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Wednesday, September 12th, 2012

10 Things Not to Say to Parents of Multilingual Children

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10 things Not to Say to Parents of Multilingual Children/ © Pathathai Chungyam - Fotolia.com

As a Polish mother in the Netherlands with multilingual children growing up with Polish, German and Dutch, I often hear uninformed and judgmental comments. Inspired by Babble’s “What not to say…” series, I wrote my own list about what you should never (and I mean NEVER) say to parents of multilingual children.

1) “I know somebody who is bilingual, and they never learned to speak any language properly.”  The idea that children can’t learn two languages properly when they acquire both simultaneously has long been debunked. But even if such a situation happened, the problem is usually not due to multilingualism itself, but rather other issues. Finally, what does it mean to speak a language properly? To sound like a native speaker? Only a minority of bilinguals have native accents in both languages. Why is an accent so bad anyway?

2) “Not all children are smart enough to be multilingual.” I was so annoyed by this kind of comment that I wrote a whole blog post about it. Every child is bright or clever enough to be multilingual. Also, what do you mean by “smart” anyway? The biggest issue I have with this question is the assumptions about what makes a child bright. Just as there is more to intelligence than superior performance on standardized tests, it doesn’t take a gifted child to become multilingual. Instead, every child is gifted in his or her own way.

3) “Do your children speak the majority language?” First of all, why do you expect everybody to learn the majority language? If I chose to, I could raise my children to never come in contact with the majority language, which in our case is Dutch. However, I decided to send my children to Dutch daycare, which is usually met with a sigh of relief or a nod of approval. But why do you even care how I decide to raise my children? Do you think that because I am a foreigner, you have the right to put your nose into matters that do not concern you? It is my choice to make, not yours. While I recognise the importance of speaking the majority language, my focus is on Polish (my own language, and the one that is most endangered), with German (my husband’s language) as a close second. Dutch is important although minority languages are even more important.

4) “Poor children, they are forced to learn all these languages.” I am so tempted to answer Dooce style: “When we force them to learn all these languages is the only time we unchain them from their beds, so don’t feel bad for them.” Instead, I point out that children don’t absorb languages the way adults do. Instead, they perceive learning languages as something normal. So, no they are not “poor children.” These are multilingual children, with all the benefits that come with it. These children, like other children, are awesome.

5) “When I compare your child to other children…” You should never compare any child to other children. Not when they’re monolingual. Not when they’re multilingual. You can only compare the same child to her or himself in the past to monitor progress. This is the case with any child, but rings even more true with multilingual children whose speech develops at a different pace. Monolingual standards are not useful in gaging the speech of multilingual children. However, there will be situations when our children will have to be compared, especially when we take them to a doctor for check-ups or at school. In such cases, multilingual children should be compared to other multilingual children.

6) “I’m sorry, you can’t understand her because she’s multilingual.” (This was said in my presence about my daughter.) Instead of being amazed that my children are growing up to be multilingual, this person somehow felt sorry for them. She proceeded to explain all the problems and challenges with multilingualism. The children can’t pronounce words properly? They’re multilingual! They have a speech delay? They’re multilingual! While some issues can be indirectly connected to multilingualism (for example when the child doesn’t have enough exposure to one language), other than those, the problem lies elsewhere.

7) “The only way to raise multilingual children is one parent one language (OPOL)/minority language at home (ml@h)/whatever it is your commenter does.” While there are some methods worth mentioning when talking about multilingualism (for example consistency), no multilingual family is the same. The approaches we use, and the plans we have for our children vary, and that’s OK! There is no “best” method. There is “the method that works,” or “the method that suits my family,” just like with everything else in parenting.

8) “Why do you even bother?” Although I haven’t heard that one myself, other families I know have. Raising multilingual children is extremely difficult, even though it is enjoyable and beneficial. It also requires resources such as money, time, attention and planning. Therefore, to some people it might seem that all this work is for nothing, especially if they compare multilingual to monolingual children. Often in the beginning, multilingual children may appear to have speech delays and other issues connected with communication. But on the flip side, the children will grow up to speak many languages. Isn’t that what matters most?

9)  “You don’t need this minority language.” Oh yes, we do. We totally need to teach our children our minority languages, even if it’s not a prestige language in the country we’re living in, or if the language seems “exotic,” like Polish may to the Dutch. The minority language is part of our cultural heritage, and it would be upsetting to lose it. Another problem with this question is the value that some languages are given over others. The way a language is viewed is often related to stereotypes, which is definitely the case with Polish. Few stereotypes about Polish are positive ones. This is another reason to teach my children Polish: to prove these stereotypes wrong.

