Is Speaking the ‘Other Parent’s’ Language Important For Multilingual Parenting?

Do the parents speak each other’s native language?

Does the answer have anything to do with the child’s multilingual development? If yes, how?

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I recently reflected on this question a lot.

In many multilingual families with whom I have had the fortune to meet/converse/engage either in person or through the facebook group, the dilemma often arises when one parent doesn’t speak/understand the other language that the other parent wants to cultivate within their child/ren.

Not speaking the language of the ‘other parent’ very often becomes a key challenge in maintaining/developing the particular language in the child.

Take Family G as an example. Mum L speaks Cantonese to child T, and dad D speaks Italian to T, but L & D do not speak each other’s native tongue and they speak English with each other. Imagine the family dinner – whenever there is Cantonese or Italian involved between one parent and T, the other parent inevitably feels a bit left out, no matter how hard they try to be patient for things to be translated. It takes extreme commitment and discipline NOT to switch everything into English just to ‘make things easy’.

I recently became particularly aware that just how lucky my family is, linguistically, in that my husband and I speak each other’s heritage language (French, Mandarin), and we both also speak English. It is the best possible scenario in raising a trilingual child, or any multilingual family, in my humble opinion. It means that I can speak Mandarin with Nina without worrying that Nicolas feels left out, and he can continue the family conversation simply by continuing/switching to French knowing that everyone else understands.

So my feeling and my experience tells me that the success rate of multilingual parenting is positively proportional to the level of all languages used in the household by both parents.

There is no research, however, that backs this up. I have spoken with a few professionals, and tried my good old friend named google, but nothing really came up.

So I want to throw this out to the readers of this blog. Could you tell me:

From your experience, is speaking the other parent’s language important for brining up multilingual children? leave a comment here, or on the facebook group.

Thanks – I am really curious about what you have to say.

The Right Time To Introduce A New Language To A Child

I went to a talk recently titled ‘Bilingualism – Talk for Parents and Carer’, by Ashley Hill, Bicultural Support Consultants from Ethnic Community Services Co-operative (Australia). I was particularly interested in the two questions from the audience.

I’ve already discussed my overall thoughts and the first question in the previous blog: Can Children Learn a Language from DVD?

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The second question was: Do I need to wait for my child to be well established in one language before introducing another one?

The simple answer to that would be: No. Start from the very beginning. From day 1 on birth, or even earlier if you decide to talk /monologue with your unborn baby. The earlier the better.

I think the underlying concern from that question is that: is my child to be confused by multiple languages at once? Would introducing multiple languages do any harm to my baby?

Children have the amazing ability to figure out what is what, from very early on. As I discussed in this blog Will Multilingual Child Mix The Languages?, they do go through a period of seemingly not separating anything, and another period of mixing up languages, and yet another period of using the ‘wrong’ language. It’s all part of their learning, and it’s normal. I witnessed all stages from Nina, who’s now 3 yrs 7 mths, and she’s definitely entered stage 3 (separation) since turning 3. She now says things like ‘why are you saying it in English’ (in Mandarin)?

Another complexity is the amount of languages being introduced at once. How many languages can a child handle? While nobody really knows, and I personally am yet to meet a child growing up with 4 or more languages (I’d be thrilled to meet one some day!), trilingual children are not uncommon.

Living in Sydney, a very diverse and dynamic city, I often take for granted that people speak different languages and parents raise their children in multiple languages. It’s a good reminder that there are still many parents out there that need the information/support/guidance in raising their multilingual children. It’s also with this in mind that I found investing time in writing this blog worthwhile – each time someone reads and gives me feedback (in the form of question, joining facebook group, helping answering a question, participating in discussion, sharing their stories, contributing the links/resources), I know that what I does makes a tiny difference. And that’s quite cool.

Can Children Learn a Language from DVD?

 I went to a talk recently titled ‘Bilingualism – Talk for Parents and Carer’, by Ashley Hill, Bicultural Support Consultants from Ethnic Community Services Co-operative (Australia).

