Raising multilingual children

OK, from this thread on our baby-to-be, I discussed our plans raising her to be multilingual.

I’ve got a number of bilingual American friends who are married to Japanese women. For the most part, real bilingualism doesn’t result with their kids. The fathers talk Japanese to their wives and while they try to talk Japanese to their children, it doesn’t work out that well, and the kids don’t become fluent in English.

Other friends here include a couple where the mother is Mongolian and father Korean. They speak Japanese to each other and the 18-month old daughter is in Japanese-language daycare. She “speaks” Mongolian as well, but no Korean.

I’ve seen children who go to international schools and are fluent in both languages, but at US$20,000 per child per year, that’s not an option for our family.

We’ve got an unusual situation where my wife speaks Taiwanese, Mandarin, and Japanese, with some English thrown in. Our communication is in Japanese, the only language we are both fluent in. Unfortunately, I’m only bilingual, because my inadequate efforts in learning her native tongue haven’t paid off.

Anyway, I’ve been studying methodology and I think the OPOL (one person, one language) looks best for us. I’ll speak English, my wife will speak Mandarin, and we’ll let the school system and surrounding culture teach Japanese.

We’re looking at how much my wife will stay at home, verses day care, and if her mother will stay with us for how long. All of this will have various contributions to the language pool.

Unless purposeful efforts are made, English would be her weakest, because of the other influences. I’ve discussed this with my mother, and we’re going to use Skype with web cams to help increase the amount of English interaction. We’ll also look around for English playgroups as well as Chinese ones.

Reading on a daily basis seems to be one of the best things to do, as well as singing and other fun interactions.

We’ll take her regularly to Taiwan and the States, and will bring over the respective grandmothers.

I just read an article in a newsletter for bilingual education in which the American father wrote about doing similar activities with his 5 yo, and it seems to be working.

What experiences to people have growing up or raising bi or multilingual children? What works and what hasn’t? Have you run into problems and what kinds?

I’ve been reading a message board for parents raising multilingual children, but I also want to hear from dopers.

As I’ve posted other places, I grew up speaking both Danish, German and English, all three of which I considered my “mother tongues”.
Looking back it seems to have been a OPOL (I’d not heard about that before, thanks!) situation, with my mother being identified with English, my father with English/Danish, my Grandmother and extended family with Danish, and Kindergarten and all interactions outside the house in German. I don’t think they planned it that way though- it just happened naturally.

I do have vague memories of going to pre-K English "classes’ at the International School, as well as English playgroups, but at the age of four I was plonked into the local kindergarten with the other kids, with not a single word of German. I learned to speak it perfectly within six months. I then went on to the local German elementary school, and so on. My parents did the same for my brother. In fact, speaking German when it was just the family was strongly frowned upon - though I think that had more to do with the fact that my mother preferred English.

The key seems to have been a huge (and I do mean huge) amount of reading/writing and literary stimulation in general from within the home. My parents are both huge readers, and taught my brother and I (in English) before the school taught us how to in German. We had those DIY primers (See Spot Run!) in English as well.

Danish I picked up mainly from my Grandmother. She lived with my Cousins, and was always irked that she couldn’t read me stories at night like she did for them. To compensate she read out an entire series of Danish children’s books on tape for me (I got then in six-month installments - I think six books in all - and they’re still amongst my most treasured possessions, especially since her death), which I listened to obsessively. They were really the key, I think, as my brother didn’t like them, and subsequently his Danish was never as good as mine. This might be something you’d like to consider with regards to your wife’s family if they don’t live nearby but want to have an impact on their Grandchild and her linguistic development. But be aware: My Grandmother left Denmark in the 50’s, so when I went there for school I was briefly mocked for my old-fashioned speech! Certainly a double motivation to pick up the vernacular as soon as possible.

Hope any of this helps!

It’s what I was going to recommend. I’m no linguist, but

  • The mother of a childhood friend is French. They grew up speaking French with Mom and her side of the family, Spanish with everybody else, and learning English in school. Trilingual all the way.

  • Mom, Aunt and Aunt’s children grew up speaking each of their languages in different situations; my grandparents used to move a lot, sometimes outside their linguistic region. They’re all bilingual, except for Mom’s hangup about being able to speak in Catalan with me. I’ve known Catalan, Basque and Gallego families who were living outside their linguistic region and who took this same approach.