10) “It must be hard.” Yes, it is hard, but when I say it, I have something different in mind. For example, you might mean that it is difficult for the children to learn so many languages. Fact: it is not challenging at all. Children don’t have to learn grammar and vocabulary the way adults do. It is also not difficult to raise our multilingual children with our mother tongues, as this feels completely natural. But you know what is hard? It’s hard to be judged when my language is not deemed useful or important. It is hard to talk to experts on healthcare or education and be told that our children need more exposure to the majority language. It is hard to be on our own without any help and support. Sometimes, it’s people like you who make raising multilingual children difficult.

What can we do? Explain, explain and explain some more. Be patient, and show them results. Know in our hearts that we are doing the right thing by raising our children multilingually. Or just ignore those stupid comments.

© 2012 – 2013, Olga Mecking. All rights reserved.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR


Olga Mecking has been living in the Netherlands with her German husband and two trilingual daughters since September 2009. Olga occasionally works as a freelance translator and trainer of intercultural communication. Originally from Poland, she is multilingual and speaks Polish, German, English, Dutch and French. She is a regular blogger at the Polish website www.egodziecka.pl and occasionally blogs for www.NomadParents.com. She also has her own personal blog at www.europeanmama.eu, but considers herself a stay-at-home-mom.

Leave us a comment!

28 Comments
  1. CommentsNadine   |  Thursday, 13 September 2012 at 1:44 pm

    I think it’s wonderful for people to start learning additional languages, early in life. There are many experiences in my life that prove this.

  2. CommentsSue   |  Friday, 14 September 2012 at 12:49 am

    You sound angry Olga, I am guessing many of the sentences you listed must have been said to you direct…
    I totally agree on #9. You call it prestige, I call it glamour. I love that you want your children to soeak your non-prestigious minority language to break stereotypes. Same in my case with arabic :)
    Best of luck!

  3. CommentsEmma   |  Saturday, 15 September 2012 at 1:09 am

    I’m the multilingual daughter of a multilingual father, we moved frequently when I was a child and for a couple of years my German was better than my English but that was resolved quickly enough on the next move to Spain, then Italy.
    I now have a daughter of my own and moved back to Spain from England shortly before she was born, at 10.5 months she’s showing a good understanding of English and is just starting Spanish nursery, I can’t wait to have my own little multilingualist.
    Learning a second language really young is hugely beneficial, other languages are much easier to learn and I feel like the world is my oyster since I can communicate with a large part of it. My own languages being English, Spanish, Italian and French – I can still understand a lot of German but after 26 years of not using it I’d need some immersion to get it back.

  4. CommentsNatalia   |  Saturday, 15 September 2012 at 5:11 am

    Hi Olga, very happy to see a Polish mom putting in effort to pass down our language! I know too many Polish mothers in the Netherlands who really don’t bother! So sad! Stay strong :)

  5. CommentsAdriana   |  Tuesday, 18 September 2012 at 10:16 am

    Hi, Olga!

    Perfect text! As a mother of 2 multilingual boys (portuguese, english and dutch), I know how people react to it here in The Netherlands, but I do need to say that the most prejudice, in my case, came from other brazilians like me and not dutch people (although I also hear these kind of comments from locals sometimes). What really helps me to save my children from these kind of conversation is that they attend an international school, where the “normal”situation is that a child is able to speak at lesat 3 languages there. But then people say it is “not necessary” to keep MY CHILDREN away from the dutch educational system and most of them thinks that I am some kind of arrogant foreigner…

    Well, anyway…everywhere we can find these kind of people that just believe they have the right to interfere in OUR CHILDREN’s education. pfff

  6. CommentsAnne K. Glick   |  Wednesday, 19 September 2012 at 12:29 am

    Olga, I just moved to The Netherlands six weeks ago from Burundi. Any chance you live near Voorburg/The Hague? I’m raising 3 children trilingual (English, Dutch, French) and would love to meet other such moms/families….. Anne

  7. CommentsSarka Stefanova   |  Thursday, 20 September 2012 at 11:26 am

    My family has multilingual background, all my cousins are raised in 3 languages (Czech, German, French) and when they come, the switch between these languages just fine. Sometimes they use a word or two from Czech in German conversation and vice versa, but I see no problem. In our country we have a saying: How many languages you can speak, that many times you are a human being.

