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Monday, 6 August 2012

What NOT to say to parents of multicultural children.

Babble has this series where bloggers write about things you shouldn’t say to them about their children. Since this series is always about the blogger’s personal situation, you can for example read about things not to say to parents of boys (and as a mother of two girls I get to hear some silly comments as well, so I can totally relate to that), what not to say to parents whose child is in therapy (in her case it was speech therapy, but my girl is in physical therapy, and it’s no better), or what not to say to single moms, moms of twins, etc.

 I like reading this series because it shows pretty well how judgmental people can be even though they usually mean well when they offer their comments and their advice.

But the real reason I like this series is the fact that I have the chance to write my own “What not to say to…” kind of article. Since I am raising multilingual children, I have heard my share of silly comments as well. So how could I not write a blog post about the things you should never say to me about my children? I mean, parents have to take so much judgment from strangers and even family, and if their children are a little bit different, people tend to say even more silly stuff.

So here it is: the things you should NEVER (and I mean NEVER) say to parents of multilingual children:

1)    1) When I compare your child to other children…” You should NEVER compare any child to other children. Not when they’re monolingual. Not when they need professional help. Not when they are “normal”, whatever that means. You can only compare the same child to her- or himself in the past, to monitor progress. This is true with any child, but rings even more true with multilingual children whose speech develops at a different pace, and in a different way. Comparing them to monolingual children is not fair to anybody: not to the child, and not to his or her parents. Multilingual children should be compared to other multilingual children if they should be compared at all!
2)  2) “I know somebody who is bilingual, and they never learned to speak any language properly”. The idea that children can’t learn two languages properly when they learn these languages at the same time has long been debunked. But even if such a situation can happen, we don’t know why it happened. Most problems are usually not due to multilingualism itself, but rather there are other problems. Also, the person who said this probably judged their friend by monolingual standards, and this is not fair to anybody. If she or he needs professional help, they should get it by a specialist who is well-versed in multilingual matters, and the last thing they need is judgment.
3)   3) “Not all children are clever/bright enough to be multilingual”. I was so annoyed by this kind of comment that I wrote a whole blog post about it. And maybe you feel the same way, because it ended up being my most popular post ever. Yes, most children are bright or clever enough to be raised multilingually. Also: what do you mean by “smart” anyway? There are so many issues with this approach that I don’t even want to get started on this. Also, I already have. Enough said.
4)    4)  “Do your children speak Dutch”? Also, often offered as advice: “It is important that your children speak Dutch”. First of all, why do you expect everybody to learn Dutch? If I chose so, I could raise my children in a way that they would never come in contact with Dutch. However, I decided to send them to Dutch day care, and when I mention it, it is usually met with a sigh of relief or a nod of approval. But why do you even care how I decide to raise my children? Do you think that because I am a foreigner, you have the right to put your nose into matters that do not concern you? Why are you afraid that my children won’t speak any Dutch? It is my choice to make, not yours. And it is not my responsibility to teach them Dutch, but rather to make sure that they speak it, should I decide it is necessary. While I recognise the importance of speaking the majority language, my focus is on Polish with German as a close second. Dutch is important, minority languages are even more important.
5)  5)I’m sorry, you can’t understand her because she’s multilingual”, or: “You don’t understand her because she said that in Polish”-said in my presence. I don’t get it when people act like this. After all, they should be amazed that my children are growing up to be multilinguals, and possibly ones with strong language skills. Instead, they are feeling sorry for the children, and explain all problems and all challenges with multilingualism. The children can’t pronounce words properly? They’re multilingual! They have a speech delay? They’re multilingual! To me, this doesn’t make sense. Also, do not use excuses to explain my child’s behaviour with multilingualism. Some issues can be indirectly connected to multilingualism (for example when the child doesn’t have enough exposure to one language), but other than that, the problem lies elsewhere.
6)     6) The only way to raise multilingual children is OPOL/ml@h,/whatever it is your commenter does”. While there are some things worth mentioning when talking about multilingualism (for example consistency), no multilingual family is the same. The methods and approaches they use, and the ideas they have for their children vary, and that’s OK! There is no “best” method. There is “the method that works”, or “the method that suits my family”. Just like with everything else in parenting.
7)   7) “Why do you even bother?”- I haven’t heard that one myself, but maybe other families have. Raising multilingual children is extremely difficult, as enjoyable and beneficial it might be. Also, it requires resources such as money, time, attention and planning. Therefore, to some people it might seem that all this work is for nothing, especially if they compare these children to children who only speak one language (see no.1!).After all, it seems that multilingual children have speech delays, and other issues connected with communication. But on the flip side: the children will grow up to speak many languages. Doesn’t it explain it all?

These comments sting when uttered by strangers, even if we know that their intentions are good. But said by family or friends, these hurt.  They hurt a lot. They might mean it well, but what they say still comes across as silly, or downright ignorant.

But what can we do? Explain, explain and explain some more. Be patient, and show them results. Know in our hearts that we are doing the right things by raising our children multilingually. Or just ignore stupid comments.

I suppose you have had your share of silly comments as well. What did people say to you? Would you like to add anything to this list?

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  1. I get a lot of "Poor Addy" and "Poor Giorgie" from my family as they think that we are abusing them by forcing them to learn three languages. That infuriates me!!! I would have LOVED to have been given such an opportunity as a kid and I can't understand when others can't see it. Thanks for the great post (as usual)...I am going to share on Nomad Parents tomorrow (so it will show up in the stream during the day).

    1. Yes, Lynn, unfortunately family is a big source of comments like this. This is very sad because family should be there to support us even if they have no idea about multilingualism. I like the point about the children being "forced" to learn something. In most cases, they learn by themselves, and they do so with pleasure!

  2. Wow, raising my daughter tri-linugally, thankfully I never encountered even ONE of these comments.

    Interestingly, my daughter just went last week to the United States (my region) and people are commenting that she has "no accent." She said some people actually seem disappointed in that! I suggested she speak some Arabic or French for them to make it more interesting for those people!

    My daughter has been raised entirely outside of the United States, so I was actually relieved to hear that people seem to think she has no accent in that region.

    Lynne Diligent


    1. Hi Lynne, thank you for your comment! I haven't heard all of these comments but enough to make me write this post. AS far as accent is concerned: I speak good English, but still people would comment on my accent. I am also bilingual (Polish and German), and I get very sad when people tell me that "I have no accent", or they "can't really hear that I am not German". It's like they're expecting me to speak it badly, as if they expect me to make mistakes. It's like they tell you that even though you speak the language perfectly, you will never be one of them.


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