Tag Archives: bilingual family

Is Speaking the ‘Other Parent’s’ Language Important For Multilingual Parenting?

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Do the parents speak each other’s native language?

Does the answer have anything to do with the child’s multilingual development? If yes, how?

sunrise lightI recently reflected on this question a lot.

In many multilingual families with whom I have had the fortune to meet/converse/engage either in person or through the facebook group, the dilemma often arises when one parent doesn’t speak/understand the other language that the other parent wants to cultivate within their child/ren.

Not speaking the language of the ‘other parent’ very often becomes a key challenge in maintaining/developing the particular language in the child.

Take Family G as an example. Mum L speaks Cantonese to child T, and dad D speaks Italian to T, but L & D do not speak each other’s native tongue and they speak English with each other. Imagine the family dinner – whenever there is Cantonese or Italian involved between one parent and T, the other parent inevitably feels a bit left out, no matter how hard they try to be patient for things to be translated. It takes extreme commitment and discipline NOT to switch everything into English just to ‘make things easy’.

I recently became particularly aware that just how lucky my family is, linguistically, in that my husband and I speak each other’s heritage language (French, Mandarin), and we both also speak English. It is the best possible scenario in raising a trilingual child, or any multilingual family, in my humble opinion. It means that I can speak Mandarin with Nina without worrying that Nicolas feels left out, and he can continue the family conversation simply by continuing/switching to French knowing that everyone else understands.

So my feeling and my experience tells me that the success rate of multilingual parenting is positively proportional to the level of all languages used in the household by both parents.

There is no research, however, that backs this up. I have spoken with a few professionals, and tried my good old friend named google, but nothing really came up.

So I want to throw this out to the readers of this blog. Could you tell me:

From your experience, is speaking the other parent’s language important for brining up multilingual children? leave a comment here, or on the facebook group.

Thanks – I am really curious about what you have to say.

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Dilemma on Reading

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maclaryWe have books for Nina in all three languages that she’s growing up with. So far, Nicolas and I stick to OPOL (One Parent One Language) quite religiously, which also applies to the book reading time. It means that when I read a book with Nina I read in Chinese, and when Nicolas reads a book with Nina he reads in French.

So here is the dilemma. When we read a book that’s not written in ‘our language’ basically what we do is speaking ‘our language’ (by live translating or simply improvising) while looking at the written language of the book. One of Nina’s favorite books at the moment is ‘Hairy MacLary from Donaldson’s Dairy’, a picture book in English about the little hairy black dog Maclary going out and about running into other dogs. It’s a beautiful book both in drawing and in text. The text rhymes, but of course it rhymes in English only! So when I read – meaning Speaking by half translating half improvising the story in Chinese – the rhyme is totally gone!

While it serves the purpose – from linguistic point of view – on providing Chinese language input in this case, it loses the beauty of its original language (in English in this case).

So I wonder if there are times, such as reading books, when it’s better to just follow the language that the book is written in?

<update on Oct 19th>

I shared my dilemma with ‘Raising Multilingual Children’ group on facebook, and got some fantastic insights from the members there! It’s relieving to read that I am certainly not the only person with the dilemma – there are many others out there facing the similar challenge and come up with their own solution with trials and errors. A more popular practice through these comments is to eventually read the book in  the language that the book is written in. However there is one practice that I particularly like, which is to make sure at least certain amount of time every day (20 minutes in that case) to read the ‘minority language’ books. I like this practice because: 1) it ensures the quantity of the exposure of the minority language (in reading/speaking/hearing)  on regular basis; 2) it respects all the languages that the books are written in, hence ensures the quality of exposure of all languages by helping the children to build the connection between the written form and the spoken form of these languages.

So I decided to give a try this morning – not live translating non-Chinese books into Chinese, and read only Chinese books in Chinese. Nina picked up one of her favorite French books (Tchoupi Part En Vacances), and came sitting next to me signaling me to read the book to her. I have read this book many times with her in Chinese, but this time I started to read … in FRENCH! After I read the first phrase or so, I saw Nina literally turning her head from the book to me, looking at me … puzzled/surprised. Did she realize that I was not using the ‘normal’ language? Did she notice something different? Was she saying ‘why are you reading this book like papa’?

