Before the birth of my first son, I had
made the firm decision to raise him trilingual. It was not an easy choice.
I was confident that it’s possible to raise a bilingual child, but my wife and
I were afraid that introducing three languages from the very beginning of his
life would be too much for him to handle. Today, I want to share my experience so
far and give you my tips for raising bilingual or trilingual children.
Until he was 2 years old, my son’s kindergarten teachers were
quite concerned about his speaking skills. Compared to other kids in the
class, he did not speak much. His vocabulary was far less developed and,
while many of his classmates were already building sentences, he was still at the
stage of group words like “Daddy, bed” instead of saying “Daddy is in the bed.”
Many times I had to reassure them by telling them that for trilingual or
billingual children, this small delay was absolutely normal. Today, at the time I
recorded this video, Noa is a wonderful trilingual who is nearly three years old.
He can build pretty long sentences, he understands complex instructions and is
capable of switching between French, Italian and Romanian without the slightest difficulty.
I wanted to record this video because you need to know that raising
multilingual children is not always easy. If you choose to take this path, there
will be obstacles and difficulties along the way, but, trust me, it’s so worth it,
and they will thank you later. I’m very happy to be able to share what I’ve
learned about this topic by reading many books and articles, talking with
other bilingual parents and children, and, of course, from my own experience.
Let’s begin with my first tip. Be Clear About Your Motivation And Goals to Raise a
Multilingual Child. To make the process easier for both you, your partner, and
your child, you need to be clear about what motivates you and your goal.
As for me, it was simply unconceivable that my son would not speak Italian,
which is not only my mother tongue, but a language that means a lot to me.
I associate it with my family, the country where I grew up and a culture I love.
I want him to make a true connection with Italy and feel this culture
is one of his own. So, my motivations are really strong.
Are yours? You also need to be clear about your goals. Do you want your children to
be fully bilingual or trilingual, or do to have a good command of the language?
Not native speaker per se, but able to communicate. Or, do you want
them to know some basic sentences and words in the language? Your answer to these
questions will change everything and will result in a different approach and a
different amount of effort from your side. In my case, it’s simple. I want him
to be an Italian native speaker and have a perfect command of the language.
My second tip is: Choose a Precise Strategy There are many different strategies for
raising a bilingual or trilingual child. In my case, I chose the popular OPOL approach,
which stands for One Parent One Language. This is based on a pretty
straightforward rule: each parent must always speak with the kid in a language
different from the other parent. In my case, I always speak in my native Italian
with my son, while my wife only speaks Romanian, her mother tongue, with him.
The goal here is helping your child make an association between a language and a parent.
Like that, he knows that he must use different languages based on the
parent he’s addressing. In the case of my son, Noa, the association is so strong
that he not only always uses Italian when they speaks with me, but when he
wants to learn a new word, he asks me “Come dice papa?”
Which means “How does daddy says this?” The advantages of this strategy are that
it’s crystal clear for the child, you can easily put it into practice, and it provides
a lot of exposure, especially if both parents spend a roughly equal amount of
time with the child. My third tip is: Stick to the Chosen Strategy Even if
it’s Complicated or Scary. My situation is a bit more complicated
than most bilingual families. Since we live in France, one of the disadvantages
of the OPOL strategy is that it’s difficult to stick with this rule
outside the home. I have observed that some people do not like it when people
use a language they don’t know in front of them. The temptation here would be to
make an exception for these people. I don’t. I want my son to speak Italian so
badly that I ignore the social pressure and speak Italian even in front of others.
Another common problem is when people scare you with unsolicited advice.
Teachers, doctors, friends, and relatives might not understand what you’re doing and
make you doubt yourself, especially when your child seems different from his peers.
Take the example of the kindergarten teachers who pointed out
repeatedly that my son did not have the same speaking skills as other children.
My tip is to not listen to them and only take expert opinions into account.
If you have doubts, read as many books and articles as you can about the subject and
you’ll see that what many parents and experts say is really encouraging.
Stick to your choice and do not give up. You know what is best for your child.
Expose Your Child to the Minority Language a Lot. To explain this tip, let
me define the notion of a minority language. Adam Beck, author of the book
“Maximize Your Child’s Bilingual Ability,” is American, is married to a Japanese
woman and lives in Japan. In this case, it’s obvious that English could easily
become the minority language for his children because Japanese is not only
used by his wife–and women tend to spend more time with their kids–but it’s
also the language used outside the home. In the book, Beck explains how much
effort he made to expose his children to the English language so they would be bilingual.
This is a key tip. Don’t make the mistake of thinking that because
children are like sponges they will automatically learn or want to speak the
minority language. Many experts say that children need to be exposed
to a language at least 20% of their waking time or 15 hours per week.
My two recommendations are to start very early, even while the baby’s
still in the mother’s belly, and to spend as much quality time as possible with
your children. In my case, even if I’m with my son less than my wife, I make sure to
read him stories in Italian every day. We talk and play together at least one hour
per day, and I dedicate my weekends to him. My final tip is probably the most
precious one I can give you. If you really want your children to be
bilingual, then Make Sure They Actually Want To. A child might want to speak the
minority language to communicate with his/her grandparents or maybe to have a
kind of secret language to communicate with her/his parents, or simply because
you have shown him/her the bright sides of the language, or even to feel special
compared to his or her mates. Whether it’s an emotional or rational argument,
it’s vitally important to create and nurture the desire to speak more languages.
To keep this video short and sweet, I decided to limit myself to five
tips and to share only one of the possible strategies for raising a
bilingual or trilingual child, but if you want to discover other tips and methods
there is a much more complete article on our blog. You can check the link in the video description.
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