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My Personal Experience Raising Multilingual Children

Updated on April 12, 2019
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Wendy is a Psychologist graduated in Scotland. She also studied Communication Sciences in Peru. Currently a Spanish teacher in France.

Raising Multilingual Children

As a mother of two multilingual children I have had many questions and doubts from the day I decided to bring up my children in a multilingual environment. Today 14 years after we started our multilingual challenge I am here to share my experience with those who want to engage on bringing up multilingual children.

In England We Speak English

Once the plane lands in England, they stop speaking French (except to each other) and their English language "activates" itself.
Once the plane lands in England, they stop speaking French (except to each other) and their English language "activates" itself. | Source

Definitions Of Bilingualism And Multilingualism

First of all, let be clear about the terms I use here:

  • Bilingualism is the ability to use two languages to communicate,
  • Multilingualism is the ability to use more than three languages to communicate.

Who Is Bilingual?

When people hear the term bilingual many imagine an individual who speaks two languages perfectly. However, bilingual and multilingual children do not necessarily have the same abilities in all languages. It is very rare that someone attains a high level in speaking, understanding, reading and writing in two languages. Most of the time, a bilingual person will have different abilities developed for different languages.

Some bilinguals have very high levels of proficiency in both languages in written and oral modes. Others display varying proficiencies in comprehension and/or speaking skills depending on the immediate area of experience in which they are called upon to use their two languages. I can see my son aged 11 is very proficient in speaking and understanding English (the language he speaks with his dad and his dad’s family), but his abilities are less developed for writing and reading in English. If you hear him speaking you could say that his mother tongue is English, but in fact, he has adopted French as his mother tongue.

It is rare to find a bilingual person with exactly the same abilities and command of the language in two or more languages.

A bilingual or multilingual person will have different abilities developed for different languages.

Labelling Bilingual Children

Personally, I do not agree with labelling children. I do believe that every person is different, but for the sake of research, there are different labels applied to multilingual children. For example, researchers concerned about the age of acquisition of bilingualism, like to talk about:

  1. Early bilinguals, subdivided into:
  • Simultaneous bilinguals, those who acquired two languages simultaneously as a first language or,
  • Sequential bilinguals, those who acquired the second language (L2) after the first language (L1) was acquired.

2. Late bilinguals

From the above, I can say that my two children are Early Simultaneous Bilingual for English and Spanish and also Sequential Multilingual for French.

What Does It Mean Being An Early Simultaneous Bilingual Child?

It means acquiring two languages as a first language at the same time. For example, my two children were born in Spain where they were exposed simultaneously to English (from his Scottish father and family) and to Spanish from my side. They both learnt English and Spanish at the same time.

Learning Two Languages Simultaneously

Born In Spain Learning Spanish And English Simultaneously

The development of my children’s first vocabulary was slow, but it incorporated words in both languages, English and Spanish. Even more amazing –for us- was the fact that very soon they understood that there were two ways to communicate in the family, either “mommy’s way” or “daddy’s way”. As parents, we used to communicate each in their own language to our children; we read stories, sang and played each one using their own mother tongue. As a result, our children understood without any extra effort that each object could have 2 names: one in English and another in Spanish.

Later on, once our children started joining different words to construct phrases they also evolved very quickly. They seemed to learn the syntax (the rules to combine and make phrases) on their own like any other monolingual child. As we were living in Spain at the time, and they were exposed to more Spanish than English, from age two I started taking my daughter to a Native-English playgroup, along with her newborn brother.

This is how when we left Spain, my boy aged 11 months and my daughter 3 years old they were already in their own “precarious way” bilingual. I say that they were bilingual because although they did not have a large vocabulary they understood both languages and reacted accordingly when spoken in English or Spanish. Even more important, they had the awareness that there were two ways to communicate with the world.

Going From Bilingualism To Multilingualism

After we left Spain, we travelled for a while. The Dominican Republic, Scotland and the whole of Italy to finally settle in France. During all those long months, we each continued speaking English and Spanish to our children.

Living In France With A Peruvian Mother And A Scottish Father

When we finally settled in France we decided to send both children to the local nursery school. I must say that I didn’t speak any French at all at the time while my husband had some school French. During this time, we each continued communicating in our home in English and Spanish while the children started learning their first words in French.

After four months in France, we decided to send our daughter to the Ecole Maternelle, for children aged 2 ½ to 5 years old. Her French was very basic when she started but in only a few weeks she showed great progress. By the end of the school year, she was complimented on her level of French. In only a few months, she was at the same level as her native French-speakers classmates.

Our boy’s progress at the nursery (for children aged 6 months to 3 years) was also amazing. Very quick he was even speaking better than some of his classmates who were sent either to the speech therapist or to special correcting lessons after nursery hours.

During our first years in France, our children continued talking to us in English or Spanish until our French became “acceptable” for them. Once they understood that we could follow their French they decided to speak only French despite our best efforts to keep our other languages alive.

