The Bi/Multilingual Child: A Language Plan by Salima Qureshi

As ex-pat “mammas” in Italy, raising bi/multilingual children is not a choice it is our reality.  Granting our children the opportunity to learn two or more languages is a precious gift.  We open their minds to different worlds and cultures, stimulate cognitive development, and enhance their academic and professional future.  However, this gift is not an easy one to give.  As parents in such a unique and rich family dynamic, we must plan and organize the manner in which we communicate with our children very carefully.  From the very beginning of our child’s life (preferably before birth) we as parents should create a language plan.  This is a mutual and realistic agreement of “who will speak what to who” in your family.  It ensures positive language models for children and avoids conflict or confusion.  This blue print of your child’s language acquisition requires: AGREEMENT, ORGANIZATION, CONSISTENCY, CULTURAL IMMERSION, and an abundance of, PATIENCE.

AGREEMENT: I consider this to be the most important factor of a language plan.  Family agreement is the first step to organizing communication and exploring your feelings in regards to raising your children as a bi/multicultural couple.  It consists of three major components:

1.  Acknowledge your mother tongue.  Many of us were raised in multicultural/lingual families or have lived in different countries across the span of our lives.  This may have resulted in a dominance and affection of several languages.  However, your mother-tongue is the language you are most comfortable speaking, reading and writing in.  It is the language in which you understand sarcasm, humor, vocabulary particular to culture, and most often the language that you spoke with your mother or were educated in.  Parent-child communication is most natural and effective when a parent uses his/her mother-tongue.  A parent should feel comfortable and confident when communicating with their child.  If a parent uses a language other than their mother tongue to communicate, there is a  risk of modeling innacurrate grammar and use of a reduced and simple vocabulary.  Remember, children speak what they hear and build language based on experience.

2.  Consider the majority language of the land where you live.  When raising our children using more than one language it is important to remember that people learn more than one language because of need.  Languages are used for functional and social-emotional purposes.  Your child will learn a language if he/she thinks it has use.  It is crucial to examine your situation and to decide what languages are of most importance in your family.  If you live in a place where there is a clear dominant language or “majority language” in the society, which is the language of the children your child will be playing with, you can be sure your child will learn that language.  If you speak a language that is not used much in the community you live in or the “minority language” and especially if you use the dominant community language with your partner, you are going to have to work hard to develop your child’s skills in that language.  I usually advise parents that children must hear and use a language at least 30% of their day for it to have any significance to them.

3.  Discuss your long term plans.  Do you plan on living in your current country for a substantial period of time or is it temporary?  Which language would you like your child educated in?  Is it important for your child to read and write in the language you have chosen for communication or is spoken proficiency sufficient?

*A sound agreement is the result of identifying your mother-tongue, chosing the languages that will mean the most to your child, considering where you will live, and the levels of proficiencies you expect.  It also means discussing feelings of isolation if your spouse does not speak your mother-tongue.

ORGANIZATION:  Once you have established your language of communication and desired levels of proficiency in each language, you must choose and organize a linguistic model.  This entails planning which language you will use to communicate with your child, which language you will use to communicate with your spouse, and more importantly, your family language.  There are endless numbers of models which are all valid.  In my experience, I find that the ONE PARENT-FACE ONE LANGUAGE model works well.  This is especially true in the case of language delayed toddlers.  This model of communication simply means that each parent must represent one language for the child.  Each parent must speak only their mother-tongue to the child.  Although it often seems unnatural when socializing or when you are outside of the home, it is a highly effective model.  Another more natural model is the use of  ONE FACE-PARENT ONE LANGUAGE with an established FAMILY LANGUAGE.  With this model, each parent will speak their mother-tongue with their child.  However, when communicating together as a family, all will speak only one of the two languages.  Most children recognize the difference between the languages that they speak and are spoken to by the age of 2.  Many families observe that their young toddlers quickly learn to code-switch.  This means that they change the language according to their communication partner in order to be understood.  An obstacle for effective use of all linguistic models is the phenomenon of language mixing.  Language mixing is a normal process that both children and adults within bi/multilingual communities use.  It is when we use words or phrases from different languages in one message.  However, language mixing may promote semi-lingualism.  If languages are mixed consistently and a child does not have a strong and clear language model, they may learn a language all of their own.  This may be comprised of bits and pieces of different languages instead of independent language systems.  There will be times when you must use a language other than your chosen language or you mix languages.  That is natural, it is inevitable.  The important thing to remember is to use one single language during imporant communicative interactions such as: giving directions, reading a book, or discussing an experience.

CONSISTENCY:  Once you choose your languages and create your linguistic model of communication, stick to it!  Communication should be natural and fun but remaining consistent is the key.  Majority language speaking parents must compromise and be supportive.  Minority language parents must be determined and secure.  Family members, friends, and yourselves as parents will question whether bi/multilingualism is the right thing to do.  This is normal.  All parents (even parents of monolingual children) have doubts.

