Raising Multilingual Children

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Shortly before my son was born, I had attended a lecture about  multilingualism and children. The talk backed my desire to raise him bi-lingually with some practical advice.  Much of the lecture revolved around the book Raising Multilingual Children by Tracey Tokuhama-Espinosa. The book is about children’s abilities to learn languages; it is based on several cases studies of bi- or multi-lingual children (including the author’s), and backed up with considerable research.

There are some quite interesting and useful aspects to the book, including how children learn language, and how to create an environment that encourages learning. For example, the model (theory?) of “Windows of Opportunity” describes how children learn language differently at different stages of their cognitive development, and suggests that children are more receptive to learning additional languages in several phases: birth – nine months, four to seven years old, and eight years old through adulthood. Language learning takes place differently in the different stages, and so different strategies may be necessary in each one.

The book also addresses some strategies for teaching language. The most important (and practical) aspect of strategy is consistency: having parents use language consistently encourages infants to learn to separate them early, and to keep the languages from interfering with each other. One common pattern is to have each parent speak one language to the child; this is the strategy we chose, and it worked remarkably well. My son is fluent in English and in Russian, and tries to learn words for new concepts  in both languages. (He also tries to ask the same question in the other language when he doesn’t like the first answer he got!)

Finally, the book stresses the importance of motivation. For kids there is no motivation quite like wanting to communicate. This accounts for why kids don’t learn foreign languages well from tapes, why it’s possible for infants to learn multiple languages simultaneously, and why given appropriate immersion, immigrant children can pick up the dominant language quickly. My own experience supports this: as a nine year old, I spent about 4.5 months in Italy, and remember that I started absorbing the language around me, despite the fact that I wasn’t taught Italian in any organized way. I think had we stayed another few months, my second language would have been Italian.

But the book is not perfect for most people: its case studies are based solely on ex-pat or diplomatic families. It not only ignores immigrant experiences in raising multilingual children, but also even fails to acknowledge their existence. Yet there are many more immigrants struggling with these issues, and the problems facing children of immigrants are quite different than those of people living abroad. There may be greater pressure to assimilate, less experience in the dominant culture in the parents, fewer resources for supporting the language, and a variety of cultural issues.

Our challenges involve exposing the kid to enough Russian to prevent English from dominating. Since I am the only Russian speaker in our family, and my parents don’t live nearby, we hired a native Russian speaker as his nanny to help cement the language. It has helped, but probably won’t be enough, and we need to set up play dates or other socializing with other Russian-speaking families.

A complicating factor is that not everyone preserves their language in the same way, and some immigrants wind up speaking a pidgin rather than proper Russian that I would like to impart to him. Another problem is due to vocabulary: I lack exposure to the kind of Russian that’s spoken in Russia today, and it is difficult sometimes to find words for common English words such as toaster, granola bar, or convertible, words that a curious three year old wants to have. While some of this can be mitigated through books, it is surprisingly difficult to find Russian children’s books other than fairy tales.

Going to Russia is not an option for a number of reasons, and that poses additional challenges. My French, Swedish or Chinese friends take their children to the “old country” to see parents, grandparents, etc. Exposure to those cultures increases the kids’ motivation to learn the language. For us that is not possible; perhaps we need to make some trips to Brighton Beach!

It’s been an interesting and rewarding effort so far, and I expect the struggle will increase as he gets further into the English-speaking world, starts to make real friends, plays team sports, becomes a rebellious teenager, etc. I am hopeful, however, that the increasing acceptance of multilingualism in our society will make it socially much more acceptable to be different in this way that it was when I was a kid.