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Sunday, 21 July 2013

The multilingual parenting dilemma

I love that I am able to raise my children trilingually and that I get lots of support from bloggers and experts where I can get all kinds of tips and information. And yet, I sometimes like to play devil’s advocate and to look for inconsitencies and problematic areas.

So, I have found an inconsistency in the multilingual parenting methods, and it makes me feel a little hypocritical. For example, all experts stress the benefits of speaking another language and especially starting to learn (and teach it) it as early as possible.

However, they also stress the importance of monolingual situations for your child, especially when it comes to the minority language. If the child knows that his family and friends speak the language, he won’t use it.

Please point out if I’m wrong, but don’t these two approaches pretty much contradict each other? On one hand, we want everybody to be bilingual. On the other hand, we want our children to be bilingual by having them speak with monolingual children. Does it make sense? Does it make us hypocrites by wanting the whole world to speak many languages, except when it comes to our children’s multilingualism?

And, how best to fix this situation? The solution that comes to my mind is to have our children speak with people who speak other languages then our child does, except for the one we want the child to speak. For example, my children speak Polish, German and Dutch. Many of the Dutch children at daycare speak other languages as well, for example English, French, or Albanian.

If I wanted her to speak Polish and still the world to be multilingual, I should find somebody who speaks Polish, and then let’s say English and French, but not Dutch or German, right? Except, how would I do that? Many Polish moms try their best to fit in, and teach their children Dutch and send them to Dutch schools, as International Schools are more expensive, so basically I’d have to search low and far for somebody like that.

What do you think? Is it inconsistent to preach bilingualism and yet stress the importance of monolingual situations at the same time? If so, how to fix this?



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10 comments:

  1. I think this is an issue that a lot of multilingual households have to struggle with. I hope you can find a solution (possibly somewhere in the middle) that works for your family! Any exposure to multiple languages will benefit your child, in my opinion!

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    1. Hi MaryAnne, thanks for your comment. It's less about my family, but more about everybody who raises bilingual children and about the inconsistencies. Personally, I don't mind if my children mix languages and I love exposing them to bilinguals or multilinguals because it shows them that this is normal. But telling us to 1) find monolingual situations and 2) wanting all the world to be multilingual is an inconsitency, since you can't have both.

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  2. I don't think that "monolingual situations" necessarily encompasses only "monolinguals" - at least not how I use the term. I often describe situations such as you mentioned - a Dutch/Italian family need to find and Italian/English family to play with, so that the only language the kids *share* is Italian, thus creating an "Italian monolingual situation" for the kids. And I don't think that promoting bi/multilingualism means denying that monolingualism exists in many places - I am in the US right now, and my kids are definitely noticing that people only speak English here... I think of "monolingual situations" is a tool, rather than a philosophy, if that makes any sense.

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    1. Hi Eowyn, thank you for your input.And yes, monolingual situations are a tool- good way to see this! I was just thinking if we're trying to promote bilingualism, then on some level we're taking advantage of monolinguals...it's just a theoretical thing, not necessarily practical!

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  3. There is no doubt that conceptually there is a contradiction, but the reality is that there are people all over the world who speak only one language. Many of these people are interesting, thoughtful, lead rich lives and are willing to be our friends. People have different goals and opportunities, and they make different choices. I suppose that at one level I wish everyone in the world were multilingual, but at least in the places we have lived and traveled, being in monolingual situations has not been hard to accomplish or a sacrifice. My children have learned different things (not just languages) from all kinds of people.

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    1. Hi Jennifer, thanks for your comment. I agree: people do make different choices, and sometimes they make the choice to be monolingual and raise their children that way. And yes, multilingualism is just one thing our children can learn, but there is so much more! I would also love for everybody to be bilingual or multilingual, but maybe it's patronizing to think like that? Shouldn't anybody make their own decisions?

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  4. With "monolingual situations" they don't mean that they necessarily have to happen with monolingual people. In a multilingual environment like the one we live in this is almost impossible. "Monolingual situation" can also mean that if you want your child for example to improve/learn Polish, you look for families where this language is spoken and try to use this language while being with them. It's a deal you make with those families/children. But don't expect too much! I've tried this so many times with my kids, arranging playdates, outings with families who talk Italian and Dutch or German or English and... the children ended up talking the language they prefered and not the one we, as parents, would have liked them to talk ;-) Can I blame them? No. I did the same at their age. When my mum tried to offer me more input in German I often choose Italian to talk with the other children or French (when I was older). Total immersion is the best solution,but you have to travel for that. In your daily life it doesn't harm your childs' linguistic development if he's exposed to multilinguals. On the contrary.
    For those who try to raise multilinguals in monolingual societies, this seems to be a bigger challenge, but I found that multilingual families in those environments are more keen to accept a "deal" to talk the minority language when meeting.
    And it depends on the age of the child. When very young you can somehow guide these situations, but my kids started at the age of 3 (!) to refuse to talk a language they didn't seem to like or that wasn't economically necessary for them.
    I think in the end we really need to be more relaxed about all this. 40 years ago, when I and my friends were in the same situation, the mums were much relaxter than nowadays. And we all ended up being prefect multilinguals ;-)

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    1. Hi Ute, thank you for your comment. Just to let you know, this is more of a theoretical, "what if", kind of post However, your comment was very insightful, and I think that exposing my children to multilingual situation is great all in itself, because it shows that multilingualism is awesome and normal. I am not stressing about this, it's a game I like playing with myself (I often ask myself questions like "what if" and I think that it's good brain exercise, but doesn't stress me out, it's a purely intelectual exercise!

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  5. Very hot topic! I agree with Ute. I know my daughter is only a baby now, but there are plenty of multilingual children in my family. All of them are living in different countries and the language learning process seems to be very passive at the beginning and then it becomes active at some point of the childhood. However, all my relatives stated that it is more complicated to teach a language when the kid don't see it as useful for his/her life.

    Regards from Budapest!

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    1. Hi Madre Exilio, what a great comment. Maybe it's easier for families who are already multilingual? Of course my children may not seem to see Polish as useful, but often they don't see in the future as adults do and can't understand that it could be useful at some point.

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