The Paradox of Raising Multilinguals


When raising children with multiple languages our vision is for them to become proficient in more than one language. This means that they ideally will be able to understand, speak, read and write in several languages, right?

When we are multilinguals ourselves, i.e. we use more than one language to a certain extent, we might encounter a few challenges along the way.


What language should we speak as the main or primary language with our children?

The primary or main language is the one we use when one-on-one with our children. It is the one that we will create our emotional bond with them and that we need to be very proficient in.
In my course for parents of 0-4 year old children I explain how to find out which of our languages is the one we should be using with our children as the main/primary language.

When we are used to speaking several languages on a daily or regular basis, chances are high that we mix them every now and then. We might mix them more often with our adult friends, which is fine as long as they understand each of the languages we are using.
But what about our babies and toddlers? They won't be able to distinguish between the languages we are mixing.
This is why I always advise neo-parents or parents-to-be, to get into the habit of not mixing their languages too much and to actually avoid this when speaking with their babies and toddlers.

Why? Because our young children will take all we say like "one language" and if we constantly mix them, they will not understand where one language ends and the next one starts. Which leads to the Paradox of Raising Multilinguals...


The Paradox of Raising Multilinguals

In my talks, trainings and workshops I call this the Paradox of Raising Multilinguals.
Why Paradox? Because despite raising children with multiple languages, and exposing them to multiple languages, we want to make sure that they are able to function in monolingual settings.
What is more important than the amount of languages we want to transmit, is to know how to transmit multiple languages in an effective way.
Our toddlers need to learn how to differentiate them, they need to understand what sound, what word, what sentence, what intonation etc. belongs to which language. It is like sorting out lego pieces of different shapes and colors, and learning how to stack them in a way that what is built is solid, and doesn't break easily.

Our children can only find out the underlying patterns of the language, the grammar rules, when the input in each language is as clear and intelligible as possible. Ideally this input is of high quality, i.e. coming from a confident and proficient user of the language.

Our young children acquire their first languages in the most natural and spontaneous way.
If we have the habit to constantly alternate "chien" with "Hund" when talking about dogs, they will think that these are just two words for the same animal in the same language, whereas they should learn to use "chien" when speaking French and "Hund" when using German. So, brick red goes into the red pile, brick blue into the blue pile...

The paradox lies also in the fact that our children should eventually be able to confidently retrieve the right words from this joined repertoire of all their languages. We know that multilinguals are not two monolinguals in one, that the language patterns they learn from all their languages are stored in the same place, and are retrievable from it whenever they use languages.

But our children need to be able to identify which elements pertain to each of the languages, and they will need to differentiate quickly, spontaneously in their speech.
The clearer the separation for each language is from the beginning, the easier they can switch between the languages, i.e. use the target language in social situations where only one language is required, in the most effective way.

Multilingual children do not translate!

Many people still assume that multilinguals are good translators. But multilinguals don't translate! Not constantly, at least, and usually what they learn in language green is stored in language green.

As babies and toddlers can not grasp the concept of time yet, and don't necessarily understand when a situation, a context changes and requires the use of another language, we need to be consistent with our (rich = varied and child directed) language use when one on one with them.

We are actually raising multiple-monolinguals in one person! I know some researchers might cringe at this as it sounds like I am going back 10 steps from where we actually are. But it is not: our children need to function in all the languages they are exposed to, i.e. in which people interact with them on a regular basis in micro (or mini, if you prefer) monolingual situations!

As much as multilingual adults may like to mix their languages when speaking to other adults who share the same languages, when they talk with their babies and toddlers they should make sure to focus on their primary/main language. Especially when they are one of the few or even the only person who transmits this language to their children.

Avoid mixing your languages when talking with your babies and toddlers




In this short video I talk about the Paradox of Raising Multilinguals


I explain how to find out which language you should choose as the main/primary language to speak with your children, and mention the Paradox of Raising Multilinguals.




Posted in Blog, Family Language Planning, Heritage Language Maintenance, Language Change, Language Development, Language learning, Maintaining Multiple Languages, Multilingual, Multilingual Families, Raising Multilinguals, Research and Insights on Multilingualism, Terminology and tagged , , , , , .

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