Bilingualism in Multicultural Family

Nurturing bilingualism
©NinonDufrénois2024

My husband and I have brought up truly bilingual children. All three are now fluent in English in terms of comprehension, speaking and reading. Bilingualism goes beyond simple greetings and responses; it embodies a whole culture. Our children’s acquisition of English has been organic. We have never subjected them to formal lessons, we have never devoted special time to learning another language, and we have never forced a conversation in English on them. On the contrary, the English language was seamlessly integrated into our lives and theirs. This bond has been cultivated through our shared passion for English language and different cultures, and it has become a natural part of their identity, as it has of ours.

Our approach has fostered a relaxed and immersive environment, allowing their minds to excel naturally. Learning a language, whether for children or adults, is based on genuine motivation. We naturally pursue what we need and want. Our eldest daughter started acquiring new languages effortlessly. Within a year, she had learned Spanish proficiently, demonstrating remarkable comprehension and basic speaking skills. She is now exploring Japanese and American sign language, driven by curiosity and a desire to communicate. At 16, her command of English surpasses our own. She knows that mastering several languages isn’t actually that complicated, it just takes a little time, persistence and patience.

The challenges of raising a multicultural family

Raising a bilingual child can sometimes prove to be a greater challenge in multicultural families, which may surprise those who think that this is a condition for successful bilingualism. However, it is not uncommon to see immigrant families whose children speak the language of their adopted country rather than that of their parents. Similarly, children from multicultural families may understand both of the languages spoken by their parents, but refuse to speak one of them due to a variety of psychological and social factors. This phenomenon is known as ‘selective language use’ or ‘language refusal’.

Here are a few reasons that may explain this behaviour:

  • Social identity: Children often develop a strong sense of identity and belonging. They may associate speaking a particular language with a certain culture or identity, and sometimes they struggle with the idea of speaking a language that doesn’t resonate with their immediate environment or peers.
  • Peer pressure: Children are strongly influenced by their peers. If the language spoken at home is not commonly spoken by their friends or classmates, they may refuse to use it in order to fit in.
  • Dominant language: The language spoken predominantly in the community or country where they live may become the dominant language for children. They may prefer to use this language to communicate outside of home.
  • Communication patterns: Children often follow the communication patterns established by their parents. If one parent speaks mainly one language and the other speaks mainly a different one, children may naturally opt for the language of the parent with whom they communicate most.
  • Language skills: Sometimes children feel more comfortable understanding a language than speaking it. They may fear making mistakes or being embarrassed if they can’t express themselves perfectly.
  • Rebellion or independence: Rejecting a language can also be a way for children to assert their independence or rebel against their parents’ expectations, especially during adolescence.
  • Language preferences: Just as adults have language preferences, children may naturally gravitate towards one language over another, especially if they find it easier or more enjoyable to use.
  • Social pressure: We met a young man born to an American father and a Japanese mother. His parents immigrated to France when he was very young. His local primary school asked his parents to stop speaking to him in their respective languages so that he could integrate perfectly and succeed at school. Not only is this injunction false – the reality of bilingualism is far more complex – but it has been refuted by studies carried out in several Nordic countries such as Finland, which is officially a multilingual country, where all language groups have the constitutional right to maintain and develop their own languages. In fact, these studies have shown that abolishing mother-tongue training leads to a drop in school results and that mother-tongue education is crucial to children’s success at school and should be reconsidered. Today, this young man, who also lost his mother at a very young age, doesn’t particularly like school in general, speaks no language other than French and regrets not having preserved what links him to his Japanese and American origins. A sad consequence of an unfounded opinion.

Whether it’s for cultural preservation, family communication, academic success (research suggests that being bilingual can have cognitive benefits, such as improving problem-solving skills, creativity and the ability to multi-task), or social integration, never give up speaking your native language with your children.

Strategies for nurturing bilingualism in a multicultural family

It is important that parents understand the process of bilingualism and create a supportive environment. I’d also like to make an important point: encouraging a child to speak a language they understand but don’t actively use can be a gradual and supportive process. Here are some strategies parents can consider:

  • Create a positive environment: Make it enjoyable and stress-free to learn a language. Use games, stories, songs and activities that are attractive and fun.
  • Be consistent: Always use the target language at home, even if the child responds in the other language. Over time, this can help the child feel more comfortable using the language.
  • Family activities: Organise family activities that require the use of the target language, such as game nights, cookery evenings or film nights. This creates natural opportunities for communication.
  • Read aloud: Reading stories, particularly in the target language, can be very effective. You can read stories aloud to your child, or you can read together, which children really enjoy.
  • Cartoons and films: Watch cartoons and films in the target language. Animated content often uses simple language and visual cues to make it easier to understand.
  • Play dates: Organise outings with other children who speak the target language. Interacting with peers who use the language can motivate the child to do the same.
  • Storytelling: Encourage children to create their own stories or drawings related to the language. This allows them to express themselves creatively.
  • Non-threatening language tutor: If you use a language tutor, make sure their approach is non-threatening and enjoyable. Reading stories, art activities or language-related games can be helpful.
  • Cooking and crafts: Take part in cooking or craft activities that involve using the target language. This provides a practical context for communication.
  • Positive reinforcement: Praise and recognise the child’s efforts in using the target language. Positive reinforcement can increase their self-confidence.
  • Patience: Be patient and understanding. Avoid pressuring the child to speak the language. Instead, create opportunities for them to use it naturally.
  • Cultural Exposure: Introduce the child to the culture associated with the language. This can spark their interest and curiosity to learn more about it.

Each journey is unique

Remember that every child is unique and the approach that works best depends on their personality, interests and comfort level. Encouraging the use of several languages, making language use fun through games, stories and cultural activities, and exposing children to contexts where each language is valued can help to combat the refusal to speak one language more than another and promote multilingualism. The key to successful bilingualism is to make the use of each language an enjoyable and enriching experience that matches the child’s needs and preferences. They have plenty of time to make this other language their own.

If you’re experiencing difficulties with your children’s bilingualism, a refusal to speak in one language or a lack of fluency in another, don’t hesitate to contact us. We offer affordable coaching sessions and have been supporting multilingual families for several years now.

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