Last Updated on
Raising Multilingual Kids When You Relocate Often
How can you learn and maintain languages with your multilingual kids when you are a family who relocates to different countries so often? How do you prioritise language learning, deciding which languages to keep and which languages to drop? Bethany Edwards shares her multilingual family story from a diplomat’s perspective.
Bethany is an elementary educator and reading specialist. She has taught in the U.S. as well as international schools in 5 different countries. She writes at Biracial Bookworms and her goal is to encourage family literacy that is both diverse and culturally responsive. You can follow her on Pinterest and Instagram.
A Diplomat’s Perspective
I am going to let you in on one of my biggest secrets. We taught our daughter 8 languages before she went to Kindergarten.
However, before you chomp at the bit to know how we did this, you should also know:
We have moved to 5 different countries.
On 4 different continents.
In 6 years.
If you have ever imagined picking up everything you own, and traveling across the world, you are in good company. Studies show expatriate numbers are steadily rising over the last decade in this new age of “global citizenship.” However, just like with everything else in life, it always sounds more exotic than it actually turns out to be. When the “shiny and new” wears off and you have to go get groceries during an ice storm while carrying an infant, believe me… There is nothing exotic about it. I want to share with you a few pros and cons of language learning when you choose an international career such as the foreign service or lifestyle where you relocate often.
Pros and Cons of Language Learning
Many families relocate long-term or even permanently. Our experience in the foreign service as diplomats is different. For us, this means language, continent, culture, and basically every comfort zone we have is swept from under us every 1-3 years.
The biggest disadvantage of language learning with our careers; we have had to start and stop languages many times. We speak 7 languages besides English, but none of them completely fluently. However, the upside is that by prioritizing language learning from day one as a family, we have won over the hearts of the locals. Whether you learn languages short or long-term, those skills are as valuable as learning compassion as well as teaching kids to be more empathetic.
Americans don’t always have the best reputations around the world. By learning so many local languages, we have modeled the same tolerance and empathy as we ourselves expect from others to our children. As a result, we have made lifetime friendships with people from all over the world.
“Do your little bit of good where you are; it’s those little bits of good put together that overwhelm the world.”
-Bishop Desmond Tutu
Realistic Language Learning Expectations
I chose a career in international teaching and moved to Ashgabat, Turkmenistan in 2008. I met my (now) husband there who works for the U.S. Embassy in Turkmenistan. We both learned Turkmen for the two years we lived there. However, our expectations have never been to learn a language and continue that language for the rest of our lives. Our goal, like with traveling, was to learn all the languages as we relocated each time.
We moved to Egypt after leaving Turkmenistan, and we turned our focus on learning Arabic. When our first-born daughter was born in Cairo, Egypt, Arabic was the first language she heard in that wonderful hospital in the middle of the Nile River. We bought language resources and books for her in Arabic, hired an Arabic speaking nanny, the works. Three weeks after she was born, we were evacuated to the United States due to the Egyptian Revolution. I admit, it was more than discouraging to have to start over so quickly, and it would have been easy to bail on prioritizing language learning at that point.
Our Language Learning Merry-Go-Round
Our careers over the last 9 years have taken us to:
- Ashgabat, Turkmenistan
- Cairo, Egypt
- San Diego, California
- Kiev, Ukraine
- Riga, Latvia
- Nouakchott, Mauritania
We are currently on assignment in Washington D.C. for one more year before we move abroad again.
The languages we have learned as a family in the last 9 years: Turkmen, Arabic, Spanish, American Sign Language (ASL), Latvian, Ukrainian, French, and Wolof. A big disadvantage is that we cannot possibly expect to practice all of these languages when we are constantly moving.
So how do we choose which languages to keep and which to drop?
(By drop I mean they can be picked up later because languages are never lost forever.)
When we moved to West Africa, we decided that we would learn French as a family and then Spanish when we returned to the States. I learned Spanish as a child, so I knew we would be able to do more authentic language practice. We currently have our oldest daughter in a Spanish Immersion school and French language classes, and a Spanish-speaking nanny for our newborn. We do American Sign Language with both girls as well because we believe it is so valuable for all children to learn sign language.
Our goals for our girls are to have them learn 5 languages.
There are still many variables up in the air as to which languages they will learn before graduating high school due to relocating often. We have met many military and diplomat families where this their reality as well. In the current parenting era where everything is planned out 18 years in advance, we are well aware that our global perspective and language learning goals are far from traditional.
