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Monday, 16 April 2012

How important is being consistent in raising multilingual children?

If you are interested in multilingualism, you have probably read tons of clever books that always stress the importance of sticking to the chosen method of multilingualism. For example, if the parents use the OPOL method (One Person, One Language), they should be very consistent in keeping these languages apart. This is theory, this is what the books say.  How does this theory stand in real life? Oh well...

I try to be as consistent as possible. I speak Polish with my children regardless of place or situation. I agree with Elke Montanari, who said in an interview that Polish is a cool language so we shouldn't be ashamed to speak it on the streets. In fact, nobody should be ashamed of their language. I remind members of my family to stick to one language- for example, if my father says something to K. in German, I ask him to speak Polish.

But imagine that we have a guest who only speaks Dutch. So, the question arises: how should I behave? What language should I speak to my child? Here, different families have found different solutions. Some address their child in Dutch. The guests then feels included in the conversation, and the child learns to be polite and respect other cultures.

Other families- like ours- stick to their own language, but they translate for the guests what they have said to their children. This approach has advantages as well. The child sees that he has no reason to be ashamed of his culture. The guest, on the other hand feels included, but at the same time he can learn something about other cultures, and tell the family about his own. Other decide to talk to their children in their language, without translating. This is fine as well, because the child usually understands the guest and is able to talk Dutch to him. 

The truth is that most of what you do in such a situation depends on the child's age, the parents's approach to multilingualism and the guest himself, as well as many other aspects. My point was to show that there are situations in which you don't have to be consistent. Such values as hospitality or politeness are just as important as multilingualism. When I ask K. to say: „please”, „thank you”, „good morning”, „goodbye” and she has to say it to a Dutch person, she should say: „dank u vel”, not „dziękuję”. It's as simple as that.

Another thing that usually invokes negative opinions is mixing languages. I know many families who do just that. And what happens? Nothing much. The child learns that mom speaks Russian, but sometimes she speaks German.

Other parents mix languages when speaking to each other but never with their children. Won't the children be confused? They shouldn't. Multilingual children learn very quickly with whom they are allowed to mix languages. When speaking to other multilinguals, they will mix. With monolinguals- they won't. The way the children see it, the main point of having a conversation is effective communication, and in which language it happens is not important. The important thing is to make yourselves understood, and to do it fast.

Furthermore, each language has words that can't be translated into other languages. In Polish there is no word for: „Consultatiebureau”, nor is there one in English. It is a place where you take your child to have their baby well checks and vaccinations, but it means something different from just going to see a pediatrician.

How to behave then? Translate these words? Sometimes, this is possible. But sometimes, it isn't. Because in English you can say: "I am taking my child to see a doctor for a check-up",  but how about words like „gezellig”, or „Schadenfreude”, that can't be translated? But dropping a word in another language is not such a big problem, really.

K. hears songs in all three langauges she speaks, and in English on top of that. At the beginning, I said  „this is daddy's song”, or „this is a song from your daycare” and I stuck to Polish.  I have now changed my approached and sing songs in German, Dutch and English. This way K. learns that I don't find these languages strange, and it made me learn some new songs.

Sometimes, being overly consistent can be detrimental to the child's multilingualism. Just like always paying attention to what the child eats, how she walks or how she speaks, paying too much attention to multilingualism can make the child reluctant to speaking their many languages, in other word, it can totally backfire.

Being consistent is important. But, so is understanding other points of view and being flexible to adapt to new situations and challenges.

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  1. Bardzo ciekawie piszesz! Sama co prawda często piszę o konsekwencji w dwu- i wielojęzycznym wychowaniu - na zasadzie "you can't go wrong with it". Ale niesamowite jak często nalegamy na konsekwencję w wielojęzycznym wychowaniu kosztem innych rzeczy (a może właśnie zupełnie niepotrzebnie). Ciekawe jest też stanowisko logopedów i terapeutów językowych (konsekwencja, konsekwencja, konsekwencja) w porównaniu z tym co pokazują niektóre badania i jak wychowują się wielojęzyczne dzieci np. pośród Indian Amazońskich, gdzie konsekwencji często jest niewiele...

  2. Multilinguals, dziękuję za twój ciekawy komentarz! Właśnie chciałam napisać o tym, że są pewne sytuacje, w których konsekwencja nie jest najlepszym wyjściem. Ale to zwykle są pojedyńcze sytuacje. A co do badań? Całe szczęście nie uważa się już, że wielojęzyczność powiązana jest z niższym IQ. Pokazują też, że dwujęzyczność najlepiej sprawdza się,gdy oba języki są wystarczająco rozwinięte, a to raczej rzadki przypadek. Myślę więc, że jak to zwykle bywa, to kwestia wyboru.


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