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.