  • I grew up hearing Catalan from that side of the family, but speaking only Spanish; when I went to sign up for lessons, I got placed directly into “perfecting skills,” the woman in the office said that people like me just need to practice, we know the language but simply aren’t used to using it and our friends and family react badly to our attempts (she was 100% right). Went to preschool for three months in a “inmersive French” school: if you didn’t say “mére, toilette!” properly, you did it on yourself. This lead my 4yo self to choose between been humiliated, peeing myself and getting more humiliation, or just peeing myself and being humiliated for half the time; when I got transferred to a normal school with a teacher who didn’t have a dictionary up her ass it took a while to understand that I was allowed to go to the bathroom normally. Started English in school in 4th grade; the first 5 years didn’t teach us much (in the second one there was an influx of new students from another school, so we even repeated the exact same exercises we’d already done) but on 9th grade we hit the ESL Teacher Jackpot. My college required us to pass a test in either French or German, no lessons provided; I decided to take the French test, so Mom snorted and said “bah, you can’t remember anything! Let’s see, how do you say ‘80’?” “quatre-vingt” :eek: “oh, it is quatre-vingt? I wasn’t sure” Read the grammar part of a dictionary once, got a 100%.
    My Catalan spelling is worse than my Spanish and English; I have never needed to write in Catalan, though, and apparently my two problems (é/è and ó/ò, s and ss) are very common. I imagine the spelling would get better with practice.

But obviously not well enough to realize that “both” is used with two and not three. :wink:

That’s what happened to my wife. She was dumped into a kindergarten without every having spoken Mandarin, but picked it up quickly.

We may have to do that with Japanese to counter the influence of it as the majority language. Unfortunately, that’s the only common language for the two of us, so we’ll have to work on our English and Chinese.

I’ve read this. Reading and, if possible, writing really makes a huge difference. One writer in Japan said that it’s important to teach reading in English sooner than schools teach hiragana, a syllabary system of writing, because it’s much easier to learn to read than English.

Excellent idea! I’ve already talked to my mother about recording her singing. She knows tons of silly songs. I’m going to record my sister to sing as well. Fortunately, having Skype will allow more real-life communication, but having tapes of her reading books will also be great.

I blame my current surroundings. I’m copy-editing for a small company in rural India , and the constant use of the present continuous as well as the lack of the word “the” is taking its toll.

Another endorsement of this approach. I know people who have done a lot of work with immigrant families in Britain. Often, in a concern that children need every bit of help to fit in, parents stop speaking their native language at home and instead use English whenever they can. The child would have learnt English just as fast outside of the home, and in these cases does not develop the fluency which would enable them to communicate with family members in the country of origin.

My cousin, on the other hand, is raising a tri-lingual child. He’s Irish but was brought up in Italy, she’s Hungarian, they live in Scotland. Still only three, the kid happily switches from one language to another, depending on who is in front of her at that moment.

I am Australian (English-speaking) and my husband is Bahraini (Arabic-speaking). Our daughter is 15 months old and is learning both English and Arabic. In fact she has already mastered a couple of words in each language. We use the OPOL approach, I suppose. I speak English to my daughter (although I do occasionally use some Arabic) and my husband speaks Arabic with her (again, with some English thrown in). For the most part, HRH hears English at home and Arabic at MIL’s house, where she stays during the day while hubby and I are at work.

I was originally very concerned about HRH getting enough exposure to English, since she spends the large part of her day in an Arabic-speaking environment, but when I am at home with her, I am constantly engaging her in conversations and “reading” books with her - board books with colours, first words, household objects and animals, as well as regular children’s picture books. I also repeat myself a LOT when HRH points at pictures: “Look at the Lion, ROAR says the Lion, the Lion has a pretty golden mane, doesn’t he? ROAR says the Lion. What does the Lion say? That’s right, the Lion says ROAR!”

Now, HRH says hello, bye-bye, Ga-ma (aka Grandma), Ganda (Grandad), Baba (Arabic for Daddy), Lion, Bun (short for Bunny) and probably other things I don’t recognise yet! She also has a few words of Arabic down, like “Baba raah”, which means “Daddy left”.