The worst enemy for your child’s bilingualism is YOUR Bilingualism

The Instability of Bilingualism. Why do Children Decide to Speak Only One Language

Once our children became fluent in French –the community language- there was a big shift in language in our little bilingual family. As researchers point out, the biggest enemy for a child’s bilingualism is his own parents’ bilingualism. This is because as soon as they understand that their parents understand the community language –in our case French- they also understand that there is no need to make any special effort to speak several languages at home.

Bilingual children are evolving all the time, not only due to natural development but also because the needs to use a second or third language vary. For example, for my children, when we moved to France, French became their main language as their surroundings changed. Spanish and English became unnecessary for them so they decided to put them aside.

Embracing The French Language And Turning Their Backs To English And Spanish

Once the children learnt the community language: French, they adopted it as their mother tongue
Once the children learnt the community language: French, they adopted it as their mother tongue | Source
When the children understood that they could speak French to us because we understood it, they simply decided to turn their backs to Spanish and English.  There was not way to make them speak either language with us.
When the children understood that they could speak French to us because we understood it, they simply decided to turn their backs to Spanish and English. There was not way to make them speak either language with us. | Source

Losing A Mother Tongue Refusing To Speak Spanish And English

I must confess that these were times of despair for me. I thought that all my efforts to pass on my language and my cultural heritage to my children were lost. Their dad was not as worried as I was as he knew that sooner or later the children were going to be obliged to learn English at school.

During these years, I continued talking in Spanish at home but the children always answered back in French. It was only when I said to them that I didn’t understand that they would try to translate what they said, but most of the time they just got exasperated at me not understanding their French.

During these years, I also had to face the criticism of monolingual parents who thought that speaking to my children in Spanish and English at home was not good for them.

Recovering A Lost Language

It was only the year that I sent the children alone to spend the summer with my mother in Spain that they actually spoke Spanish again. My parents only speak Spanish and English and they do not understand French, so being in Spain alone with my parents for the whole summer, the children were obliged to communicate either in Spanish or English.

After two months in Spain, when I went to pick them up to bring them back to France I accidentally heard my boy speaking fluent Spanish with his Spanish cousins and new friends. I was at almost in tears at the beauty of it. I couldn’t believe how quick and how good he was in Spanish. My daughter too had recovered her Spanish.

Encouraged by this new development in their language, we went to spend more time in England with the hope that their English too would come back, and it did.

However, even abroad the children continued speaking between themselves in French and every time we returned to France they also “forgot” their other languages and went to speak French only.

My Daughter Celebrating Her Birthday In Spain With Her Cousins, Recovering Some Of Her Forgotten Spanish Roots

An immersion holiday in Spain brought back the Spanish language and after 2 months my 2 children were again speaking in Spanish, playing around with other Spanish speaking children
An immersion holiday in Spain brought back the Spanish language and after 2 months my 2 children were again speaking in Spanish, playing around with other Spanish speaking children | Source

How Did my Children Managed to Separate their Languages?

It was only after a trip to England that things became clearer for me. We were in the plane, just landed in England when I heard my son speaking fluent English with the English lady next to him. Once more I was astonished to hear him so clear and fluent in English. When I asked him how come he was speaking in English all of a sudden, he answered: “We are in England mom, in England we speak English”. It was so obvious!

Learning A Fourth And A Fifth Language

At age 11 my daughter started secondary school (College in France) and she voluntarily chose to take German as a second language. Her reasoning was that she already knew Spanish –she is very proficient in speaking, reading and writing in Spanish- so she would get bored doing Spanish at college. To top it up she also chose to do Latin because she had loved Italy and the Italian language during our long trips to that country.

Learning German proved to be very easy for my girl. She also seems to be very good in Latin and last year during a trip to Italy she even managed to communicate in basic Italian.

Bilingual Children Multilingual Teenagers

Today my daughter is 14 years old and she is on her 4th year of College. She has excellent marks in French, English, German and Latin. Although she doesn’t do Spanish at school, her Spanish skills have also improved as she speaks more and more often Spanish with me and my family. She sees her languages as an advantage and she uses them as often as she can. In the future she is planning to set proficiency exams for English and German so she can get some official accreditation that she is fluent in both of them.

As for my son, he is 11 and this is his first year at college. I still “battling” with him so he speaks Spanish to me and English to his dad, but it is all relative. I don’t want to force him to speak a “foreign” language. For him, French is his native language. His spoken English and Spanish are very good and although his written abilities in both languages are less developed, he can read in both of them. He is less interested in languages. For him a language just serves one purpose: communicate with others. Beyond understanding others and making himself understood he is not very interested in developing other language skills. But he can still say that is Multilingual.

The Future Is Promising For Multilingual Children

The Future Is Promising For Multilingual Children
The Future Is Promising For Multilingual Children | Source

Monolinguism, Bilingualism And Multilingualism

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This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2015 Wendy Iturrizaga


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