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Raising Bilingual Children

There were many bad cards stacked against my boys when they were born almost 7 years ago. Many people told me so; the next-door neighbor, grandma’s best friend, their pediatrician, and their physiotherapist. “We just want you to be prepared for the worst – that it might not work…

They were referring to our boys’ language skills and our plans of raising them bilingually.

The Bilingual Challenges My Boys Faced

  • They are boys and boys learn to talk much later than girls. Myth or science, I don’t know.
  • They were preemies and slightly underweight at birth. The developmental hurdles preemies need to overcome seem endless.
  • They are twins. Babies learn talking by interacting with adults. Multiples tend to interact with each more than with adults and this is not favorable for the development of language skills.
  • They are being raised bilingually (English and German). Let’s face it. Learning one language is easier than learning two languages simultaneously.

I didn’t know it then, but there was another bad card involved – the fact that I had gestational diabetes increased my babies’ risk for language developmental problems, according to a study.

Even family and relatives, including grandma was a bit skeptical. She knew a French-German family whose kid couldn’t just cope with the linguistic challenges.

But my German husband and I were determined to raise our boys bilingually. We know the big advantage of being fluent in English in a globalized world. Though we lived in Germany then, I made it a point that my boys knew their roots and interacted frequently with my family in Asia in English. We are a multicultural family and denying our kids the privilege of learning another language is unthinkable.

Now seven years later, I am happy to report that the skeptics were proven wrong. My kids are fluent (speaking, reading, writing) in German and English and had easily picked up the local language in the part of Switzerland where we now live.

Though I am not an expert, I would like to share with you my experiences in bringing up my kids bilingually.

Tips For Teaching Children New Languages

  • Decide early. Monolingual, bilingual, even multilingual? Which languages, if you have the choice? Which method? Who speaks what language where? Make these decisions early, preferably before the delivery. In other words, make an SOP – a standard operating procedure about your strategies in helping your kids with language learning. There is no room for trial-and-error here. From my experience, the more consistent, the more standardized things are at home, the better for the kids.
  • Don’t change your mind halfway through. A friend of mine told me “Oh, I read the other day that talking to your kid in a language that is different from what people in the immediate environment are using makes him feel left out. That’s why now I …” I don’t think it is a good idea to change tactics every couple of months just because a new research study showed this and that. On the other hand, our strategies don’t have to be written in stone and can be changed when absolutely necessary. We can be flexible without being wishy-washy.
  • Interact frequently with other multilingual families and kids. The languages need not be exactly the same as long as you have one common language wherein you can communicate effectively. I found it important that my kids know they are not the only bilingual children around; that German and English are not the only languages in this world. I know kids who reject their bilingualism just because they are the only ones in their class and circle of friends who speak a “strange” language.
  • Provide reinforcement. There is a need for reinforcement in both print and other media especially for the minority language. We used to live in Germany and now Switzerland where English is not the language of the environment. I definitely needed to reinforce English in the form of English books, tapes, films and special classes. Thank God for DVDs and its multilingual technology!
  • Ask for expert evaluation and advice. When they turned 2, we had our boys assessed by developmental experts. As preemies, they were entitled to such evaluations paid for by the state and by the health insurance. But even if we had to pay for it ourselves, we would have anyway. They were tested for fine and gross motor skills and language skills. We were happy to find out that they were right on track. After that, we always emphasize to their teachers that we want regular feedback on their language skills. So that in case they run into problems, we can seek professional help.
  • Constantly emphasize the importance of knowing two/many languages. Our boys are fascinated that their Dad and I can count 1 to 10 in many languages even though we don’t really “speak” those languages. My husband learned counting in Arabic from Egyptian friends. We both learned a little bit of French in school and I know a bit of Spanish. When traveling in countries where we didn’t know the language, we’d point out how great that everybody can speak English and/or German and/or French because in one way or another we could communicate. Two years ago, while holidaying at the Croatian Riviera, we were always asked at restaurants “Deutsch or English?” referring to which menu we want. My boys would proudly reply “We speak both.” When traveling in southern Africa last year, they were also amazed how they could easily communicate with people in another continent – in English.
  • Live in a multilingual area. This is really a bit asking for too much, I know, but if you have the chance, grab it. We didn’t move to Switzerland 2 years ago for language reasons. But now that we are here, I can see a very big advantage in living in such a multilingual country. With a population of about 7.5 million, this little country has 4 official languages: German, French, Italian, and Rheto-Romanish (very similar to Latin). Almost everybody speaks two or more languages. And because they are so diverse, the business language tends to be English. Our boys do not feel out of place because they speak a second language in this country. This is not the case in Germany or England where bilingualism is the exception rather than the rule, and most often associated with being an immigrant.

Mind you, it is not always easy and it might work for some and not for others. I know lots of kids who never got the hang of bilingualism for one reason or another. My boys would sometimes complain why they have go to English classes while their classmates don’t have to. But in the end, bilingualism pays off and your kids will surely thank you for it later in life.


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