It’s absolutely fascinating to see how much a child at her age (merely 21 months, who has only less than 2 dozens of vocabularies) is aware of what’s going on around her, from linguistic perspective. She knows what mama is talking about in which language, and picks up immediately when mama starts to do things differently. They are exquisite observers, which make them the most exquisite learners.

Now what’s left to do is to make sure we build a good collection of books in Chinese and French (the more difficult ones being in Australia), and read English books in English.

A Few Books on Bi/multi-lingualism

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These are a few books I’ve read/found so far. Will continue to update the list as and when I found more. Some are directly linked to bi/multi-lingual subject, some are indrectly so.

The list below is in no particular order.

A Parents’ and Teachers’ Guide to Bilingualism. by Colin Baker.

This book is easy to read and can be used as some sort of practical guide book, as it’s structed in a Question and Answer format. All questions (there are hundreds of them!) are categorized into 6 groups:

A: Family questions (such as: ‘My childern can speak town languages. How can I help them to belong to two cultures?’)

B: Language Development questions (such as: Will my child become equally fluent in two languages?’, or ‘Will learning a second language interfere with development in the first language?’ or even more relevant to me ‘Is it sensible to raise my child in three languages?’)

C: Questions about problems (such as ‘Will bilingualism have any adverse effect on my child’s friendships and social development’, or ‘My child mixes the two languages. What should I do?’)

D: Reading and Writing questions (such as ‘Should my child learn to read in one language first?’, or ‘How should I help my child to read and write in both languages?’)

E: Education questions (such as ‘Should my child go to a bilingual school?’)

F: Concluding questions (such as ‘Are monolinguals more common than bilinguals in the world?’)

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7 Steps to Raising a Bilingual Child. by Maomi Steiner, M.D., with Susan L. Hayes

This is a ‘dummy for’ type of book. The author claims there are just 7 steps to follow, although I personally would rather take some useful tips out of all these steps, instead of necessarily actually following the steps. And also, this is a very US-centred book with lots of reference and discussion that is US only, so at times I feel slightly left out.

Anyway, the 7 steps are:

Step 1: building the foundation for your child’s bilingualism

Step 2: making it happen: defining your goals

Step 3: becoming a bilingual coach

Step 4: creating your bilingual action plan

Step 5: leaping over predictable obstacles

Step 6: the ‘Two Rs’: Reading and Writing in two languages

Step 7: adapting to school: the bilingual child goes to school

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Le Defi des Enfants Bilingues – Grandir et vivre en parlant plusieurs langues. by Barbara Abdelilah-Bauer.

This is one of the first books that I read on the subject. There is a good balance of academic discussion (such as simultaneous bilingualism and consecutive bilingualism) and many case studies. The only downside is that this book is in French only, as far as I’m aware of, so you will have to be able to read in French to start with … The index of the book shows:

1. Les mecanismes du langage

2. devenir bilingue

3. de la naissance a 3 ans, le bilinguisme precoce simultane

4. le bilinguisme precoce consecutif, de 3 a 6 ans

5. le bilinguisme tardif

6. de la difficulte d’etre bilingue

7. l’education d’un enfant bilingue au quotidien

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Bilingual – Life and Reality. by Francois Grosjean

I haven’t actually read the book yet, so will reserve my comments to a later time.

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How Language Works. by David Crystal

This book is not necessarily a book on bilingualism, but as a general tour through the world of language. On its cover it says ‘It ranges over everything from how children learn to read to what makes words rude or polite, from eyebrow flashes to whistling languages. Unlocking the secrets of communication in an accessible, entertaining way, this exhilarating book sheds light on the endless mysteries of the language we speak, write and read every day. ‘

So it’s an interesting read on languages itself.

It does have a chapter on ‘Multilingualism’ that discusses how multilingualism works and how we cope with many languages. It also makes you reflect on how any human being – not just a child but as an adult – cope with more than one languages, as we do often these days.

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to be continued …

Two Stories

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I happened to sit next to Jason and Gary over a dinner table on Hamilton Island, and I heard their respective stories about raising kids in bilingual families.

