My husband and I would always speak about transmitting our heritage languages to our future children whenever we were dreaming about parenting. This means that we were discussing our language teaching strategy on a regular basis from 2008 to 2012 when Max and Zoe were born.
Regretfully, those discussions were never in-depth, nor were we gearing up for raising trilingual children during my pregnancy. Martin and I were somewhat naive, I believe, thinking that most of the process would happen by osmosis, as our children would absorb our linguistic and cultural heritage as they grow. The strategy and the tactics resided mainly in my head. They were shaped by my previous PhD research, which involved talking to migrant parents about their practices of heritage language transmission, as well as my work as a coordinator of Eurolog-Ireland association, a charity which aims at raising the standard of teaching Russian as a heritage language in Ireland at a community and societal levels (in supplementary schools, for example), as well as contributing to successful integration of the diverse Russian-speaking community in Ireland.
Xiao-lei Wang, the author of a comprehensive and hands-on book on raising trilingual children¹ , really put us to shame by outlining her thorough preparation process: the questions she and her husband Philippe raised and answered before their two sons were born, the choice of their communication system, and the self-education the whole endeavour would involve.
Max and Zoe are now six months old. Here we are answering the questions Dr Wang so wisely suggests that parents should answer when considering raising their children multilingual. You might notice that Martin’s answers are more concise than mine. I guess, this speaks volumes about the differences in our approaches and attitudes to our children’s linguistic development.
- How many languages should we pass on to our children?
- When would we start the process?
- What should our family communication system be?
- What are our real motives in wanting to raise children with more than one language?
- Are we capable of raising children with more than one language, and do our personality traits fit the endeavor?
- Do we have support to realise our plan?
- What are our goals and expectations for our children’s heritage language achievements?
- Are we aware of the price that we and our children may have to pay in the process?
- Are we ready to face the inevitable challenges of raising children with more than one language in a monolingual environment?
- Are we prepared to modify our plan if it does not work out?
- What kinds of materials should we prepare?
How many languages should we pass on to our children?
- Martin: Consciously we should try to pass on two, Russian and Swedish. They will get English anyways whether we stay here in the US or move abroad.
- Svetlana: Russian and Swedish have always been considered by us as languages of equal value. We have never had any doubts about the necessity to transmit them to our future children. As we have always lived in English-speaking countries together (first 5 years in Ireland and then, from August 2011, in the USA) we assumed that English would be the third language the children would pick up when we communicate with non-Russian or Swedish speakers, or outside of the home.
When would we start the process?
- Martin: Straight away. By ensuring we only speak Russian and Swedish to the babies and in-between each other.
- Svetlana: As soon as the babies are born I would speak to them in Russian, and Martin – in Swedish. We always agreed that we used too much English with each other, and that we should try speaking each others’ languages at home instead. During the pregnancy we once again tried to make a conscious effort to reduce the amount of English at home in order to have it our habit once the babies are born.
What should our family communication system be?
- Martin: I speak Swedish to the babies. You speak Russian and we speak Swedish/Russian between us.
- Svetlana: Mom speaks Russian to the children; Dad speaks Swedish to the children; an effort should be made to only speak Russian or Swedish to each other when Max and Zoe are present. When there are people at home who do not speak Russian or Swedish we speak English to everybody.
What are our real motives in wanting to raise children with more than one language?
- For them to be able to communicate with families and friends in our respective countries.
- For them to be set up to be able to make friends, go to school etc in Sweden and Russia.
- We both speak several languages and recognise what a benefit this is regardless of heritage.
- My main motive is continuity. It is truly heart-breaking to imagine that my children would not be able to communicate with my parents, relatives and friends. Although knowing the language is not a guarantee of the sense of belonging in the family and in the country (Russia), I believe that the two are positively related. Same goes for my husband’s family and friends. Furthermore, the reality is such that wherever we end up living, even if we move back to Sweden, English is an international language which is a must for a person who does not want to miss out on… life simply!
- My children’s cultural and social capitals will be enriched through knowing 3 languages and being exposed to and competent in at least 2 cultures (Russian and Swedish). Trilingualism and biculturalism/multiculturalism will open many doors and hearts for Maximilian and Zoe.
- I believe that multilingualism develops cognitive abilities of a person, as well as the ability to understand different linguistic systems. This would be of a great benefit to Max and Zoe.
- I see multilingualism and multiculturalism as the way to open-mindedness and cosmopolitanism. I wish for my children to understand and be understood, to value and be valued, to respect and be respected wherever they find themselves. Naturally, multilingualism and multiculturalism cannot promise being understood, valued, or respected but their chances for that will be greater should they themselves treat people and peoples with respect.
Are we capable of raising children with more than one language, and do our personality traits fit the endeavor?
- Martin: Time will tell. Love and patience combined with consistency will be the key. Personality traits – yes.
