Double Speak: Encouraging Multilingualism in Your Child
The population of Qatar is comprised of people from over 100 countries who speak at least that many languages and dialects. Maybe you come from Germany and your husband is Venezuelan. You’ve lived in South Korea, Turkey and Singapore. Now you live in Qatar. Your kids go to an international school. The language of instruction is English, but they also study Arabic and French. Your nanny, from Sri Lanka, sings Tamil lullabies to your children.
This isn’t so unusual. Not here; not today. Your kids are exposed to a swarm of languages, and you’re happy about this. You know the benefits. Multilingualism is good for the mind. It fosters cognitive growth and flexibility. It helps us solve complex problems, it sharpens our analytical skills and it prepares us for a wider array of jobs. Multilingualism makes travelling easier and allows us to communicate with more people. It means we can read that new Swedish thriller a year before the translation comes out.
Fine, we know multilingualism is good for you, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t difficult. Au contraire! Here are ten tips to make the job a little easier.
1. Involve the family
The easiest way to learn a language is at home. We all do it, from the day we’re born, and our linguistic ability develops quickly and naturally. No tests, quizzes or homework. This is equally true if you’re brought up with two or more languages or if you’re learning a second language in addition to your mother tongue. If studying a language is central to family life, the learning curve will be steep and steady.
Get everyone involved. Grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins—the whole extended family. Language development is greatly influenced by family and community. A wider range of speakers modelling the language will lead to a more varied and sophisticated vocabulary. Grammar, syntax and style will seep into your child’s mind more readily with a broader and more diverse experience of the language.
Consider Tui Hodgson. His mother is Malaysian and his father is from New Zealand. He loves to play football with his Malaysian uncle Ishak Khan, but he only sees him once a year. Khan doesn’t speak English very well, and Hodgson doesn’t know Malay. However, when Khan visited for the winter, he played soccer with the boy every day. Hodgson’s Malay improved quickly. Afterwards, they kept in touch by email, Skype and writing letters (ask your great-grandparents what ‘letters’ are).
2. Make it fun
We accomplish the most when we’re fully committed to a task. This is most likely to happen when we enjoy an activity and see it is as having a clear purpose. Explain to your kids why you want them to be multilingual, how it will benefit them and exactly what the plan is. If you make the job fun, they’re even more likely to become fully engaged. Join playgroups and attend social events in the target language. If you’re learning Arabic, make friends with Arabic speakers and encourage your kids to do the same. If you’re studying Portuguese, attend a sporting event or listen to music in Portuguese. Focus on your children’s interests and ask them for input.
According to Steve Barnet, this made all the difference. His wife Valeria is from Argentina and his son Ian is a huge fan of Messi, the Argentinian footballer. Ian would rather be kicking the ball around than studying, but once he realised how many Spanish-language websites, magazines and TV programmes were devoted to his idol, he started hitting the books.
3. Be consistent
Making sure your kids become, and stay, proficient in two or more languages will almost certainly mean many hours of hard work. Structure and routine are necessary. True, it should be light and fun whenever possible, but there’s no way around it—you’ll have to roll up your sleeves and impose order. This is especially true if your child is studying a language that neither parent speaks fluently.
Take Rossana Soto from Peru and Lars Baek from Denmark. Her mother tongue is Spanish, but she also speaks English and Danish. His mother tongue is Danish, but he knows English and Spanish as well. Baek and Soto have three children enrolled at ACS International School in Doha. The boys, Frederik (10) and Christian (12), speak all three languages with varying degrees of fluency and study French at school. Their daughter Sofia, the youngest (5), speaks English very well. She understands Spanish and Danish, but doesn’t speak much of either one.
This sounds like a complex logic puzzle and in many respects it is. The Baeks have to grapple with the fact that they have three children of different ages, levels of education and language abilities, each of whom has particular strengths, weaknesses and preferences. One particular obstacle is that they’ve lived in England, Denmark, Peru and Qatar. Each time they move, the children’s linguistic development is disrupted because of the change in context. Sofia stopped speaking Spanish when they moved to Qatar, and Christian had similar issues when they moved from Denmark to England. Rossana is committed to having her children speak both mother tongues in addition to other languages, but admits that it can be frustrating and quite demanding. The Baeks plan to enrol their children in an online Danish programme, danes.dk, to supplement what they learn at home and school.
4. Be patient
Let’s face it, languages are notoriously difficult to master. If you want multilingual children, patience is mandatory. Your kids will struggle at times, no matter how smart they are, no matter how hard they work, no matter how energetically you guide them. If they sense your frustration or disappointment, they’re more likely to lose confidence and interest. Do push them and pursue excellence, but don’t be too aggressive or set unrealistic goals. If your son is weak in Urdu today, perhaps by next year he’ll catch up. Not everyone will progress at the same pace. The worst thing you can do is make them dread or fear the process of learning. Take an active role in teaching your child, but don’t correct every mistake. We learn language primarily by modelling what we hear. To a large extent kids will self-correct as they’re exposed to the language.
Patience extends to family members too. Don’t let them pressure you or your children if at three years old, your child isn’t reciting poetry in your mother tongue. Your child may know more than you realise but it might take them awhile to openly share their language skills.
Despite the difficulties, multilingualism is far from impossible. According to Chris Charleson, Head of School at International School of London-Qatar, “Children learning two or more languages go through the same developmental stages as children learning one language... While bilingual children may start talking slightly later than monolingual children, they still begin to speak within the normal range.”
