MotherTongues: Wear Words, Celebrate Cultures

about words, languages, cultures, travel

Being a bilingual / multilingual family February 16, 2012

I was wondering about what to name this blog post. Are we being a multilingual family, or are we becoming a multilingual family? Maybe we are always becoming?

Reading time at home means books in a mix of three languages

It is said that at least half of the world’s population is bilingual. And many of those are multilingual. The broad definition of a multilingual is someone who can communicate in more than one language. This can be through speaking, writing or signing, or through listening and reading. There is an interesting new book by Michael Erard, Babel No More, about polyglots: people who can communicate in multiple languages. Poly (Greek: πολύς) means “many”, and glot (Greek: γλώττα) means “language”.

In our family, my husband and I grew up in South Africa, speaking Afrikaans, and learning English (the Queen’s version), starting in elementary school at about age 10. Our first language, or mother tongue, will always be Afrikaans, but we are pretty competent in English, with Jaco having written 3 books so far.

Our girls were born in the USA, but have heard both Afrikaans and English since birth. I guess this makes them simultaneous bilinguals. When our youngest started Kindergarten, we opted for her to go to the same public school as her sister, but to be in a Two Way Bilingual Immersion Spanish class. In this class, balanced numbers of native English speakers and native Spanish speakers are taught together, so that both groups of students serve as language learners at different times. It has been a wonderful experience: it is amazing to see the kids grow in language ability, but also to see friendships develop over the 3 years between all of the kids.

As our youngest is becoming a competent reader, writer and speaker in Spanish, we realized that we needed to learn Spanish too, since it helps to understand when we listen to her practice reading, and when we help her practice spelling words! Our family spent 3 months during 2010 in Chiapas, Mexico. All four of us attended a Spanish Language school in San Cristóbal de las Casas. Even though it wasn’t always easy to be immersed in a language you cannot speak, it is the quickest way to learn and we made a lot of progress.

Back in our regular life now for over a year, it has been difficult to keep up our Spanish vocabulary. We’re trying to find creative ways to hear, speak and read Spanish so that all our hours of Language School will not be in vain. Our oldest daughter is taking piano lessons in Spanish, and I recently started attending adult Spanish classes again. We also listen to a lot of Spanish music at home.

We have realized that we need to spend more time in South Africa if we want our kids to be able to read and write in Afrikaans, and not just speak it. So we’re planning to spend two months close to family in South Africa this year, immerse the kids in language and culture, and work on their reading skills. Hold your thumbs (the South African/British version of crossing your fingers) for us!

I think what I’ve realized most in our multilingual journey, is that it is a process. There is no goal post that we have to reach. There is no path we need to follow, since this is our own journey. What works for one of us, may not work for the other ones in the family. We’re figuring it out along the way, making mistakes and learning all the time. And that is OK.

What do you do to encourage multilingualism in your family?

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7 Responses to “Being a bilingual / multilingual family”

  1. I completely agree about the immersion experience. We are a Spanish-English family, living in the US. I love listening to my kids speak more Spanish every summer they spend in Mexico with me at my in-laws. They go to a day camp for local kids, and end up learning songs, games, and culture just in day-to-day interactions. We also have them in Chinese school on the weekends in Chinatown here in the US. This is much, much harder to support because neither my husband nor I am native speakers. We have Chinese CDs, some apps/games, but I need to amp it up because so far it is just counting, colors, some songs. We found some great programs in China for summer immersions (for the whole family), but they kids have to be a little older. I can’t wait to go as a family to learn Mandarin! But in the meantime, we’ll keep practicing vocab at home and listening to music, etc:).

  2. You are so lucky to be able to pass the languages you grew up with to your kids, although I know it is still hard and a life long journey. I know many folks who are bilingual, but fail to raise their children as such, so kudos to you and all who make the effort successfully.

    We’re monolinguals raising our daughter from birth to be a fluent-as-a-native trilingual/triliterate. We travel the world slowly and dip into local schools ( in Spain and Asia) to help us and find it particularly helpful for the reading and writing aspects.

    She just turned 11, so we can see how well our hard work has been more than worth the effort, but she continues to work daily ( reading writing and speaking) all 3 languages.

    I’ve written a lot about how we have raised a multicultural, multilingual kid. http://www.soultravelers3.com/2011/06/how-to-raise-a-bilingual-or-multi-lingual-child.html

    As you say, it is indeed a process!

  3. I’m a mono-lingual mom living in a bilingual family. My husband speaks french, my kids attend a French immersion school, and I’m just trying to keep up. I think, in my case, the question is “How do you raise a bilingual parent?” 🙂 I’m taking classes and practicing as much as I can. One quick and easy tip: I make out my grocery list in French.

  4. […] Being a bilingual / multilingual family (mothertonguesblog.com) […]

  5. KateR Says:

    I love this idea of immersion schools! My son is only 2, so it’s a little early for that. But one day I’d love to go to Germany and attend such a program with him. I’m a non-native speaker of German, so I can always use a refresher. My husband is Dutch, so we go when we can to visit his parents in the Netherlands. Luckily Germany is just a short trip away. My son doesn’t get a whole lot of Dtuch – occasionally from his grandparents, or sometimes my husband will read to him in Dutch. But maybe when he’s older, he could attend a school in the Netherlands, too. Definitely something to consider!!

  6. I wish I had the answers. I am struggling with this too! I love the commitment you all made to Spanish. Very inspiring. We use music a lot since the girls love music. Even when P didn’t want to speak French, she did want to sing certain songs in French.

  7. […] I love languages. I love listening to the different sounds. I love reading to my kids in different languages. I love it that we are a bilingual family, and that we are becoming a trilingual family. […]


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