The Pleasure of Raising Multilingual Children

4 April 2017

Last month we published Raising Multilingual Children by Julia Festman, Gregory J. Poarch and Jean-Marc Dewaele. In this post, Jean-Marc discusses his own experience of bringing up a multilingual daughter and explains what inspired him and his co-authors to write the book.  

Parents everywhere in the world want the best for their children. It means looking after their physical and psychological health as well as their education. I remember reading books with my wife when she was pregnant with Livia about the best ways to raise children. We felt a little overwhelmed by the amount of information and the occasionally contradictory suggestions on how to be good parents. We were also struck by the strong opinions people had about early multilingualism. Many expressed doubts about it being beneficial for the child “before a first language” settled in: wasn’t there a risk of the child ending up with a “muddled” linguistic system, unable to distinguish between the languages? Others wondered whether growing up with multiple languages might lead to an absence of clear linguistic and cultural roots for the child.

Having read my former PhD supervisor, Hugo Baetens Beardsmore’s (1982) book, Bilingualism: Basic Principles, my wife and I decided that the potential benefits of early multilingualism outweighed the potential drawbacks, and when Livia was born in London in 1996, my wife used Dutch with her, I used French, with English spoken all around us. She picked up Urdu from her Pakistani child-minder, who spoke English and Urdu with the English-speaking children. We were a bit concerned that the introduction of a fourth first language might be too much for Livia, but this fear turned out to be unfounded and her languages developed at a normal pace – though Urdu faded away after the age of two and a half when she moved to an English nursery school. From the moment she started speaking, she was perfectly capable of separating her languages, and switching from one to another effortlessly depending on the linguistic repertoire of her interlocutor. She still sounds like a native speaker in her three languages and consistently got some of the highest marks for English during her primary and secondary education. The brain of a baby is like a sponge: sufficient and regular linguistic input will allow it to absorb the languages in its environment. There is no danger of the brain ‘overheating’ because of exposure to too many languages.

Livia’s case is the first story in the book Raising Multilingual Children that has just come out. It includes Livia’s own view on her multilingualism at the age of ten and sixteen. My co-authors Greg Poarch and Julia Festman tell the story of their trilingual children. Greg’s son, Loïc, speaks two minority languages (English and Dutch) at home and uses German outside of his home. Julia’s daughter and son, Aya and Noam, grew up as trilinguals from birth, with two minority languages (English and Hebrew) at home and German outside. The situation changed when Julia’s husband passed away and the input in Hebrew dried up. Now German is the majority language spoken inside and outside of their home and English is the language used at school. Greg, Julia and I decided to pool our family experiences with three languages to produce a book for the general public informed by the academic research. We adopted an issue-related approach and agreed that we would present tips based on examples from our daily lives to highlight things that worked, and strategies that backfired with our children. The book contains concrete and practical ideas to implement multilingualism in the household.

For more information about this book, please see our website. If you found this interesting, you might also like A Parents’ and Teachers’ Guide to Bilingualism by Colin Baker, Language Strategies for Trilingual Families by Andreas Braun and Tony Cline, and Xiao-lei Wang’s books, Growing up with Three Languages and Maintaining Three Languages.

 


An Interview with Xiao-lei Wang, author of Maintaining Three Languages

20 November 2015

This month we published Maintaining Three Languages by Xiao-lei Wang which explores her experience of bringing up teenagers multilingually. We asked Xiao-lei a few questions about her book.

Maintaining Three LanguagesWhat makes your book different from others that have been published before?

There are numerous ways in which my new book differs from other books currently on the market. Due to space limit, I will only mention a few here.

  • Unlike most parenting advice books, in which parents tend to be treated as passive readers and are rarely provided with access to original sources, this book takes a different approach by considering parents as active and intelligent readers. To this end, parents are provided with original research sources; references and further readings are suggested at the end of each chapter for those interested in pursuing the topics discussed. In the same vein, some jargon and technical terminologies regarding multilingualism are deliberately introduced to empower parents to access research literature directly if they wish to do so. When jargon and technical terms are introduced, they are explained in simpler language.
  • This book does not consider adolescents’ multilingual development as an isolated linguistic phenomenon; rather, it addresses multilingual development concurrently with other aspects of adolescent life such as biological, cognitive, and social development. The purpose is to encourage parents to consider taking a holistic approach that aims to cultivate a whole person rather than just a multilingual person.
  • This book addresses the impact of multilingual family welfare, a topic that has been largely neglected in the published literature. Parents from multilingual families often come from different cultural backgrounds. As a result, the multilingual childrearing process may affect the coherence and well-being of multilingual families. Practical strategies are provided to help parents be mindful of family well-being.
  • This book includes practical and easy-to-use language and literacy measures that parents can use to better understand their teen’s multilingual development of words, grammar and language production. By understanding their teen’s current heritage-language development levels, parents can focus on the areas in which their teen needs more support.
  • This book is written in a reader-friendly style with a balance of scholarly rigor and reader accessibility. To increase readers’ enjoyment, I have included many interesting and meaningful personal anecdotes. Parents will probably enjoy a book with real-life anecdotes more than a dry advice book that presents information out of context.

How will your readers find your book useful?

Readers may find my book useful in the following areas:

  • Because this book is rooted in my own child and adolescent rearing experiences in the everyday context, parents can easily relate to what I discussed in the book.
  • The practical strategies I proposed in the book can be implemented easily by parents. In addition, these strategies are based on research and personal practice.
  • This book provides parents a platform on which they can reflect on their own multilingual childrearing practice.
  • The book empowers parents by showing them that although multilingual childrearing is challenging, it is possible with the right strategies and support.

Was it difficult writing about your own children?