  8. CommentsBea   |  Friday, 21 September 2012 at 1:07 pm

    Hi. I am a mum of two beautiful daughters, both bilingual. I am originally from Hungary, but use English by profession. Their father is Dutch. ( The 6 year old understands some English and able to answer some simple questions) She has just started school – we live in the Netherlands, so it is is called groep3 here. Wonderfully enough, already in the first week the teacher realized that she is more advanced in many subjects, so she is getting reading books at the level of end of groep4, begin groep5. She speaks both languages without accent. The little one is 3, the same, moreover, her iq seems to be higher compared to other children of her age. Do you need any more to understand why I insist on using both languages. Interesting enough, none of them has problems with the interference of the other languages.

  9. CommentsBea   |  Friday, 21 September 2012 at 1:10 pm

    We found a wonderful school, with many multilingual families. Luckily. ;)

  10. CommentsSara W.   |  Friday, 21 September 2012 at 9:34 pm

    I just got ribbed for helping my 2 year old Mandarin yesterday because she’s ‘hard for others to understand’. Thanks for making me feel much, much better!

  11. CommentsOlga   |  Friday, 28 September 2012 at 7:16 am

    Hello, thank you so much for the wonderful comments! There were very reassuring, and I felt like I wasn’t alone in this. Sue, yes, I sounded angry, because- as you guessed correctly, many of these comments were said to me- by members of my extended family- it felt like a bullet through the chest- hence the post because I felt like I really can’t be the only one who deals with these kinds of comments! Anne- yes, I will send you an email! Please also feel free to contact me at olga.mecking@gmail.com!

  12. CommentsCharlotta   |  Wednesday, 17 October 2012 at 2:12 am

    How familiar!!
    Remember; most part of the world is #multilingual and that Seems to work fine!. Multilingualism is only an issue in parts where monolingualism is the norm!
    Charlotta, @globatris on twitter (where I tweet on multilingualism and more; would be nice to connect )

  13. CommentsMelissa   |  Wednesday, 07 November 2012 at 8:53 am

    I live in the United States and I am raising my children multilingual, mostly English, Spanish, and French, I don’t get any negative comments here, in fact, most people think it is “cool”. I have read where bi and multi lingual children do better on intelligence tests and other positive results.
    I started with Spanish because my husband is from El Salvador and with French because my heritage is French, although from centuries ago.

  14. CommentsMarjan   |  Wednesday, 07 November 2012 at 2:37 pm

    Hi Olga,
    I am so sorry to hear of the negative attitude in the Netherlands. I am Dutch, their father speaks Arabic with the kids and we live in England.
    The attitude in school is so positive her. They really support it. The school even gave me contact details for an Arabic Sunday school. They also had made a poster with all the languages which were spoken in school beside English.
    Very supportive in any way. Feel sad to hear you have a different experience. I know the Dutch always like to comment on others. But you don’t have to justify yourself why you raise your kids trilingual.

  15. CommentsErik R.   |  Friday, 16 November 2012 at 12:31 pm

    Most of my experience in the US and Spain is that the monolinguals are envious of my daughter learning two languages. I haven’t heard any of these sentiments…yet.

  16. CommentsOlga   |  Wednesday, 19 December 2012 at 6:25 am

    Great to hear that some of you had positive experiences with raising multilingualism! I hope less and less people will! And no, I don’t need to justify my choices, but the pressure is hard! Marjan, it’s not necessarily only the Dutch people, I’ve heard similar things in other countries as well. And actually, I am happy to be living in the Netherlands with it’s strong vibrant international community, and many Dutch people are actually very supportive! This can happen everywhere!

  17. CommentsIs he trying to tell me something? | A Fluent Family   |  Wednesday, 09 January 2013 at 11:35 am

    [...] seem to have internalized so many of the doubts people have about bilingual education rather than focusing on the benefits.  My confidence in the [...]

  18. CommentsExpat Parenting in Curitiba 2: Community Service | The Head of the Heard   |  Sunday, 03 March 2013 at 7:16 pm

    [...] some of the things I read was The European Mama wrote about the 10 Things Not To Say To Parents of Multilingual Children, and then later wrote about the what you should say.  Eowyn wrote In Defense Of The Bilingual [...]