That’s good news. Professor Fred Genesee of McGill University agrees. He says that bilingual children will progress just as quickly as monolinguals if they “divide their learning time equally between their two languages.” So, a child can learn multiple languages just as quickly as she can learn one—if she uses them equally.
5. Don’t get discouraged
Be prepared for the fact that you can’t prepare for everything. Problems will sneak up on you. Marta Sayed was having trouble with her son Ali. He grew up speaking Arabic with his father, English with a variety of people, and Hindi and Malayalam with his nanny. When Ali was four, Sayed—from Hungary—wanted him to learn Magyar, her native language. He picked up the language quickly, but after a few months started throwing tantrums. Ali was afraid that, to learn Magyar, he would have to give up one of his other languages. She assured him this wasn’t the case, comforted him and kept speaking to him in her native language. For a few weeks he would only respond in English or Arabic, but eventually he started speaking Magyar. Sayed realises that she waited too long to begin teaching Ali, but also knows that she did the right thing by not giving up.
6. Start right away
The earlier you begin a language, the easier it is and the more likely you are to gain fluency. Start from day one. Or even earlier. Some mothers speak to their almost-borns in each of the target languages.
Get organised from the outset. When your kids are old enough to be begin formal instruction—school, private lessons, language school—stick to the programme, don’t vary it too often or without notice. This will make them feel more secure and comfortable. You’re asking a lot of your child, so demand even more of yourself.
7. Répétez s’il vous plaît!
According to Marc Chrisman—an ESL instructor with 20 years experience in the Middle East, Far East and Russia—the three most important factors in language learning are repetition, repetition and repetition. Nothing sinks in the first time. When we’re exposed to new things, our minds need time to process and organise the information. Language is part of this. Your kids may not get it right away, but over time and with repetition they will be able to access and use the relevant information, so don’t get discouraged.
Another issue is context. Our minds don’t always respond to the same stimuli in the same manner. Your daughter might study the passé composé in French class, but that doesn’t mean she understands it, at least not initially. Verb tenses can be tricky, for anyone. If you repeat the information at home—perhaps using a different tone or style, with different examples or at a different time of day—your daughter might get it. Maybe hanging out with French friends will do the trick. A teaching method or exercise that works well for your son might not work for your daughter. Use as many resources as possible in order to immerse your child in the language. Consider joining a French club, going to a French restaurant, or reading a French magazine. Visit France or another francophone country. Language must be lived, not just studied. If you want your child to become truly multilingual, make language an ongoing, vital and compelling part of your life.
8. Use the media
They call it the ‘Idiot Box’, but watching TV doesn’t have to rot your brain. It’s important to approach a language from many different angles, to maximise the number and type of linguistic elements (words, styles, syntaxes, content areas, etc.) the learner will experience. TV is a natural polyglot. There are programmes in a wide variety of languages that cater to different interests and age groups.
Don’t limit yourself to TV. The internet, magazines, radio, even video games can be useful sources of language instruction—and your children might find them more attractive than books and tutors. You don’t want to build a curriculum around TV and video games, but they can be a great supplement. Consider the experience of Tom Greaves, an English professor who teaches native Arabic speakers. A few years ago Abby Mohammed was in his class, a bright, outgoing Syrian who spoke perfect English with an American accent. He asked if she’d grown-up in the U.S. or if one of her parents was American. “No,” she said, “I just watch a lot of soap operas.” Well, it may not be what the experts recommend, but it works. What’s remarkable about the Abbys of the world isn’t that they’ve mastered the structure or underlying theory of a language, but that they speak it like natives.
9. Maintain a balance
The experts agree that, if you want to become multilingual, balance is crucial. This means reading, writing, speaking and listening in equal measure. It also means devoting the same number of hours to each language—even, or perhaps especially, if your child is fighting against a particular language. For example, if your daughter is a native German-speaker who’s having trouble with English, don’t allow her to use German as a crutch. Keep speaking to her in English. Pay attention to the specific needs of your child, but don’t pander to their weakness or pet peeves. Keep the work fun and light, when necessary, but never take an extended break from any particular language.
10. Dangle the carrot
A little baksheesh goes a long way. Don’t be afraid to reward your child for hard work, dedication and results. Whether you call it ‘incentive’ or good old-fashioned ‘bribery’, it generally works quite well. It’s encouraging and effective to set a goal, work toward it and know there’s something waiting for you at the end. Isn’t that what motivates you to go to work in the morning? Or do you expect nothing more than a pat on the back and a hearty round of applause?
Life in a multilingual home can be chaotic. You might be learning one or more of the languages along with your children. The nanny might correct your Tagalog pronunciation. You might stumble over a phrase or mix up your languages. Your children undoubtedly will do the same. Dinnertime will be Babel of languages and cultures. But don’t worry. Shrug off those tense and exasperating moments—you’ll get through them. Valeria Barnet was having an especially difficult week when, on a long car drive, her son Ian said, “I love being trilingual.” After years of hard work, this was incredibly gratifying to hear. Better yet was how Ian actually said it, “J’aime speaking tres lenguas.” This isn’t perfect English, Spanish or French, but it’s perfect multilingualism.
Andrew Madigan taught Creative Writing and English Literature for universities in the U.A.E., Japan, Korea and the U.S. He was also editor in chief of a magazine in Al Ain. He is now a freelance writer/editor. His first novel, Khawla's Wall, was published in 2014.