Something important, I think, is exposure to TV. TV (or specialised kids’ DVDs) are useless without adult involvement. Young kids (babies and toddlers) need interaction to learn, so unless you sit with your child to watch and talk about what’s on the TV, it won’t be of any use from a learning perspective. HRH pays only minimal attention to the TV when it’s on. Most of the time, she will walk up and turn it off!

The only example of bi-lingual kids is my ex-roommate’s son. His parents split up early on, and he would speak English at home and Spanish at dad’s. By the age of 5 (due to the fact that he spent so much time with his dad) he was fluent in both. I was amazed at how easily he switched it on and off. His dad would come to pick him up and he’d throw a few sentences in Spanish, turn his head and converse in English with me or his mother without missing a beat.

You must read this wonderful book:

THE BILINGUAL FAMILY: A Handbook for Parents
by Edith Harding and Philip Riley

I think it would be fascinating to grow up with a multi-lingual family. A co-worker’s daughter grew up here in Northern Ireland, but her parents are German (Mum) and French (Father) and she seems to be picking up a bit of all three languages.

I’ve known a couple of families that basically did OPOL (fathers in both cases were English speakers, mothers were Hungarian speakers). It seemed to have worked out pretty well, although in one case the kids spoke both languages fluently, but the older son spoke English with an odd, not quite identifiable accent. Both families bounced between Hungary and the U.S., and one family is now living in Switzerland - it’ll be interesting to see how the kids come out.

Another friend of mine is mostly doing OPOL with his kids; he’s American but was raised mostly in France and partly in Austria. His wife is Austrian but was raised partly in France. He is fluent in French and English, but speaks some German; she speaks French, English, and German fluently. They go back and forth between French and English with each other, but it’s hard for me to tell exactly how much, because of course when I’m around they mostly stick to English out of politeness.

Both kids were born in France, but the family has moved around a lot, first to Germany, then to Switzerland, then to Belgium, and are about to move to London if they haven’t already. Mom speaks mostly German to the kids, and of course they were exposed to it environmentally in Germany, and then Swiss German in Switzerland. They have pretty much always been in international schools. I don’t know how their Flemish is, and the younger kid was much more comfortable in German than in English for a while, but he seems to have evened out between the two languages. I figure by the time they hit puberty, they’ll be able to function in pretty much any Germanic language, but will have lost most of their French.

Yet another friend is an Italian married to a Korean, living in New York. Their first kid is 2, and the second one will be born in September. His Italian is excellent (he was educated through university there), but her Korean is pretty much kitchen Korean (she moved to the U.S. at age 2 and only speaks it with her parents, and I don’t know whether she reads it at all). They want to raise their kids at least bilingual, but how? They are workaholics who are never home - the one kid knows a few words of Italian, and is taking Chinese (!) classes, but I (and her parents) fear she will miss out. Unless they find an Italian-speaking nanny, which in NYC ought to be possible.

My folks sort of did OPOL. My dad’s native tongue is Portuguese and my mom’s is Spanish. Mom and Grandma spoke to me primarily in Spanish and Dad spoke to me in Portuguese. They also sent me to stay with relatives in Brazil for a few summers. English I learned in school and from friends.

As a result, I am pretty fluent in Portuguese and somewhat fluent in Spanish. It helps that both parents now live in Brazil and speak Portuguese.

I had a friend in college who was raised in Switzerland by a German father and an American mother. Her father spoke only German to her and her sister, her mother spoke only English to them, and the parents spoke French to each other (which, of course, led to my friend and her sister learning French so they could understand what their parents were trying to hide). She and her sister both turned out trilingual (I’m sure going to international schools and being exposed to French and German outside the home didn’t hurt, either). So it’s another example of the OPOL situation, I guess.

We’re sort of trying the OPOL approach although it’s closer to 1 parent - 3 languages and the other parent one of those 3. My wife speaks Taiwanese, Mandarin and English and a little Japanese. I pretty much only speak English with some French and a few phrases in Taiwanese and Mandarin. The problem is that my wife speaks mostly English when I’m around. My wife is trying to do mostly play groups with other Taiwanese/Mandarin speakers so our kids pick that up more, English will come easily with school. My daughter just turned 4 and is fully bilingual and the few words my 1 1/2 year old son speaks are about 20% English -80% Mandarin.

