakfast) and then turn to the other parent and translate what the decision was. It was wonderful to see her switching back and forth, and also be considerate enough to make sure that everyone understood."
COUPLES IN THIS SECTION
The Bilingual Child
In a slightly unusual twist, we would like you to complete a homework assignment before you read through this theme. The reason behind this is that the exercise constitutes a questionnaire with a number of questions regarding how you understand bilingualism. This is absolutely not a test, but it is designed to see if your attitude towards bilingualism changes before and after taking part in this theme.
“At first it was frustrating when the kids refused to talk to me in my language, but I didn't give up and one day they just started to use English when talking to me.”
WHY RAISE YOUR CHILD BILINGUAL?
Bilingualism – as well as multilingualism – offers a number of different benefits and that it is one of the finest gifts you can offer your child. As well as being inherently useful, it can enrich a child’s life and allow them to develop a broader and deeper understanding of different cultures, as well as making up a large part of their identity. Language has an important role in a child’s upbringing as a parent’s mother tongue is the language of their emotions. Bilingualism creates the best possible conditions for a child´s warm and close relationship to both parents and to grandparents as well as to other family members, relatives and friends.
As a child grows, the personal and academic benefits also start to show, as being bilingual will let them study or work in different languages and countries around the world and mark them out from other people in the same field. The positive effects on the brain also have a major impact; for example, bilingualism has been linked to improved memory and cognitive ageing. Essentially, it is a gift that has no negative connotations. Your child will never blame you for raising them bilingual, but they may feel resentful towards you if you do not offer them at least a working knowledge of your language.
“We have been talking both our mother tongues to them right from the start. That is the best way. Their Finnish is, of course, a bit stronger, as the kids hear spoken Finnish elsewhere, too. Our oldest resented speaking English until the age of eight, when they started learning English in school. Now he speaks only English to his dad. Our daughter has recently, in her teen years, been speaking only Finnish to her dad. I think this is a phase that she will grow out of once she gets a bit older. Me and my husband's conversational language is English and we have noticed that the kids speak a mixture of Finnish-English when talking to each other."
WAYS TO SUPPORT THE LANGUAGE DEVELOPMENT OF YOUR CHILD
The decision to bring up a child to be bilingual is often easy to make and you could think that bilingualism is something that just happens when you just do it. It is quite common belief that children are like sponges when it comes to language learning. In fact research suggests that a child needs to be exposed to the language at least about 4 hours a day for that sponge to absorb enough. Making bilingualism work in real life takes both parents´ time, commitment, determined decisions and actions that don´t always come without a cost either. Although the best and simplest way to achieve bilingualism is said to be one-parent-one-language-strategy, where both parents speak only their own native language to their child, the fact is that everybody needs to go about it in their own way. The most successful strategy for your family depends on many facts such as the language environment where the family lives, the native languages of the parents and the majority language spoken in the surrounding society. In this theme, tips and helpful advice will be offered to help guide you along the way; the path that will be chosen by you and your partner. We will also attempt to dispel some of the myths surrounding bilingualism (see the bonus material) and find out why exactly these myths have surfaced.
Set your goal
Different couples will have different goals when it comes to their child learning the family’s second language. Before your child is born, you will need to decide if it is just enough for you and your child to communicate in that language or whether you would like the child to be more proficient and even have the possibility to study in it, for example. There is no right or wrong answer in this case and the decision has to reflect the family’s situation. Of course every parent would like their child to be as fluent in their own language as possible, but sometimes circumstances dictate that this may not be the best course of action – particularly if the language is rarely used globally or in Finland. Furthermore, placing too much emphasis on a language or stressing too much can backfire, particularly if there are not enough resources, support or opportunities in place that allow it to be learnt in a meaningful and enjoyable way. This can also lead to undesirable negative feelings related to a language involved.
Commit to your plan
The three ‘Ps’ come into play in terms of teaching your child your own language: persistence, perseverance and patience. If you speak a language other than your partner, then stick to it. Try not to let the majority language environment or your child’s reluctance to speak to you in your own language discourage you, as this is normal and happens in every bilingual family.
“It is challenging to hear your child learning another language better than your own, but learning comes and goes in a different rhythm for different languages. One language might be stronger for a period, and then after visiting the grandparents suddenly another language is dominant.”
Give lots of encouragement
This goes without saying, but is worth remembering from time to time. Encourage your child to speak in your language and praise them when they do so. Also, try to find as many situations as possible which immerse them in the language. This will encourage them to speak the language and make them less self-conscious.