Story #1:

Jason, a new-zealander, lives in Tokyo (where he has been living for the last 20 years) with his Japanese wife. They have been speaking Japanese to their now 10-year-old child even since she was born (in Tokyo). In recent years, Jason started to speak English to her, and she can understand quite a lot. However every time when she doesn’t understand a word or a sentence in English, she gets really grumpy, to the extent that she starts to resent spearking English at all.

Jason and his wife have been considering to send their daughter to an international school in Tokyo so that English becomes one major language in the school. However the girl doesn’t want to go at all. Jason couple are even thinking of moving to Singapore so that their daughter will have no choice but getting on with English.

When he heard our plan is for me to speak Mandarin with our girl, my husband French, and let the kid deal with English when she has to, Jason said ‘That’s a great plan. The best thing you can do to your child’.

Story #2:

Gary, a Chinese-Australian who grew up in Melbourne moved to HK with his Polish-English wife 5 years ago. Their first son was born 3.5 years ago in HK and the whole family speak English. The boy just started to attend kindergarden recently, where the kids are taught in both Cantonese and Mandarin. While the boy picks up both Cantonese and Mandarin quite quickly, he sometimes mixes up the two. For example when he counts, he would start 1, 2, 3 in Mandarin, then 4, 5, 6 in Cantonese.

Which Language to Speak In a Bilingual Couple

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In a bilingual couple, you tend to stick to the language you used when you first met.

At least, this is the theory I have to explain why between Nicolas and I French continues to be our daily language, although I think English would have been a more fair ground, and probably makes more sense now that we live in Aussieland, an English speaking country.

We met in France, at a time when I had lived in the country for about two years and my spoken French really picked up after working for a local French company for almost 6 months. Our first interaction was in a French-speaking party, and we naturally went on conversation in French afterwards as well –  although he did impress me with his Chinese particularly during a karaok soiree in one of our first hang-outs.

As I said, my spoken French picked up, but at the time it was far from fluent. One of my first and best French friends I met outside of school and work, Thierry, still recalls that during our phone conversation at the beginning he really struggled to understand me and make me understood. The feeling was mutual, monsieur ! But I sort of hanged on to it, thanks to my friends as well as a few of my VERY patient colleagues at the time, who at times had to slow down, repeat, and explain what I didn’t understand and tried to find the correct words/expression for what they guessed what I wanted to say. Thank goodness, we never switched to English as a result of frustration.

Neither did Nicolas and I switch to English. During the first two years when our relationship blossomed, my French did too. Not only was I working in a French speaking environment, but also I was woven into this vast and day-to-day French social environment. I had to meet Nicolas’ friends, his parents and family, get introduced to social events, and understand French way of being in a relationship. I had no choice (I chose to have no choice …) and sometimes struggled to grasp the sublety and the ‘non-dit’s, but fortunately I enjoyed most of time.

So French became part of our relationship, even when we moved to Shanghai. Nicolas’ Chinese improved by taking more lessons and living there simply. We had talks about using more Chinese between us for the sake of his Chinese practice, however we somehow never managed to do so. We would start a conversation in Chinese, then slowly French or English words would creep in, until almost always French took over. It’s a bit like any routine – once you establish one, it becomes really difficult to change it.

The pattern continues after we moved to Sydney. Both of us speak fluent English and that’s the language we use for work and most of the social activities. However in our private world, French rules. Of course we throw in words/expressions from other languages that we both associate to in regularly basis. In a French sentence, we would use some English or Chinese vocabulary, and for the sake of fun pronounce them with deliberately strong French accent, or vise versa. We enjoy the game. Our daily language is quite a mix-and-match indeed.

Now that we’re going to raise a trilingual child, we probably need to be more conscious about the mix-and-match of our language so that it doesn’t unnecessarily confuse the child (or would it?). We both want her to be a REAL Chinese, French, and English speaker, and from what I read so far (I will be sharing my learning in this blog), it takes more than a laisser-faire approach, so the linguistic dynamics in the family is going to change I sense.

That will be a whole new discussion. For now and in the forseeable future, between Nicolas and I, francais will continue to rule.