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Monday, 1 October 2012

What to say to parents of bilingual children

Two months ago, I wrote a post about what not to say to parents of bilingual children (see here for the edited and revised version on InCultureParent Magazine). It was a highly popular post, proving that other parents of multilingual children feel the same way and can relate to my situation. However, Ute of Expat Since Birth has made a point in that it is better to use positive reinforcement. Also, I realized that while it is useful to know what not to say, I didn’t provide any helpful alternatives. Here is a little attempt at giving positive reinforcement.

1)      How is this working out for you?

Usually parents of multilingual children are very keen on educating people and advocating for multilingualism. By asking this question, you recognize the parent as the expert on their children, and they will be happy to explain and educate. It’s a win-win situation.

2)      What’s your story?

Some parents are monolingual, but end up having multilingual children due to certain circumstances. Other parents are multilingual themselves and raising their children multilingually is the most natural thing to do. So many families, so many stories. Also, there are many methods and approaches to multilingualism. I found that expat families like telling their stories to people who are genuinely interested in their situation.

3)      So, your children will grow up to speak several languages!

Even though I get awfully silly comments, I also hear this one sometimes, and I love it! It acknowledges the importance of learning languages from early on, and it recognizes the fact that parents want and need their children to speak their language. Also, whoever says this does not differentiate between “useful” and “not useful” languages.  Thank you to everybody who has ever said this to me.

4)      I hear many things about multilingualism. Are they true?

This is similar to some of the statements in my former post, but the aim here is to ask questions- again, you recognize the parents as experts, and even though you might agree with some of the things you have heard, you might change your mind, or at least we can have a meaningful discussion instead of having to fight back your accusations.

5)      How does your extended family feel about this?

We worry how our families react to our children being raised multilingually. Some of the families are very supportive, others are not. This will either mean that we answer with a reassuring: “They always support me and they understand”, or you will give us a reason to rant about out unsupportive families. In both cases, we will be grateful for your question and listening skills because the focus is on our situation.

6)      How do you plan to do this?

This is a question that a family member might ask if they’re worried that multilingualism might hurt their grandchild/nephew/niece. The focus is however, on understanding our plan. Maybe just explaining what we are planning to do will make these worries go away. It also means that the person understands that the parents will raise their child multilingually, no matter what. We will be happy to share resources- and maybe this is a good way to include the extended family in the upbringing.

7)      I would like to read up on multilingualism. Which articles/books/websites do you recommend?

If you ask this question, you get another win-win situation. You are showing interest, and want to get educated on the topic. Also, it allows us to boast our knowledge and who doesn't love that?

8)      Can we talk about this? We are worried.

Now, saying this is so much better than saying some of the things I quoted in my former post. If you don’t understand how bilinguals think, you might be worried. And yes, of course we can talk about this. You might change your mind, or you will realize that we won’t stop doing what we’re doing just because you’re worried. For you, this is a good way to address your worries, and share your thoughts. For us, it's a great way to explain- in a way that is not defensive.

9)      “She’s/He’s multilingual!”

Say this with pride, instead of confusion and fear, or as a way of excuse, and we will truly appreciate this gesture. We are so proud of the fact that our children speak several languages. Treat it like a special talent, or as an opportunity, and you will have our gratitude forever.

10)   I see you are very committed to making this work

Yes, we are very committed to making our children multilingual because we know that this is a great opportunity for them-and for us. By saying this, you recognize the hard work we’re doing. After all, we read about it, we think about it, we spend a lot of time with our children; we ensure that they get consistent input in all their languages and we hope it will work. Thank you for appreciating our commitment. Maybe, just maybe, you can understand more about what we are doing.

What I think is similar in all of these comments is that they acknowledge the fact that we parents might be on to something. We usually know what we are doing when we decide to raise our children multilingually. I think the comments above might lead to discussion and understanding rather than confrontation. I don’t mean that everybody has to agree with us. I just want to be understood and acknowledged.

What would you add? What comments would you appreciate to hear? What comment has somebody said to you that made you feel understood?

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  1. Brilliant! Thanks a lot. I think you really helped all the people - monolingual and multilingual by the way! - to make better comments. And: if someone in the future makes a "not to say" comment to you, you can say "as I've said in my post...." ;-)
    I really like your points. Personally I always prefer comments that show that people think about what they are saying. Or that they try to understand what it means to raise multilingual children (in this particular case). I think you covered the most important things we want to hear.
    The best of all? You made me think even more about this and I'll surely let you know what other kind of comments could be added to the list. Thanks a lot for writing this post!

    1. No, thanks to you for making me think about this! I am glad that you liked this post- it wasn't easy at all to come up with all these things. Certainly, negative reinforcement comes more easily to us. However, I think that negative comments have to be addressed for what they are. I found that after writing the "What not to say post" I got many replies where people agreed with me and maybe my post made them feel better. However, if you talk about doing something constructive, it's definitely better to write the "What to say instead" post- I think it's good to first address emotions and then find a constructive way out.

    2. Also, I am looking forward to reading your "what to say" comment!


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