It’s Friday after school, and while other parents begin the mad rush to ferry their kids off to various sport-related extracurricular activities – basketball, soccer, netball, swimming, ballet – my children are getting ready for Greek language school. The process is repeated once more for Vietnamese school the following morning.
My husband and I are both second-generation Australians; he’s ethnic-Greek, and I’m Vietnamese. Like most couples, we disagree about many things. But there is one area we are in total agreement: the desire for our children to speak our mother tongues. It’s a passion that drives us to make that extra effort to take our kids to two different language schools, across two far-flung suburbs, at times amid tears and tantrums; to speak exclusively to our children in our mother tongues; to read books and sing the songs and lullabies that we grew up hearing. Our hope is that our children will be able to communicate in both languages. Through that understanding – we hope – they will better appreciate their cultural heritages, connect with family members on both sides, develop a further curiosity, and embrace their mixed ethnic identities.
According to the Australian Bureau of statistics, in 2016, about 30 percent of registered marriages were of partners born in different countries. This is a noticeable increase compared to 18 percent in 2006. With this rising trend, the topic of multilingualism becomes ever more important.
Gone is the dated once-held belief that speaking multiple languages to a child will cause confusion. Conversely, the massive benefits of being bilingual or multilingual, have been widely researched: from boosting children’s academic success; improving employment prospects; to reducing the incidence of dementia. Not only that, armed with the fluency in a language is a ticket to understanding – more deeply – a culture and their way of life.
Such benefits don’t come easily and aren’t without there challenges. My children all spoke fluent Vietnamese and Greek before they started kindergarten. Since then, English has become the dominant language. It’s their language of preference when speaking to one another and to their friends. It’s the language most malleable to them: it effortlessly rolls off their tongues, one they use confidently to express every nuanced emotion, and hurl flippant slang. Leaving the other two languages taking a backstage role and used in a mostly perfunctory manner.
I know many couples who complain about the difficulties in getting their kids to speak their mother tongue. Most of these couples are those who share the same ethnicity. I inwardly scoff upon hearing this. How much easier, would it be if this were the case for us!
In our household the challenges are even more pronounced, as we battle the learning of three different languages. Perhaps this is the reason we try that extra bit harder. When both parents are of the same ethnicity, the child’s identity is unquestionable. When your child is of mixed race, it is a constant battle to ensure that your mother tongue is not sidelined. After all, language is so entwined with identity.
Our children’s language schools have been such an integral part of their learning. They provide not only language education, but support of a whole community of like-minded parents and teachers who also share our values. They are also a morale boost for the kids who often feel that they are alone in their multilingual studies.
In recent years, I’ve become more realistic about my children’s language fluency. This has meant coming to terms with the fact that English will (understandably) always dominate. Nevertheless, we continue our commitment to fostering their language growth.
Undoubtedly, a child’s most valuable learning tool is to be surrounded by parents and other relatives who regularly engage with them. A common occurrence in many households, however, is when older relatives speak to them in broken English. This is a sad loss for everyone. Particularly for the elders, who miss out on expressing themselves in the language they are most comfortable and fluent. Multilingualism’s benefits go both ways, as elders feel a sense of shared identity and continuity, as they witness second and third generation younger relations speaking their mother tongue.
Raising our multilingual children involves a huge commitment, and ultimately has become a way of life. But witnessing the little things my children do, make me feel that the battle and hard work are totally worth it: when I see my daughter crossing herself as we drive past a Greek-Orthodox church, share verbal exchanges in Vietnamese and Greek with relatives and friends, and most importantly sharing laughs together. The other day we overheard a mother relentlessly scalding her son in Vietnamese. My daughter and I locked eyes, as we tried to stifle our fit of giggles in mutual understanding.
- Diem Vo is a Melbourne-based freelance writer.
Tips to raising a multilingual child
1. Be supportive of both languages
Both partners need to support each other’s languages. Sometimes one parent may feel left out when a language they don’t understand is spoken.
2. Look at the practical aspects
The number of languages you choose to have your child study should be based on the practical elements in your household so that the immediate family can provide meaningful language exposure in the language at hand.
3. Start immediately
Research has shown that babies know some things about language even before they are born and learn fundamental skills long before uttering their first words.
4. Stick to your guns
Everybody will have an opinion about multilingualism and may support or not be in favour of your child learning another language. In such cases it is good to accept opposition with grace from those whose opinions don’t really matter while also providing arguments to dispel myths when opinions do matter.
5. Establish a network
Get support from other parents who are also raising kids in a multilingual household. That way, you can stay informed and share opinions and convince your older kids that multilingualism is to their benefit when they resist.
6. Create the right environment
Have books, music, movies and toys to surround your kids with language and ensure they have maximum exposure.
7. Have patience
Raising multilingual children is not easy and requires patience. There will be times when the child lags behind in speaking a language, so soldier on and focus on successes.