5 mistakes parents make when trying to raise bilingual children

[ 0 ] 13/09/2022 |

6. 5 mistakes parents make when trying to raise bilingual children by Rita Rosenback

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When I was born, way back then in a little village in Finland, my circumstances made me predestined to grow up bilingual. Why do I say this? My parents, unbeknown to them, used a very effective way of passing on their respective mother tongues. My mother was from a 100% Finnish-speaking family and only ever spoke Finnish with me. My father, while fluent in Finnish, preferred Swedish. To be exact, he – like every Swedish speaker around me – spoke a Finland-Swedish dialect, which is very different from standard Swedish. The majority language of our village was the Swedish dialect, so this is what I used with all my paternal relatives and neighbors. My parents spoke Finnish between them, so this gave me a little more exposure to Finnish, as did the frequent visits to my maternal relatives in the neighboring village. Not until I started school at the age of seven, did I learn to speak standard Swedish. 

So ingrained in me was the routine of speaking Swedish with my father and Finnish with my mother that when writing a postcard to them during my first solo trip abroad, I did it in both languages with every second word in Finnish and Swedish. I felt that either my mother or father would feel that the card was for the other parent should I have written the card only in one language. I was 19 at the time, and my bilingual upbringing had left a strong mark on my language preferences.

My parents did what came naturally to them when they chose the languages they spoke with me and my brother. They did this without reading any books or anybody advising them, and it worked out beautifully. Both my brother and I became fluent bilinguals in Swedish and Finnish. Shouldn’t the same apply to any other family where more than one language is spoken? Unfortunately not. For example, had my mother been bilingual, she might well have chosen to speak Swedish too, to make life easier. In that case, my brother and I would probably have struggled with learning Finnish at school, as most of our peers did.  

There are many ways to raise children to speak the family languages, but there are some aspects that are crucial to a successful multilingual upbringing. Having connected with thousands of parents in multilingual families, here are some of the most common mistakes I have come across that parents might make when passing on more than one language to their kids.

  1. Believing that their child will automatically become bilingual

Just like me, many bilinguals have grown up to naturally master the family languages, without anyone paying too much attention to the process: the circumstances happened to be ideal. This can however not be taken for granted. Just because a family uses two (or more) languages does not mean that the children will automatically learn to speak them. The children may become what is known as passive or receptive bilinguals which means that they understand the family languages but only speak the community language.

– It doesn’t happen by magic!

  1. Not being consistent

To be in with the best possible chance of successfully raising their child to become bilingual, parents should try to be consistent in their language use. Research has shown that children whose parents readily switch from one language to another are more likely to stop using the minority language with their parents. This usually happens at the point when the children get more exposure to the community language through nursery or school. If parents have maintained a consistent language pattern at home the chances are considerably higher that the minority language will continue to be a language in active use for the children. The importance of consistency grows the less exposure there is to a language. In a family with an equal amount of exposure to both/all languages, there is less need for consistency in language choice.

– Language: choose it and use it and you won’t lose it!

  1. Giving up too easily

There are several obstacles to overcome when bringing up a bilingual child. Parents need to be committed to the task, so these challenges don’t derail them. The best thing to do is to learn about the possible hurdles in advance and be aware of the myths surrounding bilingual children – and most of all, have the confidence to continue when it feels like there is no progress.

– Don’t be the parent who failed to plan!

  1. Leaving it until later

While it is never too late to learn a language (as a child or even as an adult), it is true that the earlier a child starts to learn the family languages the easier the journey is. Waiting until the child has learned the community language means that the family is used to only speaking the community language, a pattern that is not easy to change.

– Leave it until later and later may never come!

  1. Not seeking help and support

Being a parent is not a walk in the park at the best of times. Throwing an extra language or two into the mix does not make it any easier. It is sad to see children miss out on growing up learning more than one language and being able to speak with their grandparents or other relatives. The situation could have been different, had the parents sought advice on how to make sure that the family languages are passed on to the next generation.

– A wise parent asks for advice when needed!

NEXT CHAPTER: Language delays in multilingual children: what are they and what to do about them

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