MotherTongues: Wear Words, Celebrate Cultures

about words, languages, cultures, travel

Multicultural Kid Blogs Vlogging Telephone: “Raising multilingual kids” August 18, 2015

Filed under: Uncategorized — Michelle @ 1:24 pm
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Welcome to the Multicultural Kid Blogs Vlogging Telephone. We’re asking each other questions about raising multilingual kids. Since our kids are now preteens/teenagers, this subject has been on my mind for over 13 years now! But we definitely don’t have it figured out (do you ever have anything figured out with kids?) so it will be fun to listen to everyone’s answers on their blogs.

For the Travel Telephone, I’m in between Eolia from La Cité des Vents, who is asking me a question, and Audrey from Españolita, who is answering my question.

Enjoy our travel telephone! Here we go:


Learning another language after turning 40 July 22, 2013

This blog post was written as part of the Raising Multilingual Children Blogging Carnival for July. The topic for this month’s carnival is “Hidden Opportunities”. I wondered for a long time what is my hidden opportunity of being a multilingual family. And then it hit me: for me, learning a new language after turning 40, would not have happened if we didn’t walk the multilingual family route that we did. Here is the story of how it happened.

Chiapas, Mexico

In Mexico, where we attended a Spanish Language School.

I’ve always been a math + science kind of girl. Chosen profession? Electrical engineer. Since I grew up in South Africa, where it is normal to speak at least two languages, I had to learn English alongside Afrikaans. My lowest grade ever was for English. (You can probably guess that from all my grammatical errors on this blog! Sorry!)

Fast forward 10 years. After giving birth to our two girls, I made a career switch to being an entrepreneur, so that I can work from home and determine my own hours. My chosen business? Printing words from around the world on t-shirts and other apparel. Suddenly, I’m reading papers written by linguists, and researching translations of life-affirming words.

Fast forward another few years: Our youngest daughter starts school right when the public school opens a class for Two Way Bilingual Immersion. We reason that adding a third language, Spanish, to our household can’t be too difficult, and will only have positive possibilities for her in life. And so starts our multilingual family journey.

Since our daughter learns to read and write in Spanish, it only makes sense that the rest of the family learn Spanish too. So we spend 3 glorious summer months in San Cristóbal de las Casas in Chiapas, Mexico, at a wonderful language school where I finally expand my Spanish knowledge beyond the colors of the rainbow and the parts of my body.

Fast forward another couple of years. We move to Nashville, Tennessee, where there is no possibility of Spanish Immersion for our daughter – because of a combination of Tennessee law which states that 51% of education has to be in English, and because the only Spanish (semi) Immersion school in Nashville accepts on the basis of a lottery, which happened many months before we even knew that we would move to Nashville. So now our kids go to school in English, and I continue my Spanish lessons.

In the past year, I’ve discovered that even though I struggle to remember new words, and even though it is hard to remember the difference between cuarto and cuadro and cuatro, I love to learn another language. I can now follow simple conversations. I can even speak a little bit, as long as no irregular verbs in the past tense are involved. And I look forward to traveling to a Spanish speaking country sometime soon, and not having to ask my 9-year-old to translate for me.


5 reasons why I travel with my kids June 18, 2013


Exploring in Mexico

“Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines, sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.” ~ Mark Twain

As I’ve said before, I love to travel. And I love to share this love of traveling with my family. We try different foods, we try learning new words, we learn about another culture. Here are 5 reasons why I love to travel with my kids:

1. When traveling in a country where the dominant language is not English, the kids soak up the language around them. This happens every time we visit South Africa – their Afrikaans improves within a week! – or when we visit a Spanish speaking country. Traveling helps them to see WHY we try hard to be a multilingual family.

2. Traveling reinforces the lesson that not everyone looks the same, eats the same food, believes the same, or enjoys the same sport. Wade Davis said: “The world in which you were born is just one model of reality. Other cultures are not failed attempts at being you: they are unique manifestations of the human spirit.”

3. Whenever we can spend a little longer time in another country, the girls make friends from all over the world. Instant pen pals!

4. Our kids are much more likely to try new foods when traveling than they would at home. I think travel opens up your senses and makes you more adventurous.

5. And lastly: I see the world differently through the eyes of my kids. What a priceless experience!


Bilingual and bicultural: do they go together? May 22, 2013

Bicultural means that two cultures are functioning in one person, or that one person can be active in two cultures.

As we move between two, sometimes three languages in our family, I often wonder if we do enough to encourage our kids to be bicultural as well. We visit South Africa every couple of years, but we don’t specifically talk about the differences and similarities between the two cultures. Do you have to work at being bicultural, or is being bicultural something that you absorb just by being part of two different cultures?


Exploring a different kind of playground in South Africa.

Does speaking two languages mean that you are bicultural too? I don’t think so. It is possible to speak two (or more) languages without ever leaving your country / hometown / culture. And I guess the opposite is true too: you can be bicultural and monolingual (think Australian and South African, or British and Canadian).

In a recent article in Psychology Today, Francois Grosjean writes that there are many advantages to being bicultural: for instance having a greater number of social networks, being aware of cultural differences, and being an intermediary between cultures. He states that recent research has shown that biculturals have greater creativity and professional success: hooray!

I’ve never deliberately thought about fostering biculturalism in our kids. They have two passports each, and have traveled back and forth between South Africa and the USA more times than they can remember, even before turning 10. I’m grateful that they feel at home in either country, can navigate the social rules, can make a new friend at the playground lickety-split, and know what their favorite candies and food are in each country. I’m thankful that even without us really trying, they have become bicultural.

