Thoughts on Raising a bi-lingual Child

The Dining Room / Friday, November 9th, 2018

Children at this age are like sponges, aren’t they!
She’ll just pick it up!
It’s so amazing how she’ll learn two languages so easily.

Comments like this or versions of it are the general reaction I get when people realise that our daughter is raised bi-lingual. People also often remark how advantageous it is to grow up with two languages or how they would love to be able to speak a second language themselves but most notable they seem to believe that learning two languages as a child takes all the effort out of the equation.

While I believe, too, that our littlest lady’s ability to speak English (or German from her dad’s point of view) will have been acquired with a lot more ease than mine, I do not for one second think that it will have happened by accident or without some effort and invested time. Because learning any language, whether from a young age or later in life, whether one or two at the same time, whether it’s your native tongue or not, never happens without effort and time. Ask all the teachers and educators who struggle every day to keep our children literate in at least one language.

What’s more, I think there is a vast difference between speaking two or more languages fluently and being truly multi-lingual and we are most certainly aiming for the latter. 

Technically I could be considered fluent in English. I’ve studied the language in one way or another since I’m ten, have lived I England for six years now and get by in everyday English life almost unnoticed as a foreigner. I can laugh at most jokes (some are just not that funny, wink), can order fish & chips like a local and even dream in English. I’d say I’m 90% English-confident.

However, those missing 10% come as clear limitations that I’ll probably never overcome. 

For example, in a room full of talking people – like a classroom, restaurant or other – I can find it difficult to concentrate and the more noise dense an environment is (e.g. the more individual conversations are going on) the more I struggle to even understand the person in front of me. When I get emotional – mostly upset or angry – I very quickly lose my words. Meaning, I’ll get to a point in a heated discussion where all I can do is stare wildly into the air, because the words to express my feelings and thoughts will have deserted me. Let me assure you, that would never happen in German! Also, occasionally particularly when I’m tired or otherwise mentally pre-occupied while trying to communicate I’ll address people in the wrong language – and I won’t even realise.

Hence why we didn’t think twice about raising our daughter in two languages. Even more so, aiming to raise her truly bi-lingual. I simply couldn’t imagine having an argument or emotional discussion with my own child and not being able to fully communicate with her. Somehow being lost in translation. There are enough communicative hurdles in the way between teenagers or toddlers and parents as it is. Our language shouldn’t be one of them. Neither do I want that for her dad, or her grandparents or aunties and uncles, for that matter.

We are, however, aware that our goal will not be reached without considerable investments from our side and in the end might still have been all in vain – some children will simply drop the language less required.
From the research we’ve read and experiences others shared with us it seems clear that whether a child will speak (not just understand) both languages equally, depends greatly on how intensely he or she is surrounded by the languages. The moment it becomes mental effort to use one language children will simply stop doing so. Researchers therefore often talk about creating language rich environments, with a clear emphasis on interaction rather than consumption, to emerge the children as much as possible in both languages.

Although our parenting is bi-lingual, with me speaking exclusively German to our littlest lady and her Dad speaking English, we are still predominantly an English household. As the spoken language between me and my favourite Englishman is English and already this has a notable influence on our daughter: At the age of two most of her self-initiated spoken language is English. She understand and repeats German very well and sometimes mixes single German words into her language but mostly she speaks English. 

Therefore our efforts lie primarily in keeping the German alive for her as much as possible in order to allow her to naturally pick it up and use it.

Below I’ve listed some of the intentional decisions we’ve made in our home and habits we try to implement to aid her bi-lingual speech development. 

Language in the Home: Our key habits for raising a bi-lingual child (baby to toddler years) 

  • Consistency in the spoken language: I speak exclusively German to her wether someone else is around or not and her dad speaks English. Occasionally we do re-enforce words and phrases in the other language but then repeat them in our native tongue straight after.
  • Openness towards her language: We are not strict about what language our littlest lady uses in response to us as we want her to be able to communicate naturally and without feelings of resentment.
  • Reading books in both languages: We have an extensive library of children’s books and whenever possible purchase or acquire books in both languages.
  • German Radio hour: I’ve searched for radio shows and podcasts to listen to throughout the day, both for children and adults, and have regular hours when I put them on. I actually have set myself alarms because otherwise I’d forget and we’d happily exist in silence.
  • German DVDs: We distinguish between watching telly (in English and what’s available on our TV) and watching German DVDs. Trying to keep them both balanced. I wouldn’t want her to miss out on English TV because there are some great shows and productions out there, also it’s sort of pop culture, isn’t it. However, the same somewhat goes for German shows – so we mix and match.
  • Regular calls with relatives and friends: We try to speak to our German relatives and friends as often as possible and even have some regular phone dates set up to ensure that she hears and speaks German with other people too. This doubles as a great opportunity to strengthen our littlest lady’s bond with her German grandparents (and other relatives) as they live so far away and don’t get to see her on a regular basis.

As our littlest lady will grow so will our approach to the language in our home. We have yet to figure out what to do once she’ll reach school-age. What we do know is that allowing her to fully engage with both of her native tongues as much as possible will be a key factor in everything we decide.

Do you raise your child bi-lingual? What habits have you implemented to keep a particular language alive in your home?

Further reads on the matter of language learning and bi-lingual children

The NY Times on raising truly bi-lingual children.

How young children learn languages.

The acquisition of language by children.

Raising bi-lingual children.

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