Friday, August 30, 2013

Growing up with more than one language

During my pregnancy we have been asked so many times how will we raise our kid, which language will he speak considering the obvious: one of us is French, the other Romanian and we both live in the Czech Republic. There are more and more people in this situation so we are not unique. Just check out this video about Third culture kids.

And so we did some research on the internet about others with similar experiences. Of course, there are not exact examples of people identical to us but nevertheless we could get some interesting tips from others. A lot of my questions were answered by this book, Growing up with Three languages by Xiao-Lei Wang.
The book tells the story of Xiao-Lei's family, she is Chinese, her husband is Swiss (speaks Swiss German and French) and they live in the USA with their 2 kids. She tracked their language development during 11 years, right from birth, their exposure to 3 languages and different cultures and races. There are some differences to our story: we are both Europeans, the cultures have some common points, so do our languages, etc. but it does offer tips on how we can support our child in developing his identity and navigate all these cultural points.

Xiao-lei says that preparation is important as well as deciding right away the languages that will be spoken and if they will be spoken just around the house or with family and friends or sporadically. So she made her research (she is a linguist), they bought books and dvds with Chinese and Swiss (or French) fairy tales and most importantly, they discussed and agreed before hand about how to raise the kids. Also, they did all they could not to neglect the written aspect of languages, the boys were encouraged to write to grand parents, leave notes in French and Chinese and even attended a private school for Chinese. (With this said, please remember that being bilingual doesn't mean having the same level in writing, speaking and reading in all the languages)

There is a great example in the book where they are all sitting at the dinner table having a normal, every day, family discussion. The kids talk to the mother in Chinese and in French to the father and themselves while the parents talk in English between each other. When they are at school or among friends, the kids will talk English but if the parents are around, they will keep addressing them in the heritage languages (ie French and Chinese). They managed it by enforcing the unwritten rule of one parent one language since the beginning and by gently steering the kids back on track.

Language mixing is always an issue. The author says we need to understand why this happens, why the child (or even us) uses a certain lets say French word when speaking Chinese. Is it because he doesn't know the Chinese equivalent, because there is no such word in Chinese or just because he wants to make a point and doesn't find the French word strong enough? There are examples of this in the book and I like how the parent corrected the boy by for example repeating the correct word in the language they were speaking.

For us it's tricky. We speak both English and French among each other, it has been like this since the beginning, this will have to be revisited because we don't really have a system. With French speakers we speak French but when there are Czechs, we tend to mix this as well. Of course I will  speak Romanian to our junior and my husband French but what about the third language? English or Czech? We will go the "one person, one language" way. This way, our kid(s) will learn French, Czech and Romanian from native speakers. As for English, there is always TV, school and the parents speaking it. Besides, it's easier for bilingual kids to learn a third language.

I think you noticed I didn't even discuss the need to learn or not the heritage languages. This is not relevant for us. Our kids will have to cultures and languages from the get go, it would be really bad parenting not to teach them about their heritage. They will live at least for a while in another foreign country, will learn about the language and culture here and will learn English because it is almost mandatory these days (good or bad? I don't know). They will have a great advantage in this melting pot of a world.

If you are on the same path as us, pick up a copy of Growing up with three languages (I bought the book for kindle), it's full of relevant anecdotes and the fact that the author is a linguist is helpful in understanding the mechanisms of language. I will read the book again pretty soon. And I will also start reading books and newspapers in Romanian to my son even from the crib, like they did. Language immersion starts early.

I am really looking forward to junior popping his head and reading him his first fairy tales. It will be a fun adventure.

1 comment:

  1. ' (With this said, please remember that being bilingual doesn't mean having the same level in writing, speaking and reading in all the languages)'
    Totally agree!

    'Language mixing is always an issue.'
    I would add 'frequency'. My Anna's hygiene vocabulary is all Romanian as I do it more often with her than my husband.

    ' Besides, it's easier for bilingual kids to learn a third language.'
    Exactly! I would say stick to the language you want your child to associate you with. Bilingual children's brain is already working harder, so a third, forth language etc will be a piece of cake. ;-)

    'They will have a great advantage in this melting pot of a world.'
    Or mosaic.


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