Raising Multilingual Children

 

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:

  1. One parent – One language: Each parent speaks their own language with the child. This is perhaps the most common strategy.
  2. Minority Language at Home: Parents speak a language at home and the child learns the 2nd, 3rd languages out of home context (at school).
  3. 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:  

  • Positive attitude: It can get challenging at times, however, see multilingualism as an asset and have a positive attitude towards learning a new language.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Use music to bring fun in learning a language: Sing and dance to the songs in the language your child is learning.
  • Start as early as possible: Earlier the better! Start introducing the 2nd language as early as possible.
  • Never make fun of your child’s mistakes or ‘cute’ ways of talking.
  • 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.
  • 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.

For Eindhoven News: Elif Durgel

*Elif Durgel is a psychologist who specializes in expat parenting and child development in multicultural contexts. She is running Roots and Wings Academy . Through Eindhoven News she will be sharing her knowledge and experience.  If there is any topic or question you would like to see covered in the coming articles, please get in touch with Roots and Wings. 

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1 COMMENT

  1. Thank you for the wonderful information and helpful tips!
    We are raising our children in three languages, and although we already follow most of the guidelines here, I found a bunch of practical tips to improve our approach.

    Our plan is that they speak 4 languages fluently before they are 10, but not by impacting their academic performance. It will be a challenge for us and them, but we think they will gain major advantages from it for their whole life.

    Our daughter who is 3 already makes conversation in Greek, Korean and Dutch, and she understands mommy and daddy when we speak English to each other. My son is almost 2, but seems to have language advantages (at that age) over his sister for the simple reason that he copies everything she does and says.

    From the tips mentioned here, some examples we use are:
    – Each parent consistently speaks their native language to the children (I was raised multilingual Greek/English so I chose Greek as I believe English will come naturally to them)
    – I do a lot of singing in Greek to both, which makes them (and me) very happy
    – Mommy reads a lot to them in Korean
    – They watch cartoons in three languages (Korean, Greek and Dutch) also sometimes in English
    – They attend Dutch childcare (first peutergroep when my wife was at home, and now kinderopvang that my wife is working. The benefits from this are immense)
    – They attend Greek School on saturdays, and soon they will also attend korean school. It is kindergarden, so they mainly play and sing in Greek
    – I sometimes playfully quiz them about how to pronounce a word they learned in the other languages they know

    What we need to do more, is arrange more playdates with children their age which are Dutch and Greek. We had quite a few Korean playdates, because my wife met some Korean ladies who were also stay at home moms, and this had a good effect on our daughter.
    Also I worry about how my kids will do in dutch school, but I will follow the advice here and be positive and try to motivate and stimulate them with praise when they time comes and they happen to make mistakes or potentially fall behind.

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