Use frequent repetition
Correcting your child’s mistakes is a tricky issue, as you do not want to discourage them from speaking – and making mistakes. However, repeating what your child has said but in the correct way is a good way of protecting their feelings and introducing the right syntax.
Utilise different activities
As mentioned earlier in this theme, reading, playing games, singing and just talking a lot to your child will set the foundations of the language. However, there are other things you can do to help progress their skills, such as celebrating the holidays of both parents rather than only those associated with Finland. This will give the child an understanding of your culture and the different traditions it entails. Leading on from this, try to see if there are any cultural events linked to your language and home country. The chances are you are not the only person from your country living in Finland, so getting together with others will not only allow your child to converse in the second language but may also bring you a little slice of home.
Of course, nothing beats visiting family and friends in your home country in terms of language development. This can often be expensive and difficult to organise, but do try to make it happen whenever possible and also encourage family members to visit you. In the meantime, language courses or clubs could offer your child a different experience, as this will let them learn the language from someone other than the expat parent.
“We raise our daughter multilingual. My husband's language is unfortunately a minority so it's very challenging to keep it up and make our daughter a spontaneous speaker of the language. There are no books, movies or anything like that in his language. Luckily, there is a community of other couples and toddlers in the same situation so at least we have people around who speak his language. Now Finnish is becoming very strong but I'm happy to see that our daughter understands his language even though she seems to speak only few words at this point. But she's only two years old so I guess we have to wait and see. Consistently talking is the key. Please don't give up, whatever the other language is.”
Use different means
Use as many different and varying tools as you can to help your child learn. Books, music, stories and CDs are all fantastic ways of building up their language skills, but do utilise technology in the form of the Internet to help even further. Online games, podcasts and applications can also help and are interactive ways of developing the language. Also, speak to your family and learn riddles and rhymes you may have forgotten in order to keep the child’s mind active.
Moreover, make the effort to have an active social life that includes the children. Speaking to adults and other children in the minority language helps children to normalise the language and learn that others outside your family speak it. Try having family and friends round to your house or meet in social areas to help your children speak the language in a series of public settings.
Develop language routines
Inventing a language routine is yet another useful way of spending quality time with your child in your own language. For example, when you go to the shops or take a walk use the time to tell family stories or play games together. Your child will then look forward to these occasions, and therefore learning in their second language.
Speak your language properly
This would seem to be a fairly obvious tip but it is often difficult to speak properly at all times, especially when you are tired. However, do try your best to use full sentences and not slip into slang or dialect if at all possible. This will prevent your child from picking up bad habits. As the minority language speaker, you are the child’s main role model when it comes to the language. So, when you are using the language, and when you are talking to other adults, try to remind yourself there might be small people listening. You can also talk to your child about your life, what you see, feel, want and like, as well as sharing your thoughts – all this will help. Furthermore, you can develop your own language skills by reading and writing, which means you will be able to pass on this acquired knowledge to your child.
Have a broad range of conversational partners
By talking to a number of different people in your own language, your child will come to realise that it is spoken by people outside your family. Furthermore, children need to hear the language in a number of dialects, accents and from a wide spectrum of people – old, young, female, male, etc. As well as listening to others, exposing your child to different media formats, such as radio, television and podcasts will also aid their development and give them a rounder knowledge of the language – particularly if your accent is very strong. Placing your child in various situations and environments where your language is spoken will let them learn how adults communicate, as children are able to analyse and detect communication between same language speakers.
Make it fun
Your child will learn the language at his/her own pace, so do not push them or worry that they are not picking it up as fast as you would like. Instead, focus on how enjoyable it is to watch your child pick up different words and sentence structures and give them little incentives along the way. Each small success is a victory and one they wouldn’t have without you, so avoid unnecessary stress when dealing with this issue and focus on the positives and avoid associating negative feelings and situations with the language.
Take your language to day-care and school
Make teachers, other adults, parents and other children aware that your child is bilingual. It is important that you are active and start looking for support already before your child enters school. In Finland, you will have the opportunity to place your child into language clubs or second-language tuition when in school, either during the school day or outside school hours. As a general rule, most municipalities will offer two hours of language instruction in his/her second language per week, although not necessarily at the pupil’s own school. There is a good chance your language will be offered in language clubs by the day-care center or by some organisation, at least within the Greater Helsinki area. Even if your language is not on the list, be active and network with other families in the same situation. This will allow you to put pressure on the organisations or officials who organise this kind of activities and make decisions.