My girls are playing close by as I’m working on my laptop. Sara, 7, is the lead actress in a production of “princess bride” that seems to be going on in our living room. She is very much in control, giving out directions, talking, laughing and sometimes singing. Her sister, Emma, 11, prefers not to be center stage and mainly speaks to remind her sister of details she has forgotten (like the name of the fiancé). She is kind and patient with her energetic little sister, but I can tell that she’s frustrated with the way the story keeps changing, and would much rather be in her room with a book than play this game. This scene is the perfect reflection of their personality types. In raising bilingual children, I have come to recognize the importance of tailoring activities in the minority language to their distinct personality types.
Knowing that experts on bilingualism recommend reinforcing the family’s minority language, my passion for years has been to look for fun and out-of-the box ideas that accomplish this goal within real-life parenting situations. Often times, I’ve been quite proud of myself for the ideas I’ve come up with to reinforce the minority language, only to discover my daughters weren’t interested. For instance there was that time I went to great lengths to meet some recently arrived French expat families and invited their children for a snack. In my mind, my daughter would make friends and have an actual need and motivation to use French. In reality, however, Emma preferred to grab a book and read the whole time. “What?” she asked later, seeing my expression. “I offered them books, too!” In retrospect, I had planned an activity I personally liked for her without taking into account that she might not feel the same.
When Emma was born, close to 12 years ago, I imagined she and I would have a very similar relationship to the one I once had with my late mother. I was excited about all the fun, often spur of the moment things that we would do together. I imagined us talking and laughing just as I had done with my mother. I couldn’t wait for her to grow up and for us to be “girlfriends.”
It wasn’t until she did grow that I realized that children are not copies of their parents and actually come to this world with inborn characteristics. Naïvely I had thought I was raising someone like me, in other words, an extrovert. Only after several years and many frustrating experiences for both of us, I came across a great book on personalities by Florence Littauer called “Personality Plus for Parents.” It clearly showed that Emma was an introvert, and therefore not motivated by the same things as someone with my personality type. I still remember the relief I felt when I realized, page by page, that Emma didn’t reject me as a parent when she didn’t respond to my attempts to have “fun quality time” together. Nor could or should I try to remake her into an extrovert. It was up to me to adjust my language activities to her personality type, for starters by respecting her need for privacy and dislike for social situations. Just as I started to understand what made Emma tick, our second daughter, Sara, was born. As we quickly found out, she was just as extroverted as I am—and then some!
In our multilingual context, these personality types also manifest in the way our children acquire their two languages, French and Finnish. This has required different solutions to motivate them to use their minority language. Here are some examples of activities that have worked with each of their personalities.
Sara—the Extrovert: Keep it fun and social
Look for fun, social events, such as playgroups in the minority language. She loves to have people around her and can’t wait for the next summer camp to make new friends.
– Play inventive games, such as storytelling, role-playing (with dress-up!) and acting. If she can be the center of attention, all the better.
– Praise her for her efforts and bite my tongue when I feel like correcting her. Despite their self-confidence, many extroverts are afraid of not being accepted as who they are and crave recognition. If the praise can be given in front of other people, she will gladly participate even in language activities that she’s not very interested in, like reading.
– Throw in some adventure and a few surprises and it will make even homework in the second language fun. We have a “mailbox” in the house where Sara receives secret messages in the minority language. In her excitement, she doesn’t even seem to notice the effort it takes her to decipher the message, and is motivated to write a reply.
Emma—the Introvert: Make it meaningful and respect her need for solitude–
– Invite only one friend over at a time and plan a specific activity. Emma, as many introverts, prefers forming a deeper relationship with just one person with similar interests rather than be in a crowd. If I plan the activity beforehand, this also helps to get things going.
– Give her time to read and be by herself. The moment I understood and started to respect this many years ago, she became more willing to read books in the minority language, too—and to interact more with others afterwards.
– Provide ample advanced notice about changes in the program or any ideas I have to reinforce the minority language. She will probably still say no at first, but I know now that it only means, “Let me get used to the idea.” (Making a mental note to self to start introducing the idea of a summer camp in France already now.)
– Plan activities that include talking and interacting with others for a purpose. Emma loves scavenger hunts, games with clear rules and anything that involves lots of details. She is, however, uncomfortable in social situations that require “hanging out” with friends without a specific reason, especially if she doesn’t know them very well.
The different personality types of our girls are evident in the distinct strengths they have in their minority languages. Emma’s skills have developed through the books she has read, and she excels at spelling and grammar in French. Sara, on the other hand, bubbly and eager to communicate, is not as drawn to books and bends a few grammar rules, but is extremely fluent and natural in her oral expression. Both are active and happy bilinguals who use their languages in different ways and for different purposes.
Society today seems to want all children to be extroverts when in fact the world, just as our family, needs both. We love the balance of introverts and extroverts in our home, and wouldn’t have it any other way. We extroverts would be lost without someone reminding us of the details, and the introverts would end up very bored, eventually!