  19. CommentsSuzanne vdF   |  Monday, 06 May 2013 at 1:33 pm

    Hi Olga, I am raising a trilingual boy (Dutch, Italian, English) in the US and also here, mostly postive comments. The negative ones I’ve heard all came from Dutch family friends..! My profession is actually in early speech acquisition / linguistics so I think often, people don’t dare to comment to me (even if I can see them thinking…;)). If they do, IGNORE if you are upset, or politely teach them / inform them a bit. You are right on all points!! And once your daughter is older and speaks all languages people will of course only be impressed….But you are doing a wonderful thing so never let them get to you! A nice reading may be “Raising a Bilingual Child” by Barbara Pearson.

  20. CommentsSuzanne vdF   |  Monday, 06 May 2013 at 1:38 pm

    (And as a side note, if you want to shut someone up, just quote one (of many) benefits of bilingualism: it recently was found that it can protect the brain from developing Alzheimer’s :) Here are two ‘popular science’ readings about this and other benefits that I make my students read: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/03/18/opinion/sunday/the-benefits-of-bilingualism.html?_r=0 and one from Science http://www.sciencemag.org/content/330/6002/332.summary (email me if you can’t download it and would like me to send you the pdf…)

  21. Comments10 Things NOT to Say to Parents of Bilingual Children | Mazzocchi ESL   |  Thursday, 26 September 2013 at 8:14 am

    […] 10 Things NOT to Say to Parents of Bilingual Children […]

  22. CommentsKasia   |  Thursday, 24 October 2013 at 12:59 pm

    Hello,
    I am a student at University College of Social Studies in Poland and writing my MA thesis on multilingual families using English as a lingua franca.
    I am looking for volunteers with multilingual children speaking English.
    The design of the research will be easy to conduct in home settings. All the personal details will remain confidential. I will send more information if required. The study will take place between late November 2013 – early January 2014.
    If you are interested, please do not hesitate to contact me: multilingualexperiment@gmail.com
    I would appreciate any help.

  23. CommentsThat Was The Year, My Friends!   |  Wednesday, 06 November 2013 at 3:13 am

    […] the interviews (see here, here, and here)  and guest posts I was asked to do (see for example here)and the jump in traffic.    I want to say thank you to all my readers, and other bloggers for […]

  24. CommentsWhat to say to parents of bilingual children   |  Thursday, 07 November 2013 at 12:06 pm

    […] months ago, I wrote a post about what not to say to parents of bilingual children (see herefor the edited and revised version on InCultureParent Magazine). It was a highly popular post, […]

  25. CommentsEd   |  Friday, 03 January 2014 at 10:47 am

    Hi!
    My twelve weeks old baby girl is now articulating simple syllables and by the way things are progressing I have reasons to expect her starting to talk in a couple of months…
    As both my wife and myself are speaking more than one foreign language our intention is to let the baby have a ‘linguistic bath’ in as many languages as possible. Beside our native ones, my firm intention is to teach her Latin – the mother of all European languages (almost), be it only to make her brain more organized (if you studied Latin grammar you know what I mean).
    To the misconceptions encountered by Olga, please do not forget an axiomatic aspect: the quantity of intelligence is the same since the Creation and it’s only the population growing :)
    If a child is eager to learn a language than let it be – no human language is ‘foreign’ to a new born baby (or, all of them are), though we all end learning at least one!
    So, Olga, just ignore the ignorants :)
    De beste

  26. CommentsShould I teach my child a second language? |   |  Saturday, 04 January 2014 at 6:32 pm

    […] of speech and language problems. Friends, strangers and even family members will tell you lots of stupid things. Don’t listen to […]

  27. CommentsShould I teach my child a second language? | Magnolia Ripkin   |  Wednesday, 12 February 2014 at 9:01 pm

    […] of speech and language problems. Friends, strangers and even family members will tell you lots of stupid things. Don’t listen to […]

  28. CommentsVicki Lesage   |  Thursday, 10 April 2014 at 3:27 am

    I can totally relate to your list, as we are raising our son to speak English and French. People say really stupid stuff about raising multilingual children, but then again, people say really stupid stuff about EVERYTHING related to parenting! People just love giving unsolicited advice, and the biggest loudmouths tend to be the people who don’t know what they’re talking about. I’m lucky to have quite a few friends in a similar situation to me (Americans living in Paris with a French spouse) so at least they don’t say annoying things and we can all support each other :) Your children are lucky to be learning three languages and it sounds like you’ve found what works well for your family. That’s awesome!









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