- Svetlana: I am a teacher of English as a foreign language by my first degree. Teaching is what I love doing. From this perspective, I should be able to use my teaching skills, knowledge, methodology, and experience in general to make the transmission of our heritage languages smooth and efficient. I speak conversational Swedish, French and Slovak, and have passive knowledge of German, the language I learnt at the university but hardly ever spoke ever since. Having had the experience of learning these languages, I now understand language learners, and why certain mistakes occur in their speech. This will help me in teaching my children languages. On the other hand, on the personal level I am impatient and like fast gratification, which is out of the question in the case of transmitting heritage languages to children. I have noticed that I am more patient with my students than, for instance, with Martin when I occasionally teach him Russian. This can potentially get in the way, so I should work on my temper in order not to jeopardise my children’s motivation to speak Russian. Furthermore, Martin often lacks consistency and determination in questions of parenting. He is more laissez faire than I am, which is not ideal when facing a challenge of raising trilingual children. However, Martin is very capable linguistically himself (he speaks Swedish, French, Russian, German, understands Norwegian, Danish and Spanish), which motivates him to be goal-oriented. Hopefully, we will be able to minimise the negative effect of our weaknesses and to capitalise on our strengths in pursuit of our children’s multilingualism and multiculturalism.
Do we have support to actualise our plan?
- Martin: Do not know what kind of support we need. The fact that we live so far away from family makes us rely on ourselves for most things. This included.
- Svetlana: Absolutely! My parents are very supportive of our plan. My father has always been putting pressure on Martin to learn some Russian because he is very much fond of him, and would like to be able to talk to him without any constraints. He himself would not consider learning English or any other language for that matter though. I am a little bit concerned, however, that my parents will be impatient to see results fast, or that they will start panicking should there be a delay in the children’s speech development initially. When I was visiting my home city Barnaul in June 2012 with Martin, Maximilian and Zoe (they were four months then), I noticed that parents of young children (infants and toddlers), all children actually, can get quite competitive about their children’s timelines: when they start to hold their heads, crawl, walk, etc. I would expect that the same will apply to children’s talking skills. It will be in our interest to adopt a calm and patient attitude toward the process of raising our children trilingual in order to avoid panicking ourselves should something go not according to our plan or aspirations. This will help us to bounce back and develop new tactics to tackle the issue.
What are our goals and expectations for our children’s heritage language achievements?
- Martin: To speak, read and write Russian and Swedish fluently.
- Svetlana: Ideally, I would like my children to be proficient in Russian, Swedish, and English in all language aspects: speaking, listening comprehension, reading, and writing. Furthermore, I would like them to love and be proud of their languages and never be ashamed of their cultural heritage. The day when Max and Zoe will be able to be witty in Russian will be a happy day for me!
Are we aware of the price that we and our children may have to pay in the process?
- Martin: From what I understand children who are raised multilingual may take longer to start speaking and struggle more initially. This may obviously have consequences when socializing with other children.
- Svetlana: I believe, the greatest price that we all will inevitably have to pay will be our leisure time. Trilingualism will be eating up a significant part of our daily life, as we will have to always be working on creating an artificial, but rich, entertaining, and stimulating linguistic environment for our children. We will have to be constantly resourceful and creative, and often our personal time will have to be sacrificed. Consequently, our children will have less free time than their monolingual peers, which we will have to compensate for as parents by making sure that they still have their childhoods. They should not feel like they are enrolled into a 24/7 school. It will furthermore take a lot of effort not to allow the strive for trilingualism create interpersonal tension between me and Martin, us and the children, or between the children. Martin and I should try to be always attuned to each other’s and our children’s moods, emotions, and feelings. Sometimes it will be beneficial for all of us to have a break in teaching/learning, grab a ball and go outside to have some fun. Schedules and timetables are good, but inevitably they will be ignored at some point or other. Our family’s dynamics are also important!
Are we ready to face the inevitable challenges of raising children with more than one language in a monolingual environment?
- Martin: Yes. And I would argue that our environment is anything but monolingual. We have several Swedish and Russian speaking friends and are also surrounded by other languages.
- Svetlana: Max and Zoe will not have a natural Swedish or Russian language environment. As mentioned above, we should always try to be resourceful and appeal to our families back in Sweden and Russia to provide us with some contemporary materials (books, audio, video, games, etc). We should surround our children with oral and visual stimuli in Russian and Swedish as much as we can. There is plenty of that in English outside of the home, as well as when we have guests at home. Moreover, Russian speakers are good at founding supplementary language and culture schools outside of their historical motherlands. We should definitely try to find time to regularly take Max and Zoe there when they are old enough. I have also heard of some Swedish childcare facilities and playgroups in the area, which we should explore. Sometimes we will have to listen to our own intuition rather than to other people’s opinions about how our endeavour is developing, and what should (not) be done. We will need to learn and teach our children to deal with some narrow-mindedness and intolerance, at times even with ignorance and rudeness. Speaking a different language in a monolingual context can provoke a variety of reactions.
Are we prepared to modify our plan if it does not work out?
- Martin: Whatever is best for our children. Their well-being is more important than their multilingualism.
- Svetlana: I cannot call myself a flexible and spontaneous person. I am a ‘plan-person’: I like plans. Realistically, it will be a blow for me to see that my plan failed in some aspects, and needs reformatting. Thus, I need to start playing with an idea of introducing some changes sooner rather than later, or with an idea that some of our tactics might not yield expected results.
What kinds of materials should we prepare?
- Ensure toys, books etc assist us in raising our children bilingual.
- books on raising bi-/-tri-lingual childreн
- children’s books
- browse for language-developing cartoons online
- language-developing toys (with alphabets, etc)
- songs in Russian and Swedish
1. WANG, X.-L. 2008. Growing up with Three Languages., Bristol, Buffalo, Toronto, Multilingual Matters.