Our journey raising multilingual children

[ 0 ] 13/02/2019 |
Photo by Sandra Rogers

This is our story on how we managed to save our family’s minority languages, and how our eldest developed language skills in two additional languages.

Intercultural and interracial marriages are on the rise according to​ ​studies​, whilst more parents, particularly in USA and Europe, are adopting children from other countries. As a result, our communities are growing increasingly diverse and it is no longer surprising to see families composed of different ethnicities and cultures who speak several languages.

My family is an example of this. Our kids were born in different countries, one in Malta and the other one in Norway, and we all have different nationalities. Our daughter is a bit over 2 years old and doesn’t speak clearly yet. She combines words here and there from our different home languages in order to communicate. Thus, I will focus on our linguistic journey with our 5 1/2-year-old.

Erik has been spending months at a time in between Malta, Greece, Norway, and Thailand. He speaks Norwegian, Greek, English, he understands Swedish and has a small vocabulary in Thai.

In the following two videos you will see a boy having fun while singing and speaking in all his languages within 2 minutes.

All this sounds wonderful and it truly is. I am very happy and super proud that he has made it that far. But I need to share with you though that the road has been bumpy. You see, multiple language acquisition is not linear. It’s not like you learn some vocabulary, grammar, and syntax per language and you just keep on building on that. Things happen in life, other languages can take over, language regression is real.

Multilingual children always advance and try to catch up with the community language. Their different languages fluency can and does fluctuate according to the environment and life’s circumstances. I remember when I was pregnant and later on when Erik was a baby, I was thinking that it would just work out. We would speak to him in our different main languages and he would pick them up. Afterall, multilingualism is what’s ‘normal’ in so many countries in the world, including Malta, the country where Erik was born. In Malta, for instance, the locals are at the bare minimum bilingual. English and Maltese are both official languages whereas the vast majority of the population is also fluent in Italian.

Roy and I decided to use the OPOL method for language acquisition which is one of the most popular language strategies. OPOL is exactly the way it sounds, each person speaks one language, (usually their most dominant language) to your child. Whether it be a parent, grandparent, another family member, friend, or teacher, it is the same approach. For example, I am a native Greek speaker and speak to my children only in Greek. My husband is a native Norwegian speaker and speaks only Norwegian to them. Our family language, the one we speak when we are all together, is English.

For the first 2 1/2 years of our son’s life, the community language was English. All social interactions were taking place in English both with Maltese people and expats. Our son didn’t attend a playschool and my husband and I worked home-based. As a result, our son had been involved in our daily activities and he was exposed to the community language plus the minority languages on a daily basis through environmental and social settings.

Working home-based has also given us the possibility of traveling often and spending a lot of time in different countries, including the ones where his 3 main languages are spoken. Erik was often fully immersed in the local communities. I believe that these factors were crucial to the development of his language skills. Nothing was forced, it just came naturally at of his sheer need to communicate.

At that point of age, Erik would choose to answer to us in the language he felt most comfortable with, and his preferred one had already cleared out to be the community one, English. Greek came second when it comes to fluency and Norwegian third. Roy would talk to him in Norwegian for instance, Erik understood but he would choose to answer in English. And this was absolutely fine with us. We would never make him refrain from his communicative instinct. We simply kept on speaking in our own languages, trying to raise our children naturally in a multilingual home. Our primary goal with teaching our children our different languages has always been and will be, bonding and communication. The way I see it, languages are their ticket, they give them direct access to their different cultures of origins, the opportunity to form stronger relationships with their relatives and strengthen their roots.

After we moved to Norway, Erik’s English language skills had been deteriorating to the point where after about 4 months in Horten he no longer responded to us in English. Norwegian had already become his No.1 language. Within about half a year, his vocabulary and language skills were the same as for the other 3-year-old kids in Norway. For the second time in his life, he adjusted to the environment and showed a clear preference to the community language. Greek followed second. He started attending a Norwegian pre-school and shortly after our second child was born.

The birth of his sister proved to be quite traumatic for him and we went through 2 rough months where he was very angry and rejected me.
These factors contributed to me spending less time with him and thus minimizing his exposure to the Greek language. As a result, he regressed a lot in Greek and as I didn’t speak Norwegian we started having a major communication problem. English appeared to be gone. We had to save Greek. Can you imagine a mother not being able to communicate properly, in any language, with her child?

What happened next was that Greek family members visited us and we also went to Greece two times, for 1 month and 1 1/2 respectively, to fully immerse him again to the language and have him spend more time with me. This did the trick and he caught up with Greek again. Interestingly though, he now has a bit of a Norwegian accent when he speaks Greek.

When he was 4, Erik would visit Thailand again for the 3rd time in his life, for another long stay, 4 months this time. By that point, we thought that English was more or less lost, even though we assumed he still understood a bit. He proved us wrong. Within just 1 week in Thailand, he started making efforts to speak English again cause he quickly realized that it was a ‘common’ language. After 1 month, he had been using English again on a daily basis. He was no longer fluent, but he could make himself understood and he definitely did understand.

If we see languages for what they are, which is communication tools, this experience makes sense. All these languages, even if they became rusty because he didn’t use them so often, they were still available in his communication toolbox. When he needed to communicate, he chose the most appropriate one.

Erik also attended a Swedish kindergarten last winter in Thailand. The Swedish and the Norwegian languages are very similar and by the end of our stay there, Erik was able to translate some words from Norwegian to Swedish, making sure his classmates would understand him.

Right now we are back in Thailand, spending one more European winter in the same place, Koh Lanta. Erik caught up with Swedish much faster this time, and his vocabulary in Thai is even richer. English remains stable and it feels like he gets more and more comfortable with all his languages.

What will the future bring, I have no idea? I am well aware that language regression can happen at any point in their lives. And that’s OK. The basic knowledge of our different languages is there, and we, as parents, we will keep on using them at home, knowing that whenever our children will need any of these languages, once they start using them again, it will all come back <3

Category: Erik and me, Multicultural Kid, Resources for Malta Mums

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