Addressing many of the common issues facing multilingual families, Claire Thomas’ new book Growing Up with Languages offers a unique insight into multilingual childhoods using the recollections of multilingual adults. Claire Thomas helps to run the Waltham Forest Bilingual Group who support families with bilingual children via regular monthly drop-in events, quarterly workshops and speaker events. Here, Claire talks about the advantages of multilingualism and how grown-up multilinguals reminisce about their multilingual childhoods.
This week I facilitated a workshop for parents in multilingual families in Guildford, UK. At the end of the event, one of the parents attending came up to me and said: “It’s just so nice to know that other people are struggling with the same issues”. This has been said to us again and again at workshops and it shows how isolated and unsupported parents (in the UK) feel in terms of multilingualism. They question whether they are making the right decisions about which languages to speak to their children, they worry that their children will be disadavantaged at school if they learn languages other than English at home and they worry whether what their children are doing or saying is normal or not. It is because of comments like this that I am motivated to continue supporting Waltham Forest Bilingual Group and it is why we worked on the project that has resulted in the publication of a book in the Multilingual Matters Parents’ and Teachers’ Guides series Growing Up with Languages: Reflections on Multilingual Childhoods.
The book is based on interviews with people (now adults) about their childhoods – particularly about the languages that they were exposed to. In carrying out and analysing these interviews, I learnt a great deal: about how some children retained languages with very low input, while others did not; about how adult to adult speech might be more important than parents sometimes think; about how children seem to pick up on subtle clues about how much a parent cares about a language. The whole idea for the book was prompted by the fact that a leading academic in this field, Colin Baker, had said at a talk he gave to our group that even if children didn’t always appreciate speaking more than one language when they were young, they would be grateful once they reached adulthood. This turned out to be true, whilst most interviewees would change one or two small things about their childhoods, everyone said that they were very glad to be bi- or multilingul. The phrase “it’s a gift” sums it up and was used by several people – I like it because gifts normally cost the giver something (as in this case) but are appreciated by the recipient.
For more information on the Waltham Forest Bilingual Group or to get in touch with Claire, please visit www.wfbilingual.org.uk.