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Expecting a multilingual baby!

What a life-altering experience it is to welcome a first baby into your home. Like many first time mamas who find themselves in this age of information overload, I felt like I couldn’t read enough. Parenthood felt like a test I could cram for. I thought the more I read about natural birth, vaccines, sleep, brain development, nutrition, the more I would be prepared. Turns out, some things I read were helpful, others frankly, not so much. The same rang true in regards to resources for bilingual families.

In honor of a couple of new fellow bilingual babies currently undergoing their final finishing touches before birth, here are some of the things I did to prepare to become a multilingual family, and how I would have prepared differently using the information I know now.

In the months leading up to our first birth and in the few months thereafter, I managed to read at least six books on multilingualism. When I entered them into my account on Goodreads the other day, I was quite surprised I had read that many on the subject.

From the most to the least helpful reads:

  1. The Bilingual Experience by Eveline de Jong.
    Fantastic short but meaty read on issues surrounding the bilingual family. This little book is likely to be unpopular in more feminist circles because it openly discusses the role of mothers vs. father and how our career choices will greatly influence the success of our language model. Still, it is an absolute gem, discussing bilingualism like no other book I have found to date. It is an older book, rather hard to find in bookstores. I was given a copy by a good friend (massive shoutout to Caro). Having said that, I have seen a few dirt cheap second-hand copies online (less than $3 USD). If you are planning on raising a bilingual child, stop reading this post right now and buy this book. You won’t regret it!
  2.  Growing up with two languages by Una Cunningham-Andersson.
    Superb, well-researched guide for the bilingual family. Although it is quite European-language focused, it includes an actual grid to document and work on things like language interference, unintentional code-switching, difficulties in pronunciation, reticence to speak the minority language and other problems that are likely to arise in the multilingual home.
  3. Raising Multilingual Children by Tracey Tokuhama-Espinosa.
    This was the first book I picked up that played around with the idea of more than two languages in a household. I loved how the author talks about genders, birth order, personality, Geneva (!!) and “windows of opportunity” for your child. In other words, if you haven’t practiced bilingualism from birth, what ages will find your child more open to learning a foreign language.
  4.  The Bilingual Family: A Handbook for Parents by Edith Harding.
    Case-study heavy and quite an academic read. Still, this book showcases all different possible models of bilingualism. OPOL isn’t the only solution.
  5. 7 Steps to Raising a bilingual child by Naomi Steiner.
    Practical, a bit simplistic but an empowering read. It helps families realize that bilingualism comes in varying levels of competency: Do you want your child to just understand their minority language? Do you want them to be able to respond? Do you want them to be able to become bi-literate? Do you want them to be able to write? This book helps families, including those with non-native parents, set realistic milestones to achieve the desired goal and to stick to them.
  6. Raising a Bilingual Child by Barbara Zurer Pearson.
    To be honest, I can’t remember much about this book. There must not have been a whole lot of new information.

Another thing we did was to put things on our baby registry that would accompany our language journey:

  • A fantastic kids’ world map poster
  • Bilingual picture books
  • First 1000 word picture book
  • Classics in minority language
  • A few music CDs in our minority language

Arguably, the smartest thing I did during this time was to join an online multilingual forum as observer. It was like sitting in on a masterclass I didn’t have enough credentials to speak in but was allowed to audit. I read articles and answers to questions I hadn’t ever considered.

What I did not do was to speak to our child in-utero. Despite research claiming this would be helpful, it felt really odd and unnatural. I didn’t learn new nursery rhymes either. I figured we’d learn as we go.

Looking back, here are some things I wish I could have told my pregnant self:

  1. The multilingual journey is commonsense: input should be consistent and plentiful, there must be a need for output, don’t give too much clout to the Debby Downers, it helps to have a supportive partner…
  2. Read more for yourself, for pleasure, in your minority languages.
  3. Dare to dream bigger. If you speak several languages, don’t bury them in order to protect your kids. Who says you must limit yourself to two languages for success? (See previous post Hindsight is always 20/20) If that is who you are, then create a French, Asian, American, Whateverian world all around you.
  4. Observe what successful multilingual families are doing. Observe what happens when a guest comes for dinner in an OPOL household. Observe how they deal with unbalanced linguistic input. Observe what they do with their special needs child, their second child, their more reserved child. Observe what language they yell at their kids in, on the playground.
  5. Choose one good book on bilingualism and have your spouse read it. It will be harder to find the time later.
  6. Don’t just read about language but about multiculturalism, identity and issues pertaining to people living with many languages. (Books like: The Multilingual Mind: Issues Discussed By, For, and about People Living with Many Languages; Growing Up Global: Raising Children to Be At Home in the World) They will come in handy later on.
  7. If you really have spare time on your hand, gather resources for older ages too. You won’t regret making a playlist of minority language songs, videos, games on Spotify or Youtube. Earmark cool DVDs, apps, articles. You don’t need them in the first months, but trust me, these babies grow up fast.
  8. Consider organizing regular in-person or FaceTime/Skype language playdates.
  9. Talk to monolingual family about your decision to raise baby bilingually, what that will look like and how they can support you on your marathon.
  10. Think about the real sacrifices and life-changes your language choices will require from you, your children, your spouse and your family.

Finally, we might have invested into some wonderful language resources and toys:

  • Language learning blocks like this
  • Little Pim or other fun brand of flash cards, DVDs..
  • Monolingual and/or bilingual picture encyclopedia type books (We call these “imageries” in French – available on any imaginable subject). Side note – For French, I am totally obsessed with L’imagerie Milan petite enfance – mes années pourquoi (maybe 4+ but proven all age fun) and Mes petits docs (3+ years).
  • Multilingual or minority language musical (eek!) toys. Annoying, but engaging. We thank my British auntie for sending every single one to us!
  • Una’s multilingual alphabet poster. Believe me, it is sheer brilliance when you are trying to explain that “U” doesn’t stand for Parapluie.

I think that just about sums it up.

After the theory, here is a small sampling of what multilingualism actually looks like in our family these days 🙂

Simple OPOL in action (Not the best, but hard to find videos featuring all four of us). Kids were ages: 2.5 years and 12 months…

Basic educational-play using Mandarin language blocks…

Our almost 3 year old describing drawing of ice-cream truck in OPOL minority language (French)…

How about you? Are you expecting a bilingual child? Or do you already have a multilingual gaggle of kids? 🙂 What have been some of the best resources on your journey? What are the best tips, toys, books you have come across? If you have a multilingual household, would you have prepared any differently with what you know now?

5 thoughts on “Expecting a multilingual baby!

  1. WOW. I’m amazed. Ayo est vraiment doué. Il a un très bel accent américain “watermelon” et sa façon de présenter son camion de glace est très claire, il pense même à ajouter des articles! Bravo Ayo!!!

    1. Oui, son accent américain est très authentique. Il mélange l’ordre des mots en anglais parfois (a car red), ce qui est parfaitement normal à nos yeux, tout comme le fait que son anglais soit légèrement dominant – mais autrement, c’est assez fluide. C’est en fait très difficile de trouver des clips qui représentent son niveau de langues actuel. Dès que je pense à enregistrer, c’est trop tard. 🙂 J’étais contente d’avoir retrouvé l’histoire des glaces du coup pour le français. Ca date un peu, mais ça te donne une idée au moins.

  2. I tend to overresearch every subject related to babies except for bilingualism – as I was raised bilingual I’m pretty laid back about my approach, but your list has inspired me to do some reading – thanks!

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