There was no surprising news from the talk, but it’s always nice to be reminded just how lucky we are living in a world where multilingual parenting is appreciated and supported.

I was quite struck by two questions from the audience at the end though.

Question 1: Can children learn a language from DVD/video materials?

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The question was raised by a family with a French-speaking dad and a Mandarin-speaking mum (exactly like my own family situation!). Mum said she’s quite frustrated as her daughter had switched to almost entirely English ever since she started pre-school, and she really wanted her daughter to have more Mandarin exposure. So she thought about putting on more Mandarin DVD or video materials. She then went on to explain that she mainly spoke English with her child as that’s what the two parents us between them.

Well, my view was quite simple: speak the language with the child that you wish her to be exposed to, and stick to it! DVD and any video materials can provide great support but will and should never substitute the human interaction for language learning.

Yes DVD and video do certainly help. Dutch speak great English as they grow up watching TV dramas in original English not dubbed in Dutch.

But nothing would substitute the power of the human interaction. Research shows that listening to human speaking stimulate language development in all senses while watching video only (in the same language) without human interaction results only in some degree of passive comprehension, no matter how long the DVD is on.

There is another massive benefit of parents doing the talk: it’s all free and available as long as the parent is there 🙂

I talk about my thoughts on the second question in a separate article.

Question 2: The Right Time To Introduce A New Language To A Child

‘Stop Saying thank-you All the Time. You are Becoming a Real Foreigner’

Last time when I visited family in China, a few days into the trip, my sister told me ‘Stop saying thank-you to me all the time. You are becoming a real foreigner!’.

I initially was quite taken back by the comment, but then when I reflected on it, I realized that 11 years of living in France/Australia is definitely leaving a mark on me – in terms of what ‘being polite’ means.

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According to an article ‘What ‘Thank You’ Sounds to Chinese Ears’: the Chinese way of being polite to each other with words is to shorten the social distance between you. And saying please serves to insert a kind of buffer or space that says, in effect, that we need some formality between us here.

It’s so true. From the beginning, I struggle to come up with a proper sentence to teach Nina the equivalent of ‘can I have some water please’ in Mandarin, simply because we do not use ‘can I … please’ in China under such context. The literal translation (‘请问我可以要些水吗’) just sounds not quite right, especially addressing the family members.  ‘I want some water. Thank you’ (我想要些水。谢谢)would be the most polite and popular way of saying it – even then, more often than not people will omit ‘thank you’ too, esp within family and close friends. There just aren’t many ‘thank you’ and ‘please’ floating around the Chinese household. And it’s ok. In fact it’s more than ok – it’s expected, and the opposite of it (adding ‘thank you’ ‘please’ everywhere) is considered a bit out of place.

For my husband and in many Western cultures, teaching manners to children such as saying ‘thank you’ ‘please’ “could I’ ‘may I’ is extremely important – in fact is considered as basic education. For these cultures, Chinese can come across quite blunt and rude without using these expressions often, if at all. Even I, a native Chinese, become really aware and sometimes uncomfortable when these practices clash. Many Chinese friends I make outside of China do not often say these words, and many times I have to remind myself that they are not being impolite at all, but just an act of showing them considering me as their friends. Among friends, such formality is not required. They show their friendship and politeness by offering me help and advice in ways that most friends from Western cultures will not. And that’s fine too.

It’s not an issue of value. Being grateful and graceful are equally important values in both Chinese and Western cultures. But the practice of it is very different in respective culture. People show their respect and gracefulness in very different, sometimes even seemingly conflicting, ways.

Being a parent who’s trying to pass on not only the language but also the culture to my child, it’s an act of practice and awareness (sometimes soul-searching and not necessarily obvious one) that’s required to be respectful of all cultures involved. Hopefully nobody becomes a foreigner in our own land.

