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  • Writer's pictureElif Durgel

Raising Multilingual Children

Updated: Sep 11, 2019

Due to today’s interconnected and global world, The Netherlands is seeing an increase in the number of expat and multi-ethnic families. Additionally, Dutch themselves are very internationally oriented people. In order to thrive in such a multicultural environment, children of these families need intercultural skills with multilingualism being at the very core.

Thus, expat parents have a very important task to support and encourage multilingual development of their kids.

Cognitive and Social Benefits of Multilingualism:

Multilingualism is linked with one of the most essential socio-cognitive skills: Executive Functioning. This includes flexible thinking and inhibitory control, which are jointly responsible for various tasks like attention, staying focused on tasks, organizing, planning and regulating emotions. Flexible thinking helps in finding alternative approaches to solving problems. Inhibitory control makes us prioritize things, ignore distractions, resist temptation, control emotions and behaviours. Scientific studies comparing multilingual and monolingual children repeatedly show that multilingual children tend to be better at these executive functions.

Metalinguistic awareness is also high in multilingual children which means they not only know about vocabulary and grammar rules in languages but also know about how languages work, how structures and rules can be transferred across languages etc. This meta-level awareness helps children make connections between languages and learn a new language easily.

Social benefits of multilingualism are more about cultural identity, family and social relationships. Multilingual children feel connected and are able to contribute to their parents’ heritage cultures as well as in the culture they live in. They can understand the customs, jokes, literature in all the cultures they can speak the language of. Parents of multilingual children emotionally feel satisfied when their children can speak their heritage language as it encourages the ties with the extended family. Additionally, multilingual children who can speak their heritage language fluently are accepted as a ‘native’ of their heritage culture.

Parents of multilingual kids also see additional benefits. Beyond emotional reasons, parents see multilingual upbringing as an investment in their children’s education and future professional career.

Supporting Your Child’s Multilingual Development:

These common strategies are effective in teaching 2nd, 3rd language from early childhood:

One parent – One language: Each parent speaks their own language with the child. This is perhaps the most common strategy.

Minority Language at Home: Parents speak a language at home and the child learns the 2nd, 3rd languages out of home context (at school).

Time and Place: Specific languages are being spoken at specific times. For instance, parents speak Spanish during the weekdays and English only in the weekends.

The important point here is to make sure the child gets enough exposure by both parents. If a parent speaks a language only 2-3 hours a week, there is a great chance that the child will not master that language. This is certainly not enough exposure for the child to learn a language.

Tips for Parents:  

1- Positive attitude: It can get challenging at times, however, see multilingualism as an asset and have a positive attitude towards learning a new language.

2- Motivate & praise: Especially for older children who need to learn a new language, motivate your child. Try not to show your concerns about their academic and cultural adjustment, and rather focus on the beneficial and ‘cool’ sides of learning a new language such as being able to make local friends more easily, joking about how they can have ‘secret conversations’ etc.

3- Exposure to the language: Child needs to feel that the language is important and also needs to have an opportunity/place to use that language. Create opportunities to practice the language, read books, arrange play dates with kids who speak the same language, visit countries in which that language is spoken, participate in language camps etc.

4- Make use of media: Nowadays you can find your child’s favorite cartoon dubbed in many languages (on Netflix / YouTube). Watch movies/cartoons together in that language in an interactive way, Skype with grandparents, find fun mobile games and applications for your child to play etc.

5- Use music to bring fun in learning a language: Sing and dance to the songs in the language your child is learning.

6- Start as early as possible: Earlier the better! Start introducing the 2nd language as early as possible.

7- Never make fun of your child’s mistakes or ‘cute’ ways of talking.

8- Try not to directly correct your child’s pronunciation or grammar. Children learn in a natural way by observing their environment. Therefore, it is better if you set an example in your use of language.

9- Make sure you stimulate your child enough in terms of language and cognitive development. Do not try to talk with your child in a language in which you cannot express yourself well and cannot form a stimulating warm interaction with your child.

Tips in the Dutch Context:

Provide your child with ample occasions to learn/practice the Dutch language. Arrange play dates with Dutch kids, watch Dutch cartoons, attend Dutch book reading sessions organized at the library, and get your child actively participate in local social activities (in Dutch).

In the Netherlands, children can attend preschool (peuterspeelzaal) from the age of 2 and a half years old. This is probably going to be your child’s first real contact with the Dutch language. Attending peuterspeelzaal for a couple of hours a week would help your child learn and practice Dutch. Additionally, more and more primary schools (basisschool) in Eindhoven cater for expat children and provide extra Dutch language lessons for them in addition to the regular curriculum.

As an expat parent, one of your main concerns is your children’s academic and social adjustment in the new culture. Learning and mastering the local language is a milestone for children to be able to perform well at school, make friends and be an active participant in their new social context. To summarize, support your child’s learning of new languages by continuing to speak the language you feel most comfortable in, motivate your child, provide opportunities to practice, and make use of music, books and media.

* This article was first published on Eindhoven News in January 2019.

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