by Christina Bosemark, founder of the Multilingual Children's Association
As the saying goes, there are many ways to skin a cat, and so there are a multitude of strategies for raising bilingual children. Among all these choices, one thing remains constant -- children's love for predictability. Have you ever noticed how poorly many children handle change and how they thrive when on familiar turf? When you've read that same story every night for two months, you'll know what I mean. Certainly, kids learn languages under the most chaotic conditions -- just look at the average dinner table scene -- but some predictability within the chaos spells safety and security, which in turn promotes learning.
Most multilingual families have discovered that a fixed language system in the home greatly reduces the tendency for children to mix the languages -- or worse, the flat-out refusal to speak the second language. One parent expressed it perfectly; "I've noticed that when Anna gets overwhelmed by something, she just tunes out. I guess that it is the toddler safety mechanism against information overload." Kees van der Laan continued, "But I really don't want her to tune out my Dutch, so my wife and I agreed on a language combination that we can both live by, while keeping it simple for Anna. I feel that the consistency is ultimately more important than which kind of system we use." In choosing your system, you'll absolutely need to consider what will work best for your family, but here are the two most popular methods:
As you can see, the raising of multilingual children is a flexible and highly personal process, so just adapt the basic language systems to something that fits your lifestyle. Even the most highly-trained athlete couldn't finish a marathon in ill-fitting shoes, and all your training won't help if you aren't settled comfortably for the long haul. Remember, it isn't all on you; you can find an immersion program, call upon grandparents, organize playgroups and schedule frequent visits to your country -- good for junior's language, but just as helpful and fun for you.
But, what if you feel that your child still isn't getting enough language exposure? How do you motivate him to speak your language back to you? What if you find yourself letting the language system to slip to the wayside? In short, what do you do when you see signs of your carefully laid plans getting derailed? This is the topic for the next article in this series: Raising Bilingual Children: 10 Tips for Boosting The Minority Language.
Christina Bosemark is the founder of the Multilingual Children's Association, your web-guide to raising bilingual children with expert advice, parent discussions, resource directory and articles. She is also mother of two trilingual daughters and co-founder of the Scandinavian immersion school in San Francisco.