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Wednesday, 11 July 2012

How raising multilingual children has made me a better person

The idea for this blog post came to me after an extremely hard day. I came so close to losing it several times, and maybe I even lost it a little bit. But then somehow the words formed in my head, and this post was born. I am grateful for this because rather than giving in to feelings of self-pity and guilt, I decided to look at the bright side, and remind myself that I am a better person because of my children. While this happens to many mothers, I think that the fact that my children are trilingual faces me with many challenges that parents of monolingual children do not have. And I am a better parent, a better person because of it. Here is why.

1)     Because I learn

I am a brainy person. I thrive on new things to learn. I love learning just for learning’s sake, just as much as I love reading for the sheer pleasure that the act of reading gives me. And even though I am a bilingual person myself, I didn’t know much about the theory of multilingualism before I had children. When they were born, I started to search for books, articles and websites on multilingualism. I am fascinated by the topic, not only as a parent of two children, but also because I have a scientific mind and experiencing this in real life is just so enjoyable. It is sometimes said that having children makes you stupid, but this is not the case with me. Rarely have I felt so stimulated!
It is because of my multilingual children I started this blog. It is because of them I have tons of ideas for blog posts, articles, pictures, and crafts. It is because of multilingualism that I found it within myself to write about this topic. It is exciting, and extremely gratifying.

2)      Because I pay attention

Most mothers know when their children started to speak, when the little ones said their first word, their first 2-word-sequence, their first coherent sentence. I can tell you that, too. But I can also tell you in which language Klara said her first word (Tata-daddy, in Polish). I can tell you which was the first word she said in all three languages (nie, nein, nee, what did you expect?). I can tell you which languages she used in her first little sentence (Polish and German, Klara auch śpi- Klara is sleeping, too).
I am working hard to meet my children’s needs. I think the fact that I am so fascinated by their multilingualism makes it easier for me to respond to them, because I listen for new words and new expressions- and therefore I also listen to what they’re trying to say. Why do I mention this here? Because we follow the OPOL method, where each person is assigned a language (Polish for me, German for my husband), this means that the better the relationship with the parent, the better the relationship with the language. Or so I hope.

3)      Because I try not to compare

I know I should never ever compare my children with other children. But when I hear monolingual children speaking, I sometimes can’t help it but feel a bang of jealousy. In comparison with my girls, they speak so much, and so well. Their speech development seems to be faster somehow. They use expressions and sentences my girls probably never will. But then I think of how Klara and Julia will naturally speak many languages, and that their speech development is different because, well, they’re trilingual. This doesn’t mean that anything can be explained with multilingualism, it only means that multilingual children develop in a different way. And as my very clever Dutch teacher once said: “You cannot compare yourself to others. The only person you can compare yourself to is yourself.” And with that in mind, I think my girls are doing great!

4)      Because I am learning to be patient

Patience is desperately needed when you have children. I think even more so in case of multilingual children. While Julia’s speech development is rather “normal”, Klara took her time speaking. She said her first word at 18 months. She stayed in this stage for a long time since she had other ways of communicating. Whenever she wanted to make her point clear, she took me by the hand and led me to whatever she wanted to show me. But I expected her to speak, and to speak well. Now I know this doesn’t make sense. Now I know that she develops at her own pace, and it’s fine.
Another thing is that Klara loves my company, even if it just means me watching her play. She learns best from intensive one-on-one relationships. This is why we spend a lot of time reading books, singing songs, and going for walks. Being patient means to spend this quality time with Klara rather than trying to do chores. Those can be done later. Because, as they say: “Cleaning and scrubbing can wait till tomorrow…” The same thing goes for Julia, but she is a totally different child, and so her language development is different as well. And her needs have to be met, too. I love how our quality time also means quality time in Polish.

5)      Because I think about words, and what they mean

We all know that words can hurt. This is especially the case with children. So many things that we say can hurt them without us knowing it. But when you think a lot about languages, you think of what you say at the same time. This means that maybe before you say something stupid, you’ll pause to think about the consequences. In German, there is an expression for this: “die Schere im Kopf”, “the scissors in your head”. It is usually used in a negative way, to describe self-censorship. But it can also mean something positive: “think first, speak later”. Not so bad, is it?
Thinking about words also means that I’m reading a lot about parenting, and multilingualism- but the majority of the things I’m reading are in English, so I have to think how to best adapt the new words and expressions when I speak Polish.

6)      Because I see my accomplishments and feel proud of them.

In case of parents of multilingual children who follow the OPOL method, it becomes perfectly clear, who teaches the child what. So when I heard Klara describing her feelings in Polish, I was extremely proud, because it was obvious that she learned it from me. On the other hand, she only validates me in Dutch (goed zo, mama!) which makes me think that maybe I should praise her more. But then, at least I get to know where I stand.

7)      Because I expose them to a variety of languages and cultures

This one is pretty obvious. Not only do we visit our extended families regularly, we also travel a lot. Therefore Klara and Julia hear many languages, and see many countries. Also, we have many international friends, and we speak many languages ourselves. And then, the Netherlands are an extremely tolerant country. A nanny in Klara’s daycare is Muslim, and she wears a headscarf. Klara adores her! Here, my children get the chance to see people of all cultural backgrounds!

8)      Because I am learning the majority language (Dutch).

Not only is learning a new language fun, it is also extremely important if it’s a majority language in the country you’re living in. And even more so if you have children, who will grow up to speak that language, and it will become a part of them. So for me, learning Dutch means trying to maintain a good relationship with my children- that way, I hope, they will feel accepted for who they are. I see this at work when I sing Dutch songs to Klara (although I only do it if she initiates it), and her eyes sparkle, and she smiles. It’s like she’s saying: “Oh, you know that, too? I like you. You’re a cool person!”.

9)      Because I am learning to be resilient

While my family and friends are very understanding about multilingualism. Actually, I think that we’re pretty lucky in this regard. All the nurses at the Consultatiebureau, while they lacked the theory, knew better than to say: “Oh just speak Dutch with them”. On the other hand, even some nannies from Klara’s daycare complained of how little she spoke in Dutch. They’ve probably never heard of the silent phase- a topic for another post. This is where resilience is needed, to explain the theory, or to stop caring about what people say, and go on.

10)   Because it’s fun!

Let’s not forget fun. In fact, let’s never underestimate the power of fun. Parenting is enjoyable, because it’s challenging and gratifying, and funny all at the same time. Seeing my children grow, and develop, and learn is fun. Hearing them adopt their many languages as if it is the most normal thing on Earth, that’s another reason why having children is fun. Tons and tons of it.

How about you? What would you add to this list? Do you feel the same way?

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  1. Just found your blog through Nomad Parents and will be visiting more often.

    Love this post. It is a challenge bringing up multilingual children but you are right there is so much more to it, a whole background of things. I would also add: Because I am learning more and more about me.

    1. Hello, Windmill Tales, and thank you for your kinds words. You point is very important, an aspect I totally forgot to add, and thank you for reminding me of this!


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