Not at all! On the contrary, I found that writing about my children has been the most enjoyable writing experience in my academic career. When writing other books or research articles, I can, once in a while, feel bored. This never happened when I wrote about my own children. In a way, this is natural: what can be more engaging when a mother writes about her own children, who are such an important part of her life?

What’s the most important advice you would offer to parents of multilingual teenagers?

To support adolescent multilingual development, I consider the following strategies crucial:

  • Raising a happy teen is more important than raising a multilingual teen. Thus, taking a holistic approach in promoting teens’ social, cognitive, and identity development should be a priority.
  • Parents need to change their roles from manager of their children’s lives to their consultants.
  • Set up realistic and achievable goals together with your teens about their multilingual development. Empower them by letting them be a part of the decision-making process involving their own multilingual development.

What are the advantages of growing up multilingual?

Research has shown that there are more advantages than disadvantages to being multilingual.

Cognitive and Academic Advantages

  • Multilinguals tend to be better at problem solving, because tackling a problem successfully requires focusing on some aspects of the information and ignoring the others (selective attention).
  • Multilinguals may possess an added mental flexibility and creativity because they regularly switch between different languages (mental flexibility).
  • Multilinguals tend to have more than one set of cultural tools with which to interpret the world. These tools can foster competent behaviors in multiple cultures. For instance, an individual who has extensive knowledge and experiences in cultures A and B may be able to retrieve ideas from cultures A and B spontaneously, place them in juxtaposition, and integrate the two into a novel idea through creative insight. This process is referred to as novel conceptual combination.
  • Multilinguals have an advantage in knowledge transfer from their different languages. Compared with monolinguals, multilinguals can benefit greatly from knowledge acquired in their multiple languages to enrich their learning and understanding.
  • Proficiency in more than one language has been shown to be associated with high academic achievement. Individuals who have the ability to switch between two or more languages also exhibit higher cognitive functioning than those who abandon one of their heritage languages. Research shows that when children were encouraged to further develop their home language, the skills they built in that language helped their mainstream language literacy development. In fact, the longer children receive reinforcement in their home language, the better they learn their mainstream language.

Linguistic Advantages

  • Multilingual individuals tend to have a metalinguistic advantage when compared to their monolingual counterparts. They are more sanative about the language phenomenon in their ambient languages.
  • They have more linguistic resources available to them.
  • The multilingual faculty also facilitates new language learning. This is perhaps because multilinguals are more experienced language learners who have potentially developed more language learning strategies than monolinguals and have a larger linguistic and intercultural repertoire at their disposal.

Other Advantages

  • In having knowledge about their heritage language(s), children and adolescents have an advantage in accessing their heritage culture and communicating with their heritage family. Research suggests that children who speak their parents’ heritage language(s) enjoy better relationships with their families and are less likely to be alienated from their parents and relatives.
  • Multilinguals have the privilege of accessing different sources of information and they can read books and newspapers, as well as watch news and films, in several languages. This makes them more versatile and helps them to approach things from multiple perspectives.
  • Moreover, multilingualism can increase a person’s social circle to include friends from many parts of the world. When travelling to another country, being able to speak the language really helps bring people together and facilitates communication, exchange and socialization.
  • Being multilingual has career advantages as well. In the increasingly globalized world, multilinguals have a competitive advantage in the job market.
  • Research has shown that people who are proficient in their heritage language tend to have higher self-esteem, are more confident in achieving goals, feel they have more control over their lives, and have more ambitious plans for the future.

Given all the advantages mentioned above and many others that I have not mentioned, it is definitely worthwhile to raise multilingual children and adolescents. As Stephen Krashen, an expert in second language learning, commented, “Heritage language development appears to be an excellent investment. For a small effort…the payoffs are enormous.” Another well-known multilingual expert, Colin Baker, also echoed that multilingualism has more advantages than drawbacks.

However, I would like to caution that multilingualism affects individuals differently. Some multilinguals may develop particularly strong intellectual and linguistic abilities as a byproduct of multiple language leaning and use. Other multilinguals may have relatively weaker abilities in their respective languages because input in or exposure to each language is not evenly distributed. It is important to have a realistic view of multilingual effects and understand that there is no guarantee that being multilingual will result in benefits that are associated with multilingualism as described above, nor does it suggest that multilingualism is the cause of all the problems. Thus, not all multilinguals will function superbly or equally well; rather, the multilingual effects on an individual depend on many complex factors, including the individual child or adolescent’s sociolinguistic environments, parental support, aptitude, motivation and personality.

What is your next research project?

I have several projects in progress. For example,

  • Multilingual children’s figurative language development (such as idioms)
  • Multilingual children’s syncretic language use
  • In addition, I plan to write a comprehensive handbook on multilingual children and adolescents, tentatively titled Everything You Want to Know about Bilingual and Multilingual Childrearing.

Growing up with Three LanguagesIf you found this interesting you might also like Xiao-lei’s other books: Growing up with Three Languages and Learning to Read and Write in the Multilingual Family. Information about all her books can be found on our website.


New videos on bilingualism and parenting on our YouTube channel

13 May 2014
What should I do if my childteenager refuses to use one of hisher languages

One of Colin’s videos

To coincide with the publication of the 4th edition of A Parents’ and Teachers’ Guide to Bilingualism we asked the author, Colin Baker, to tell us a bit more about the book.

He has filmed 15 videos, which are now available to view on Multilingual Matters’ YouTube channel.  In some of the videos Colin answers questions which appear in the book, such as:

Others videos discuss the history of the book and Colin describes how the idea came about, how the 4th edition differs from previous editions and how his views have changed since the original publication.

All the videos are available as single files, each one lasting between 1 and 6 minutes, and the complete playlist can be found here.  Alternatively, a single film containing all the videos is available here.

A Parents’ and Teachers’ Guide to Bilingualism is available to buy from our website as both a print and ebook.


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