Being bilingual – the ability to speak two languages rather badly

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But it’s übercool…..

Are you one of many parents out there bringing up kids bi- or trilingually? Are you sick of parents of monolingual kids telling you “Wow, your kids are so lucky” whilst you trawl through Maths in another language when you actually never really got it in your mother tongue? You barely understand the order of operations BODMA rule in English let alone its German KLAPUSTRI equivalent?

Oh I get you! I seriously do. All very time consuming when you are working and homework sessions seem to go on forever. Bringing up children bilingually takes a lot of commitment and consistency. I know it as I’ve been there, done it and yes, have two wonderful bicultural and bilingual children that move in and out of languages and cultures with the flexibility of an American Express platinum card.

But the early days were tough. As a British mother bringing two kids up in Austria, a lot of my friends and colleagues were constantly telling me how lucky I was that my kids were bilingual. I knew in my heart of hearts that this would be great long-term and their future employers would profit from their linguistic assets, but at home I was listening to the dreadful sounds of Denglish, and there was a time when every sentence my kids uttered was painful to my ears. These ranged from word order issues such as “Mummy, I want to the toilet go” (German sentence structure), to verb confusion “French did entfallen today” (was cancelled) and general noun usage errors like “Mum, can you make me a Wurstbrot” (open sandwich with luncheon meat) for words that didn’t really exist in English.

The only book I read on the topic was a bit dry (there were unfortunately no blogs back then) but the message I extracted from it was “keep it consistent” and this has definitely paid off.

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Bilingual tips and tricks

Let’s break it down into bitesize pieces and see how raising kids bilingually can be done as effectively as possible. Here are five ways of ensuring that bilingualism works:

  1. Be consistent. If you are the parent responsible for a particular language, stick to your mother tongue. Even if your child answers you back in the local language and you speak that language fluently or with your partner. Just don’t budge!
  2. Correct your child in a genteel fashion – the best way to do this is to repeat the incorrect sentence correctly, without pointing it out to the child. This is a bit tedious at the beginning as you may feel that every short exchange turns into a mammoth dialogue, but it really helps.
  3. Expose your child to as much of the less present language as possible, this may be in terms of TV, films and books from the lesser predominant culture. Find ways of making the language attractive – watching films together, cooking, inviting friends over and speaking the language. Their friends will often find having a bilingual friend rather exciting. Talking to them is really important!
  4. Keep family ties going with trips to their “other” culture(s) in the holidays and with Facetime & co, it’s easy to stay in contact with grandma and grandad or other relatives across the seas. This should be encouraged at a young age as teenagers sometimes want to travel less for FOMO as they get more integrated into their local life.
  5. Maybe your child can gain recognised qualifications in a language in the country you are residing in. In the UK it is possible to do a GCSE in most languages and although the school can’t provide all the teaching, they are usually more than happy for pupils go gain qualifications in their mother tongue.

Global Mindset

Many parents feel guilty about bringing up kids in different cultures as there are transitional periods when kids suffer from the change. Trilingualism (e.g. parents with two different mother tongues living in a third country) may take a bit more effort and it often depends on the child as to how they cope with it.

Thankfully, it will all unfold with time. My children have been penalised somewhat in school systems – in Austria their lack of knowledge of English grammar such as when to use the present progressive meant they didn’t always get top marks in English despite their fluency.

In the UK they were able to do their German exams (GCSEs and A-Levels) early but they found doing scientific subjects difficult in English because of lack of knowledge and language. In exam scenarios they have to think long and hard about the differences between “examine”, “explain” and “analyse” in questions, partly because this approach is very British but also because their vocabulary is smaller in both languages. And yet they were never considered by the system in the UK to need extra time as they didn’t sound “foreign” enough.

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Don’t underestimate the importance of linguistic assets

Being a multilinguist is a great skill for future employers and companies love ‘em! The neuroplasticity of bilingual brains is extensive. Do they think out of the box? Quite frankly NO! Because they don’t have any boxes to think out of! They are flexible, open-minded, empathetic, inclusive and very useful team members as they see value in and create synergy from different ideas and approaches.

Gone are the days when bilingualism was frowned upon – the tut-tutting of immigrants using their language on public transport or when immigrants were told by kindergartens and schools to speak the local language at home.

It’s something to be proud of and companies definitely do not undervalue linguistic assets. These days being ahead globally means having both knowledge of foreign markets and speaking foreign languages. So being bilingual gives you a step ahead – and it’s okay if your kids are not perfectly balanced bilinguals.  The effort and hard work you put in in their younger years is definitely worth it in the long run.

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Email me now at vanessa@paisley-communication.com to start a conversation on bringing up children multilingually.

And please share if you know anyone who may benefit from reading this.

About the author:

Vanessa has been training intercultural communication in various locations for around 14 years and is passionate about helping people relocate and reach their maximum potential from their time abroad.

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5 thoughts on “Being bilingual – the ability to speak two languages rather badly

  1. Dear Vanessa! “Du sprichst mir aus dem Herzen!” Reading your blog is a really awesome! I’ve been there – facing this language challenge – and I still am! But as you say, the children benefit from our ‘Mum struggles’ and I am so happy that my children even prefer the English language (rather than German) today! My daughter is moving to England in September – leaving the rustration of the Austrian school system behind. The adventure of bilingualism is challenging but very rewarding at the same time!
    Lots of love, Nico

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Nico. Glad you liked it! It was really written from my heart and has been received well. You’ve always played a big role in the community too and it’s amazing how your kids have embraced it. Perseverance and fun is important. I’m sure Kaya will love it in the UK. We must meet up!, Vanessa x

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  2. This was great! I will need to bookmark this. I plan on raising my future child tri-lingually: English, Vietnamese, and Chinese. It’s gunna be hard because neither me nor my partner know each other’s languages well enough to converse. We both thought of individually speaking to our kids in our respective languages but stuck on how we should talk to each other. If we speak in English then I have a feeling it will just end up being our main language used at home. What’s your take on this?

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    1. Hope it will help you in the future. Of course some scenarios may seem complicated at first. I would stick to your own languages and speak English to each other. Dinner times will be interesting but we must remember that a lot of exchanges take place two-way (parent and child). This will make sure that language is reinforced.

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