I recall sitting in a cozy café, sipping a frothy cappuccino while reading all the books I could find on the subject of multilingual parenting atop a basketball-shaped belly. I read dozens of theories and practical tips and case studies for several hours until my cup went cold. In my Before Children (BC) mind and given my BC freedom to read for hours upon uninterrupted hours (oh, the life!), I had managed to figure multilingual parenting all out, and had notes to refer back to, in the event a language-learning dilemma should arise. But just like breastfeeding books have never met your baby and your breasts or sleep training books have never assessed your ability to endure the cry of your own child, these books on multilingualism had never met our family. It is no secret that each family unit interested in fostering a multilingual home has a special reason to do so, a linguistic environment inside and outside the home so very unique to them and let’s not forget, parents with different personalities and varying levels of time to invest in the language learning process. It shouldn’t have come as a surprise then, that even quite early on, some of this “bulletproof theory” I had read demanded reviewing when faced with our reality.
Our little Ayo is currently 13 months young and already, there are plenty of ways I would approach multilingual parenting differently if I were to do it all over again. Here are three things I would do differently:
1. I’d focus on building my vocabulary, not my son’s
All language learning books will tell you to “read, read, READ“ in the target language as a crucial way to build vocabulary. In one blog post, I wrote about my grandiose plans to “read five books to Ayo per day“..but not get all legalistic about it (yeah right!). Well, would you believe it, life as a stay at home mother can be HARD and DRAINING at times! There are days when we can plow through ten books together. Then there are others. On those days, I have little energy to sit down. On those days, Ayo eats MY BOOKS! On those days, he tears the first book, then the second from my hands and squirms out of my arms to play with his blocks. On those days, because of my self-inflicted goal, I felt defeated, like any type A, “achiever” person would.
Today, I will read as much as my son wants and enjoy that moment for as long as it may last. But I am choosing not to enforce unnecessary arbitrary goals. Those goals don’t make our home feel enjoyable or free. If I got a chance to write that post about our language experiment again, I would focus my energy on setting goals for myself to learn new vocabulary and stay up to date first and foremost in French, but also in my other active languages (German, Mandarin, Italian). After all, my son’s vocabulary is pretty much limited to the words I use at this point in time. I know that staying current is a challenge all parents face when teaching a minority language outside their home country. Reading reading READING (and listening to internet radio/TV) is even more important when the language I am teaching my son is technically not my biological mother tongue.
2. We would have taught our son Baby Sign Language
Among the items handed down to us when I was pregnant was a baby sign language DVD and quick reference guide. Never having seen a baby really sign beyond “more”, “all done” and “thank you”, I figured the idea was somewhat ridiculous. And if it did work, wouldn’t it just become one more thing for Ayo (and us!) to have to learn? We’ll just teach our kid to speak like the rest of us! I thought.
Today, I see that we would reduce increasing frustration in our home as Ayo starts to know what he wants but not how to say it. In addition, there are plenty of articles proving that Baby Sign Language decreases confusion in multilingual households. It isn’t hard to understand how signs can assist language acquisition by providing a common ‘language’. The ‘two hands raised’ sign brings together two languages together: c’est fini = all done! I wouldn’t teach him every word, but I would start with some of the most useful 20 or so signs to replace the endless pointing he is doing on his own now anyway.
3. I wouldn’t be so nervous about language interference
Several books and blogs that I read on the subject of multilingual parenting, reminded parents that linguistic output is proportionate to language input. Others strongly recommend One Parent One Language (OPOL) families reinforcing two languages before adding a third, fourth and so on. I combined these two pieces of theoretical advice and interpreted them this way: if our son was to be successful at speaking French in an environment heavily dominated by English speakers, I should ensure that all media sources be in French. Also, we certainly shouldn’t attempt to introduce subsequent languages until he reaches three years of age. Practically speaking, when Ayo awoke from his nap, I would literally turn off a Mandarin language podcast, an Italian cooking show or a German song and switch on France Info, the French news or a French playlist on Spotify. If we found NPR playing in the car or a Hindi Putumayo CD, I’d switch on a French CD. In the back of my mind, I reasoned we would switch media on in the other languages on when he was three years old. When we started to go to a Chinese church, my French-English purist model was shattered: why would I ever deprive Ayo from hearing Mandarin? That made no sense at all!
I feel sad about how I prevented Ayo from experiencing the full linguistic breath organically sprouting in our home. To rub salt into the wound, I recently watched a video about critical periods for language learning and how the first twelve months of an infant’s life are absolutely exceptional in terms of picking up sounds in the same way a native would. Ouch! Sure, I know all the benefits of frequent and consistent interaction in French, us listening to French radio or children’s songs, reading French books and later on movies watched in French – but today, I choose to no longer worry about language interference. I believe we are consistent enough in French and English not to have to worry that other languages will interfere in that learning process. In looking back, I would much rather our son experience the rich natural linguistic fabric of our lives.
This month’s carnival is hosted by mulitilingualmama.com and will be available on April 29,2013. Head over there to read really interesting blog posts written by other multilingual parents on the theme of ‘Looking Back’!