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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