A Pair of Fogged Goggles and Parenting

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8:30am. I was in the swimming pool, just starting my first lap. Then the goggles started to fog up. At the end of the first lap, I couldn’t see much. I cleared the goggles, went on with my second lap. At the end of the second lap, I couldn’t see much again. At this point it’s becoming clear that it’s a pair of goggles that would fog up easily. I was annoyed. I bought this pair not long ago – after the previous pair serving me for more than 10 years and finally came to the end of its life with broken straps.

I had two options, with the fogged pair of goggles and only 2 lapse into my 20-lap goal.

Option one, stop swimming, leave the pool, go out to buy another pair when I get some time and come back to swim another day. Option two, keep swimming, endure the fogged goggles, and see what happens.

I weighed my two options during the third lap. And decided on the option two.

It turned out to be the best decision.

It got me to focus on what really mattered. Not what I thought that mattered.

You see, at that point of time, I was 3 months into swimming regularly again. After three years of neglecting regular and meaningful physical exercise, I was very pleased with the progress I was making. The distance went further – I could swim 1 kilometres in one go instead of 250 metres with lots of (long) breaks in between. Time became shorter – I could finish 1 km around 30 minutes whereas 250 metres used to take me forever. And I become better with freestyle – I now swim 1 km of freestyle with relative ease, whereas every 25 metres of free style used to result in gasping.

So every time I swam I really paid attention to how fast I was going, and how much improvement I made that day in terms of time and distance. I would routinely check the clock on the wall to see how much time I used to finish each lap, and conducted a mental calculation on the improvement, or non-improvement, comparing to the performance the day before. Sometimes I did better, sometimes I did worse. Most of time, I was too busy calculating the time that I couldn’t even figure out if I did better or worse before the next lap started. I was quite happy with my progress, and was becoming a bit obsessed with checking my performance.

Until my goggles started to fog up easily.

I could no longer see clearly the clock on the wall after each lap with fogged goggles. So I just kept going. Instead of calculating the time and improvement/non-improvement, I suddenly had all these time and mental capacity to take notice of the movements of my arms, the force with which my arms hit the water, the trajectory of my arms and legs under water, the breathing in and the breathing out, and the sensation of water flowing against my body when I moved forward. It suddenly became clear to me that I felt something very different.

For the first time in 3 months, I felt I was truly living the moment of swimming, instead of thinking of the swimming.

Not being able to ‘see’ clearly visually, I felt I could ‘see’ much more clearly inside me. 

It was an unexpected and delightful realization. I was in the flow. I felt free.

At the end of the 20 lapse, I finally emerged from the water. I cleared my goggles. I glanced over to the direction of the clock on the wall. I almost cried. I hit the best ever personal record! It took me just 27 minutes to finish my laps of 1 kilometres. It may still be a laughable result for some, but it was something truly unimaginable for me only three months ago.

Not being able to see with a pair of fogged goggles turned out to be a blessing. It unexpectedly forced me to focus on what REALLY mattered. It’s not about calculating how much time I spent in each lap. It’s about the breathing, the gesture, the force, the coordination of the arms and legs, and the flow. Once I focused on these that mattered, the improvement of the performance was almost inevitable. The result just followed.

Isn’t it also true in trying to raise a trilingual child? How many times we have focused so much on the number of vocabularies, the amount of books we read in which language, the linguistic game we engaged, the calculation of amount of hours we spent in each language, among other things, that we lost sight of what really mattered – the joy of reading the book, the meaning that our child is trying to convey, the laughter we share, the memories of the silly hide and seek game in the backyard. If we truly live in the moment, focusing on what really matters, enjoying the relationship with our child using the language that we want to cultivate in our child, then the result will just follow – in our case, a trilingual family.

I have decided to keep the pair of fogged goggles, because I only need to see what really matters.

Well, ok, I will get myself a new pair of goggles that do not fog up easily. But I will keep in mind that I only need to see what really matters, with or without goggles.