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Raising Multilingual Children

Updated: Apr 9, 2022

Considerations we may bear in mind include the connection among the many Cs in language learning, i.e. the connection among communication (or language), culture, community, and context.

A page in the English-Vietnamese bilingual book Tug of Words by Linh Phung

In the online discussion titled “Raising Multilingual Children” hosted by Eduling International Academy on February 15, 2020, Dr. Martina Wells and Dr. Natasha Garrett talk about their experience in raising their children to be bilinguals. Dr. Natasha Garrett, originally from Macedonia, a small country with the population of only about 2 million, has a 12-year-old son, who speaks English and Macdeonian. Dr. Martina Wells, orginally from Germany, has three children, who are all in college, who can speak German fluently. Dr. Linh Phung, Director of Eduling, wishes to help her still-very-young daughter to be able to speak Vietnamese. Three of us are bilinguals or multilinguals, international educators, and language specialists in the U.S.

Regarding our motivation, we all want our kids to learn the “mother tongue” so that they can communicate with our extended family, relate to their mother, and have a sense of belonging in the mother’s homeland regardless of the utility of the language. Dr. Natasha Garrett wants to replicate her parents’ parenting style, and she feels most comfortable doing so in Macedonian.

Although it may sound like a matter of course that our children will speak their mother tongue, this goal actually requires enormous intentional efforts from the parents because of certain complicating factors of learning the language when English is the dominant language in our living environment. This is more complicated when both parents use English to communicate with each other at home. The panelists share the challenges, but also suggest ways to address these challenges.

The separating factor: When one of the parents only speaks English, the use of the other language can separate the members of the family in everyday conversations. Dr. Linh Phung switches to English when she also wants to address her husband. Her 16-month-old daughter cannot "talk back" yet. Dr. Martina Wells sometimes chose to be silent at the dinner table when her kids talked with their father in English because she wanted to be consistent in the use of German to her children. It was a compromise she was willing to make.

Resistance: Dr. Natasha recites a time when her son told her to “talk normal already.” Her suggestion is that of course there is resistance, but kids resist many things: going to bed, eating vegetables, doing homework, etc. We don’t just give up. Any degree of language use and exposure you can give to your kid will be helpful.

Life in English: Living in the U.S., it is sometimes difficult to use another language to talk about the kids’ experiences in school or their career plans. Using English is probably unavoidable in certain conversations.

When asked about helpful strategies, the panelists share some great recommendations.

Making language use meaningful beyond the mother-child relationship: While the mother may have a strong motivation to help their kid learn the mother tongue, it is important to provide kids with language learning opportunities beyond what this mother-child relationship offers. Therefore, it’s important for the parents to engage in communities that speak the language or similar languages and socialize in contexts where the language is used. Dr. Martina Wells found a group of German mothers, and they organized play dates with a “curriculum” in mind to provide the kids with the opportunities to use German together, whether it is in play or while doing arts and crafts activities.

Connection with the motherland: Visiting the country where the language is spoken brings the language to life. Parents may enroll their kids in a few weeks of schooling in the country so that they can have an immersion experience.

Community courses: Many language groups, such as Chinese, Japanese, Korean, etc., have language courses on Sundays (in Sunday School), and enrolling in these classes will offer extra opportunities to kids and reduce the emphasis of language learning in the mother-child relationship. Dr. Linh Phung shares that she is planning to offer online Vietnamese courses, which can focus on not only spoken Vietnamese but also reading and writing skills.

Online resources: Young kids may also watch cartoons and songs in the mother tongue. Reading stories and books will expose them to the written language. Dr. Martina Wells share that she did not want her kids to watch so much TV growing up, but allowed them to watch videos only in German.

One participant asked for advice for her situation: She’s Vietnamese, her husband’s Chinese, they speak English with each other, her 3-year-old daughter goes to daycare full-time. The panelists’ recommendation is to provide exposure to those different languages through family connection and community engagements. Some parents are afraid that their children will be confused, but the consensus from the panelists is that kids can handle multiple languages. However, we also suggest that the abilities in the different languages do not have to be equal. We can’t expect perfection or full multilingualism, but any degree of exposure and learning is valuable. Dr. Garrett points out that knowing another language is such a gift that parents can give their kids.

In summary, considerations we may bear in mind include the connection among the many Cs in language learning, i.e. the connection among communication (or language), culture, community, and context. We make those connections with the hope of providing kids with meaningful exposure, interaction, and language use, which are necessary for language acquisition. We conclude our discussion by suggesting that we need to also hear from fathers’ perspectives in the next online discussion.

Information about Eduling:

Instagram: @edulingusa

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