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Wednesday, 27 July 2011

Multilingualism in my family

This was my first post on multilingualism. I was just starting to read on this topic, and wanted to introduce it by sharing my family's multilingual story. I've come a long way since.My girl daughter talks more and more, and uses full sentences. The little girl is still little, but she says "mama", and "papa". I loved translating this post, because then I see the progress that we have made.

- K. do you want some bread?- I ask my elder daughter, using the cute version of her name. She jumps enthusiastically up and down, and answers. „Ja, ja!”. She is only two (now three!), but already she's been confronted with three languages. I speak Polish with her, my husband uses German, and Dutch is spoken on the streets. Our friends speak English, and some of them are French-speakers. What comes out of such a language mix? Isn't it too much? I have been thinking about this a lot. In our case, three languages are of crucial importance: Polish, German and Dutch. We want our daughters to communicate in all those languages, but we also expect them to be triliterate, which means being able to read and write in three languages. How can we achieve this? 

Unfortunately, research on multilingualism is scarce, although studies on bilingualism can be found easily. After a long search I  found „Living Languages: Multilinguality Across the Lifespan”, in which author Tracey Tokuhama-Espinosa describes her own experience of raising multilingual children, but she also presents all the research on this topic. This book is not perfect, but it does describe the many methods and approaches to raising multilingual children.

We have picked the OPOL (One Person, One Language) method, by which one language is attached to one person. There are others, for example the ml@h (Minority language at Home), where the language is attached to a place. Another approach would be to pick a time where one language is spoken (for example, we speak one language on Mondays or during dinnertime. The rest of the week (or day), another language is used). When I lived in Germany I went to a German daycare. My parents used Polish when addressing me at home, and we spoke German on the streets. When we came back to Poland, my parents proclaimed Sundays to be German days, but only at home.

We try to give our children the opportunity to speak all three languages. Having family in Poland and Germany helps a lot. The girls go to a Dutch daycare, so that they can learn Dutch. There are many schools that support multilingual education, and  checking them out is a good idea.  We are considering sending our big girl to such a school. Because Dutch children start school when they're 4 years old, the nurse at the Consultatiebureau suggested to us that we send her to preschool, with a stronger focus on Dutch. The nurse explained that multilingual children start speaking later and face more problems at school because of that. We declined. First, 4 years is really early for going to school, and I am not sure whether I support such a system. And by that I mean I am not willing to send my daughter to any kind of school if it isn't necessary. Also, I am not worried about her Dutch. She will speak it, sooner or later. I think she will have less contact with Polish, and right now, this is now the language worth concentrating on. Also, it is true that multilingual children face problems at school, but they then usually catch up very quickly. They also have a bigger capacity for abstract thinking, and can learn languages faster.

We are really lucky. Both of our families are multilingual. My mother speaks English as well as she speaks Polish. She also knows French, German, and understands Russian and Spanish. My father's French is as good as his Polish, and he also knows English and German, and understands Spanish, Italian and Russian. TV and radio,  in other homes considered to be "background media", in my home they were used for learning languages. My father watches the news in Polish, German and French, he enjoys watching Italian cooking programs, listens to the BBC in English. As a child, I watched cartoons and children's programs, and films in German. My mother "limited herself" to reading women's magazines in German and French, and listening to the BBC. My husband's parents speak fluent French, some English, and my husband's uncle and his children speak German and Farsi. 

I think my big girl (I can only write about her, because right now, the little one only says 2 words ) has a pretty good vocabulary, for a multilingual two year old, and she understand even more. I think she is doing fine, and is very communicative. But she is still little, and only at the beginning of her multilingual journey. Together, we will face many challenges and problems, but also joy and instances of success. I think we're doing fine. 

For further readings: Tokuhama-Espinosa, Tracey: „Living Languages: Multilingualism Across the Lifespan”, (2008), WestportCT; Praeger Publishers.

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