CULTURAL IMMERSION: Since all of us communicate to serve functional and social purposes, cultural immersion is essential to bi/multilingualism.  Visits to countries where the “minority language” is the “majority language” allows children to appreciate and be proud of their bi/multilingualism.  It reinforces all areas of communication skills (receptive, expressive and social language) and gives children the opportunity to experience the “culture behind the language.”  Creating natural and language rich experiences with other children and families of bi/multilingual families is essential.  A support network is probably the most underestimated success factor.  Research and network to find others who are raising their children to speak your language.  Share your doubts and celebrate your triumphs!

PATIENCE AND DETERMINATION: Bi/multilingualism is a long-term commitment that will have both positive and negative phases.  Upon our return from a 2 month visit to New York City this Spring, my son Gabriel who is 2.7 months old was speaking predominantly English.  Our Italian family and friends as well as his teachers questioned his dominance of Italian, the fact that he was speaking “so much English” and the impact that this had on his social development being that he was born and is being raised in Italy.  My response to them was a strong affirmation of how proud I am that he is able to communicate so effectively in English, my chosen mother-tongue (I was raised by a Spanish-dominant mother Urdu-dominant father).  I reassured them that his language skills are within the normal range in English and that it is only natural that he “lost” some of his Italian language skills after a 2 month period of not hearing or using it.  I informed them that his strong language skills in English combined with proper Italian language models, and a positive and accepting attitude would result in good acquisition of Italian language skills.  Sure enough a month after our return, all are delighted to hear Gabriel as he begins to use complete sentences in Italian!  Do not worry if your child does not speak multiple languages as quickly or as adeptly as his/her peers.  Bilingual children as do monolingual children have their own timelines and develop their ability to understand language before speaking.  The use of multiple languages may mildly delay expressive communication.  However, do educate yourself or request information from your pediatrician or educators regarding normal communication development.  It is of upmost importance not to mistake bi/multilingualism for a language delay.

Remember to focus upon success and always be positive and praise!  Know that when your child says something sweet or wise to you in your mother-tongue and communicates with friends and family in your homeland you will be overwhelmed with pride!  The commitment and dedication will be worth it in the long run!

I have a MS and am a practicing  Speech-Language Pathologist  If you have concerns or  any questions regarding your child’s speech-language development, please do not hesitate to contact me via email: sqslp@hotmail.com.

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4 replies »

  1. I love it! I have a wonderful experience with my oldest daughter . I am from Mexico , my husband is Italian and we live in Brazil .. We are going to move to Italy in the en of February 2014 . My daughter speak 3 languages. She have 3 nationalities .. Italian for her father ,Brazilian because she born in Brazil and Mexican for me. Because she was premature baby ( 30 weeks/ 7 months) . She needs to do physiotherapy and speak languages session .. So like you say .. I speak Spanish to her , my husband Italian and she learn Portuguese in the school.. Now with 5 years all she speaks , Italian , Portuguese and Spanish .. This is great because now I am not going to worry so much to move to Italy , because she will be able to speak Italian .

  2. I’m only just seeing this posts and comments, although I see they are more than a year old I thought I’d share what works for me in regards to what to do when non-Italian speakers are around. For those people we have a close relationship with and see frequently, we have told them that I speak only English to our children. Now with both boys in school (ages 4 and 7) that circle is widening and while most people know I am English mother-tongue I often do fear people will be offended or feel left out of situations if I stick to the English-only policy we have when in public like at playgrounds and the like. I have found what I hope is a happy medium. If the need is urgent for all children involved to understand, then Italian it is. However, if not, then I generally say what I am going to my child first in English and then if necessary I translate and say it in Italian so the other children understand. If I only need to address my own child, then I don’t both translating. Kids generally go with the flow. The other day as I was giving some last minute instructions in English to my younger son Gabriel as I dropped him off at school, one of his classmates asked me, “Are you speaking French?” I smiled and replied, “No, I speak English.” And he got this wide-eyed look and said, “Just like Gabriel (my son)!!!” Funny that.

  3. Thanks so much for this helpful and informative article, Salima. My situation and languages are the same as yours, and I’m anticipating some really tricky situations when my 13-month-old starts to socialize more with other children. How do you suggest handling interactions with Italian children and caregivers while speaking English to your child? I’m already so self-conscious speaking English in the playground, for example, though I try not to care because I believe it’s so important. But there are moments, say, when my child interacts with another child, and obviously they don’t speak English so I have to switch to Italian, and I worry this will be really confusing for my son as his language skills develop. I’m really confused about the best way to handle such situations.

  4. hi,great to read an intelligent approach to bilingual children,the problem is also combatting with a very closed mentality , in then chianciano area the teachers are not very prepared and often against the child learning two languages it’s an uphill battle but one I intend to win as the mother of two boys!

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