Some fine advice here. We’ve raised our six year old son bilingually in Japanese and English: I use English, my wife uses Japanese, and he slips easily and naturally between the two without even noticing. He also gets told off in two languages!

My advice:

Make sure she has external English supports, so the language isn’t just an “at home” thing. She needs to be involved in the culture as well as the language, with other speakers her own age. Joseph was in an informal Japanese playgroup organised by a group of ex-pat Japanese parents before he went to school.

Cultural resources are important so the language doesn’t exist in a vacuum for her: kids need books, movies, comics, games… Japanese resources can be hard and expensive to obtain here - you should find it easier for English resources in Japan - so families just pooled what books and magazines they had, and had friends and relatives send over stuff.

They built up quite an impressive little private library, got education funding for more on the basis of that, hired a hall once a week, and now the playgroup has split into the preschool arm and a school age library and reading group, where he goes once a week after school. It needn’t be that expensive, but it does need time and commitment.

The moral? Get other parents on board if possible, to create an environment she can be in which isn’t so much book learning and language lessons as a little island of English culture relevant to the kids’ ages: that way it isn’t seen as work.

We keep that up at home, too: he gets two bedtime stories each night; one English and one Japanese. It’s pretty much equal time for both languages.

Some authorities will tell you that raising kids bilingually retards their acquisition
of writing and reading skills slightly, but I haven’t noticed it myself.

Hope that helps.

My comment on raising multi-lingual kids is that I really regret that I wasn’t taught my mother’s birth language, Low German, because my father didn’t speak it. I have heard that learning only one language as a child makes it extremely difficult to pick up more languages later in life; learning two or more languages as a kid keeps the language-learning door open, so to speak. It sounds like you’re on the right track, TokyoPlayer.

My SIL is Japanese. My bro speaks English, my SIL speaks Japanese and my niece is in French Emersion. Niece is flunt in all three languages. Success!


My nephew, who is younger does well with English (speaking, hearing, etc), can understand Japanese but refuses to speak it - not even to his mother. So I think it can be very dependant on the child.

As far as issues - the only one I know of is that when my niece was small she would get outraged if the ‘wrong’ people spoke the wrong language - so if my mom or brother spoke Japanese she would get totally upset - ditto if my SIL spoke English. It was actually quite funny and has now totally resolved.

I agree with other posters - the kid will pick up the language used at school without any help from home. At the age of four I was sent to preschool and the only English I knew was “I need to go to the bathroom.” (My mom was nothing if not pragmatic.) My parents made it a point to speak only Korean at home, but it wasn’t long before English became my primary language. (I’d say I’m equally fluent in both, though, at least when it comes to reading and speaking.)

My brother is also more or less bilingual, but his English is definitely inferior compared to his Korean. We moved to Korea when he was 7 and I was 13, so that probably has something to do with it.

My boss is raising a trilingual child. Spanish from Dad, Arabic from Mom, English from Daycare (as well as English being how her parents communicate with each other). They also expose her to tv/movies/music in all three languages in equal portions. When she watches her favorite, say, disney movies, they change the language at different viewings.

Thanks everyone for your good suggestion and experiences. A lot of this is reinforcing what I thought.

How does your wife handle the difference between speaking in Mandarin and Taiwanese? We’re talking about the best way to do this, as my wife really wants our daughter to speak both. How does she differentiate between the languages? Is your daughter picking up both?

I’ve heard this from another father. It sounds like it’s part of the stage small children go though when they want a lot of order in their lives. My friend said his son would freak if he and is wife switched places at the table.

I’m glad to hear another voice for what others say, just make it fun, not work.

I’ve read a book and other articles by scholars who specialize in bilingual children, and they don’t believe that bilingualism retard learning. There have been some studies, but often the studies are performed in the weaker language, for example.

Regardless, we’re committed to multilingualism.

This is what everyone says, that it takes talking to the kids a lot. Fortunately, my work doesn’t keep me at the office as late as most Japanese.