A mother’s tongue: The complexity of raising multilingual children

posted on February 27, 2019

By Globe and Mail |

One of my son’s first words was koparka, digger in Polish. As a two-year-old, his interest in all things construction meant that he would point to images of cement trucks, crane trucks and bulldozers and ask me what they were called. I knew how to answer in English, my dominant language, but as the sole parent who also speaks Polish, a language my husband and I want our children to learn, Google Translate was never far. More recently, while baking cookies, my son, now 4½ years old, asked me what marshmallows and sprinkles are in Polish. Again, I was stumped. Construction-site vocabulary and confectionery items were not part of my everyday lexicon growing up. I texted my mom, the more personal version of a translation app, and she responded: “I have no idea; We did not have sprinkles or marshmallows in my day.”

Rewind to 2011, as a child-free young journalist, I wrote an award-winning story on raising multilingual children. At the time, I could only draw on my upbringing in a Polish-speaking home growing up in Saskatoon, while also attending a French-immersion program, as first-hand experience. I interviewed several linguists and parents including a woman who was, back then, in a similar plight to my current one: Her first language was Swedish, but after living and being socialized in Canada for decades, English became her dominant language. She tried to teach her children her mother tongue, but in the end, after excessive resistance from her daughter and not enough support, she gave up.

I remember silently judging her during our interview. Multilingualism is the greatest gift a parent can give a child; how could she give up, I thought, genuinely dumbfounded.

Today, I know unerringly why she did not persevere. I think of that interview often and regret my unspoken judgment. After having two children of my own, I now know what an uphill battle it is to raise bilingual children, especially in a home with only one multilingual parent speaking the minority language. It is an anxiety-ridden, often soul-crushing, arduous feat not for the faint of heart. There are monumental highs and colossal lows, tears, frustrations and small victories that would, to an outsider, seem inconsequential, but are everything to me. There are also harsh defeats after so much effort that often leave me feeling spent.

I have, embarrassingly, cried tears of frustration, stomping out of the room like a toddler, when my son asks for my husband to read a bedtime story instead of me because he knows that means Toy Story will be read in English. I have lost my cool when I am frustrated with other normal parenting issues and have yelled at my children, “Don’t speak to me in English!” Within the same breath, I am overjoyed when I hear my son say something in Polish, only to be disheartened on the exhale when he looks at me blankly, searching for a word he should know.

Forget Google Translate – parents raising multilingual children need a virtual therapist on-hand.

My daughter is nearly 2, responds to both languages and, as my son did at her age, has started to say words in each language. The trickier part is later when words are strung together to make sentences. My son also understands everything in Polish but as to be expected, English is his dominant language. It is the language his father speaks to him, the language his father and his mother speak to each other and the language of his peer group in London, where we reside. Even though most of our close friends speak second languages – Icelandic, Spanish, Swedish, Portuguese, French – the common one among most of us is English. If prompted, my son will say a short sentence in Polish, but more often will code-switch, substituting one English word for a Polish one in an otherwise English sentence.

The potential benefits – cognitive, social, academic – of multilingualism have been emphasized since my childhood but now, as a linguist, I also know too much and with that knowledge comes an added pressure of ensuring my children get the most exposure to multiple languages as early as possible. The popular one parent, one language method is what my husband and I are using with our children. While I was writing my thesis on multilingualism and empathy last year, I found a 2007 study by Annick De Houwer that concluded that families where both parents spoke the same home language had a much larger success rate of the child speaking the minority language. “The ‘one parent–one language’ strategy did not provide a necessary nor sufficient input condition,” Dr. De Houwer writes. The predominant reason is that exposure is crucial and when only one parent speaks the minority language, when the child also spends most of his day in an English-speaking setting such as daycare or school, it is often not enough.

A fellow linguist put it this way: The child will always pick up the language of his or her peer group, even as young as preschool age; it is a form of survival of the fittest. (This is the main reason it always pains me to hear parents say they are worried their child will be confused once they go to an English-language school if they speak a different language at home.)

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