Defending the Value of Language Learning
When we moved to Ukraine after being evacuated from Egypt, amazingly, even multi-lingual parents judged us for adding and dropping languages so often. People were constantly verbalizing their disapproval of our language learning choices. Most people voiced the importance of learning languages that were spoken in more than one country (Russian, French, etc.) You can imagine this was incredibly exhausting and infuriating to feel as though we need to defend our choices and goals.
Not only did I have to fight the American culture of “only needing” English, but also people from cultures from around the world that thought we were crazy for learning minority languages such as Ukrainian. Now that I have had years of the hyper-judgmental attitudes of people when it comes to parenting, this bothers me much less than before.
How to Break Down Cultural Barriers with Language
After living in Ukraine, we moved to Latvia in Northern Europe. Again, we chose to learn the minority language as well as hired a Latvian speaking nanny (5 million people in the world speak Latvian). We were met with more than a few raised and judgmental eyebrows again.
Like in Turkmenistan, locals were shocked when we would speak to them in the local language. The sheer joy on their faces was priceless to see. They took our investment of learning their mother tongue as such a huge compliment. We made lifelong friends because we spoke their language, but we also spoke to their hearts.
The joy of witnessing our daughter experience breaking the language barrier was so beautiful to see. When she was just 2-3 years old, she would waddle up to a table next to ours in a restaurant and speak in Latvian to strangers. The Latvian culture is so unique and outsiders are not trusted immediately. However, because we spoke their native tongue, the walls were broken down almost instantly. The power of language transcending the cultural divide.
In our travels, our experiences are not always pleasant when people first saw us. Interracial couples were scarce in the countries we lived and raising multiracial children all over the world has been a roller coaster to say the least. I truly believe when people heard us speaking minority languages like Latvian or Wolof, their stereotypes of race were forever changed.
Strategies for Authentic Language Learning
When moving so often, we needed to work smarter at picking up languages faster. I want to give you my cheat sheet for sneaking in authentic language learning with children. These will maximize language learning even in the busiest schedules.
- Extra-Curricular Activities- enroll in sports/theater/music lessons in your target language (yes adults, hobbies are not just for children:))
- Shopping- running errands, haggling over prices in a bazaar, or grocery shopping has a HUGE amount of valuable vocabulary. I find most expatriates have their housekeepers shopping for them. No problem, but go with them!
- Get to know Your Neighbors- get invited for tea, play dates, swim lessons, etc. Find out where the kids that speak your target language are and follow them everywhere they go.
- Online language resources
- Bilingual books– Buy and borrow bilingual books from the library (if one is available)
- Make language learning enjoyable often times I see parents forcing language learning on themselves or children in some very unattractive ways. If you don’t do flash card drills in your mother tongue, don’t do it in other languages either. Play games, go see movies, puppet shows, concerts, and buy books as souvenirs in your target language.
- Journal- skyrocket language learning as you model and teach children to journal early and often
- Closed Captioning and Mute- whether on TV, iPad, phones, etc., use closed captioning and turn the audio to your target language. You can also mute the audio altogether for reading and language practice.
Join the Multiple Language Learning Bandwagon
I am a reading and literacy specialist, so I would be remiss if I did not give you my favorite language resources. These are focused on language learning with children.
Brain Rules for Baby by John Medina- this incredible book shows you that the magic is in the fundamentals. This practical book is so instrumental in how I cultivate language development with children. Medina advocates strongly children should start reading, singing, speaking, and listening at birth… in multiple languages.
Maximize your Child’s Bilingual Ability by Adam Beck- in his book, Beck explains the neurological studies of how learning multiple languages as an infant is paramount. He explains how multi-lingual children can focus in on information or a task without as many distractions as monolingual children as well as countless other benefits.
The phenomenon of judging your choices, language or otherwise is vicious and wide-spread. I found the judgement from others was amplified when I became a parent.
My advice; hold on to your goals and your dreams for your child when negativity hits you on every side. No matter what you do, there will be some that tell you that you are doing it wrong when it comes to learning multiple languages. Achieving your dreams and taking huge risks comes at a great cost. Nevertheless, the unbelievable payoff of language learning is so worth your efforts. To support each other on our language learning journeys, I invite you to join our group of multilingual and multicultural families
This post is part of the Bilingual Kidspot Multilingual Families Series. Are you raising a bilingual child? Subscribe for related articles. Follow Bilingual KidSpot on Facebook and join our online community and support group.