Discoveries after 4 years of raising bilingual children

My eldest daughter, Martha, as just turned four and her sister, Malena, has just turned two. Both children have existed in a multilingual environment from day one. Martha speaks English and Spanish to more of less equal fluency and fully understands French, with a much lesser propensity to use it.

Looking back over the last four years, these are the discoveries I’ve found most interesting.

The bilingual siblings on the phone to Spain...

The bilingual siblings on the phone to Spain…

1. Being bilingual or multilingual did not significantly ‘stunt’ the age at which language was acquired. Some friends of Martha’s monolingual friends were very quick talkers so for a brief period I wondered but, looking at a wider selection of children, I realised she was just more average rather than precocious. And, of course, she was learning two languages. Malena, by contrast, is very much a ‘quick talker’ and frequently shocks us with the surprisingly elaborate utterances she sometimes produces in English, Spanish and even French. The important thing to note is that children develop at their own pace.

2. Bilingualism makes kids happy! It’s important to note that our approach to raising bilingual children has been about ‘exposing not imposing’. Through a mix of conscious language use in the home, attending play groups and social gatherings conducted in other languages, use of books, media and technology we have attempted to create a lively multilingual environment with no ‘drilling’ of language into the kids. Martha now wants to learn to and write, and is seeking support from us. Children are natural, avid learners and I feel that trying to force learning onto them merely interferes with their natural curiosity. She’s also asking a lot of ‘scientific’ questions so by using our small garden and books about the planets as illustrations I am trying to answer them.

3. Learning a THIRD language has worked. Lidia’s native tongue is Spanish but she also speaks English and French to a near-native level of fluency. She introduced French too from day one and Martha attends a French-speaking nursery school. I have to admit this was something I watched carefully. Would a third language be just too much? Would she be ‘lost’ or stressed by the French school? As it turned out it merely means that she fully understands French language – we believe as well as English and Spanish. Until recently she hadn’t uttered much French with us but is increasingly communicating in French with people she identifies as French speakers. In other words, she can identify the language of and English, Spanish or French speaker and speak the appropriate language, albeit with less ability in the third language. This is remarkable to me.

4. The children have a full and proper relationship with their Spanish extended family. Both girls talk more than once a week with their Aunt and Grandmother on Skype and when Martha visits Madrid she can talk to children she meets like a Spanish native speaker. It would have been terrible to have cut her off linguistically from all this by delaying language learning until later when it then has to be taught rather than acquired naturally.

5. My Spanish has improved and I’ve even picked up a fair amount of French. It was an eye opener one day when Martha asked me for something in Spanish and I had to quickly Google the word for a translation! She’s quickly outpaced my rather intermediate semi-fluent Spanish and I feel the need to keep up.

6. The kids already have a very global outlook. From birth the girls have existed in a multilingual and multicultural environment and know about other countries, different languages. It’s a world away from when I was a kid (I was probably 18 before I had a conversation with someone from the North of England) and I think the girls will definitely be much richer for it.

Comments

  1. Interesting read thank you!

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