Language issues for expat families

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When parents bring up children with their respective languages and then live in a country where a third language is spoken, communication can quickly become complicated. We report on strategies for multilingual families.

Anita Daschti comes from Paraguay, her husband Sadik is an asylum seeker from Iran, and their children were both born in Germany. She speaks no Persian, he no Spanish.

Together they speak German, and Spanish and Persian to the children, while the children speak all three languages to one another. The Tower of Babel returns at every dinner-time conversation.

But for Anita and Sadik, their situation is perfectly normal.

In Sadik's own words, "As a political refugee, I have very restricted freedom of movement, internationally. That’s just what we have to accept. If my wife gets lonely for her own language, she takes the kids down to Spain for a few weeks. The most important thing is to have a good network of families in similar situations. For us, as much as for the children."

While English speakers have the luxury of getting away with being monolingual, much of the world grows up quite naturally speaking more than one language.

Barbara Rosenberg, a high school teacher in New Zealand, points to the example of a Vietnamese girl who wanted to start learning German.

"On being asked how many languages she spoke, she replied 'Not so many, only seven', which were English, Vietnamese, Chinese, Cantonese and three local dialects."

Bringing up a child with more than one language is certainly a plus for the child, but it can make for some complications. The American Department of Education says parents can choose from a number of options in their use of language, including:

    * One parent, one language. Each parent consistently speaks his or her native tongue.
    * Both parents speak their native language in the home and a second language in the community, at school, etc.
    * Both parents speak both languages to the children, but separate the languages according to situation.

This third option is the situation in the Daschti home. When Anita's daughter brings friends home from kindergarten, Anita speaks German to all of them, so as not to isolate her daughter from her friends.

How do children learn best?

Children should not be forced into multilingualism. It is extremely important not to make it an issue. A child should never be rebuked or punished for using (or not using) a particular language.

The more the parents make it seem like a natural and unremarkable part of family life, the more likely it is that children will grow up using both languages naturally.

Consistency is the key to early language learning. By mixing languages in a conversation, young children may learn the mixed language as one hybrid language. This does not, however, mean that a child who mixes languages is confused.

In the newsletter of the International Association of Applied Linguistics, Annick de Houer states that most children will use both languages at once during the early stages of their development. However, this usually only happens in situations when the child knows that it will be understood.

How will a multilingual environment affect children?

A child's language is critical to his/her identity. Children who grow up with more than one language may learn to value their culture and heritage, which contributes greatly to a positive self-image. This is particularly true for young children, but seems to change as they get older.

Barbara Rosenberg says, "Whether kids like being singled out depends very much on age. There's a big clobbering machine that kicks in at about 10, 11, 12, and suddenly it isn't cool to be different. We find that girls particularly don't like to be seen to excel at anything, although it is cool to be good at sport."

Common problems

Susan Forrester, an American living in Freiburg, Germany, often feels that her children are being treated like circus animals by her husband’s relatives, who do not speak her language.

"I often hear things like, 'Oh can you really speak English, dear. Say something for us.' This is simply not fair on my children, who are then expected to perform on command, in something that for them is perfectly normal."

A solution recommended by Alma Robson, a teacher at the English-speaking Montessori School in Frankfurt, is to teach a child one direct answer to use in this situation.

To respond, for example, with "no" or "I don't want to". The parent should then translate this. The child has thus fulfilled the requirement and said something in English, but also quite clearly asked to be left in peace.

Ratu Prasada, an Indian who has lived with her husband and two children in Germany for three years says, "If you don’t speak the language of the community, you'll be at a massive disadvantage. When my kids started school they spoke no German. Now that they have learned [German], they react to their relief at no longer being isolated by refusing to speak anything but."

Ratu finds it very difficult to understand them when they tell her what is happening at school. She has many times had a strong feeling that they are being bullied, and cannot do or say anything about it, because the children refuse to respond to her.

Some tips for learning German

Susan Forrester has just finished a total immersion German course. During her first four years in Germany, she understood nothing. Having two toddlers only 11 months apart, she had no time or energy to try and learn. She offers the following advice:

    * Don't run for the dictionary when you get stuck on a word. Try to describe it in the local language. This is the only way to get an intuitive feeling for the language. Spontaneous translations are not the same as true fluency.
    * Don’t worry about grammar; this happens by itself with time. Little babies don't learn grammar from books, but by the simple process of listening and repeating what they hear.
    * Be self-confident. Just say whatever pops into your head. You will be understood and helped.

Says Susan, "I used to have to have my husband translate everything, and he never let me know how much of it strain it was for him. Now that I can speak the language, I am so much more free."


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