What do you do to nurture biculturalism in your kids? Do you watch cultural movies, visit the second culture often, send them to spend time with grandparents or cousins in the second culture, or do you talk about the culture often? Comment with some ideas for us all to try!

Helping our kids become bilingual is a great gift we are giving them. But helping them become bicultural is also an amazing gift, one we don’t think about often.


Reflections on being a bilingual household April 15, 2013


In our house, you can hear a mixture of languages. We speak Afrikaans to each other. We live in the USA so English and Spanish surround us. And sometimes we mix all 3 together. Our girls (ages 9 and 10) seem to be taking this in their strides.

It has not always been an easy journey to stay a bilingual family, or more recently, to try to become a trilingual family. When the girls started preschool, they didn’t understand a lot of English because we only spoke Afrikaans to them at home. It would have been easy to give up. When family commented that sending our youngest to a Spanish Immersion school will just make her confused, it would have been easy to give up. When we moved and there wasn’t a Spanish Immersion school in the area, it would have been easy to give up.

But I know that the earlier in life we work on our language skills, the easier it will become for us later on to expand our language capabilities. When I started learning Spanish at age 40, I could definitely see the difference between learning a language earlier or later in life! The girls picked it up much faster than me, probably because they were not afraid of making mistakes when speaking Spanish.

I remind myself constantly that it is all a process, with no road map for us to follow. Sometimes we work more on one language than the others. Sometimes we only read in one language (usually English) for weeks, because we don’t always make the effort to read books in other languages too.

But, I love the advantages of trying to raise our girls trilingual. I love that our girls can talk to their extended family in South Africa in Afrikaans. I love that they can speak Spanish whenever they find out that a person is Spanish speaking. And I love that we understand a little bit of multiple languages when traveling.

My advice: don’t listen to others who may tell you that you should only speak one language to your kids. Don’t give up. Give your family the gift of languages, and in doing so, give them the gift of opening up the world to them.


22 Inspirational Language Quotes April 26, 2012

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.

But sometimes it is hard to make myself understood. We’ve had comments about our accents being different, and being difficult to understand. I have the hardest time speaking to customer service people over the phone. So it is good to read some quotes about the diversity of languages, and the benefits of multilingualism. Here are some of my favorites (from the MotherTongues website):

If you talk to [someone] in a language [he or she] understands, that goes to [the person’s] head. If you talk to [somebody] in [his or her] language, that goes to [the] heart.
– Nelson Mandela

Speak a new language so that the world will be a new world.
– Rumi

Being exposed to the existence of other languages increases the perception that the world is populated by people who not only speak differently from oneself but whose cultures and philosophies are other than one’s own. Perhaps travel cannot prevent bigotry but by demonstrating that all people cry, laugh, eat, worry and die, it can introduce the idea that if we try to understand each other, we may even become friends.
– Maya Angelou, Wouldn’t Take Nothing for My Journey Now

How many languages are there in the world? How about 5 billion! Each of us talks, listens, and thinks in his/her own special language that has been shaped by our culture, experiences, profession, personality, mores and attitudes. The chances of us meeting someone else who talks the exact same language is pretty remote.
– Anonymous

A special kind of beauty exists which is born in language, of language, and for language.
– Gaston Bachelard

For me, words are a form of action, capable of influencing change.
– Ingrid Bengis

Among my most prized possessions are words that I have never spoken.
– Orson Rega Card

To have another language is to possess a second soul.
– Charlemagne

Language is the road map of a culture. It tells you where its people come from and where they are going.
– Rita Mae Brown

Language is a city to the building of which every human being brought a stone.
– Ralph Waldo Emerson

Those who know nothing of foreign languages, knows nothing of their own.
– Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe

Language is the blood of the soul into which thoughts run and out of which they grow.
– Oliver Wendell Holmes

I am always sorry when any language is lost, because languages are the pedigrees of nations.
– Samuel Johnson

Americans who travel abroad for the first time are often shocked to discover that, despite all the progress that has been made in the last 30 years, many foreign people still speak in foreign languages.
– Dave Barry

I have been a believer in the magic of language since, at a very early age, I discovered that some words got me into trouble and others got me out.
– Katherine Dunn

Language is wine upon the lips.
– Virginia Woolf

There are hundreds of languages in the world, but a smile speaks them all.
– Anonymous

The limits of my language mean the limits of my world.
– Ludwig Wittgenstein

We die. That may be the meaning of life. But we do language. That may be the measure of our lives.
– Toni Morrison

Language shapes the way we think, and determines what we can think about.
– Benjamin Lee Whorf

If we spoke a different language, we would perceive a somewhat different world.
– Ludwig Wittgenstein

We may have different religions, different languages, different colored skin, but we all belong to one human race.
– Kofi Annan


Get support in learning a (new) language March 10, 2012

Language Challenge 180

Are you trying to learn a new language, helping your kids to learn a new language, or brushing up on some forgotten language skills? It can be daunting to know where to start, where to find resources, and what online programs to try. But don’t despair, help is here!

Multilingual Living, one of my favorite websites, is hosting Language Challenge 180! It is a free, (yes free!) 180 day challenge, to help you turn your language learning around 180 degrees. More than 600 families have signed up already. We’re getting step-by-step guides to get on track with our language(s), tips and articles to help us along, and best of all for me so far: a place where others, trying to learn the same language(s) as you, post what resources they already found helpful. I find this camaraderie so supportive and helpful.

Just knowing that other families are struggling with the same problems as us, is already helping me along. I struggle with finding time and fun ways to engage our kids in language learning after a full day at school. Language Challenge 180 breaks it into small steps – 15 minutes a day! – and makes it feel much more achievable.

If you have more than one language in your house, and you are trying to grow your language skills, sign up today! I’ll see you over on the forum pages!


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