Raising a balanced bilingual child – Is it even possible?
Can children become truly bilingual? Can they really achieve balanced bilingualism? Does it really matter if they don’t? These are questions parents often ask themselves. Karin Waldhauser is a New Zealander living in the Swiss German part of Switzerland with her husband and bilingual twins. She shares her view.
Balancing out the languages
The other day my six year-old son was helping me put together an IKEA shelf (what a way to bond!) when I asked him to pass me a screw. “Oh, a schrüübe,” he replied in Swiss German, once I’d pointed it out to him.
It made me think about how, no matter how conscious we are of increasing our children’s vocabulary in the minority language, there will probably always be gaps. How big those gaps are, and how important they are to their development depends mostly on us, the parents. Feels like a lot of responsibility! How possible is it really, to develop both languages equally?
In theory, it’s totally possible. In practice, not that likely. My husband takes the kids to an air show each summer. Now, if I was a really good mother I’d trail along, giving the kids the English vocabulary for all the flying-related words. Instead, I take the day off and hang out at home in blissful silence or meet friends. Sorry kids!
On the other hand, unless my husband has a sudden and dramatic change of interests, our kids won’t be learning the German vocabulary for baking or gardening tools anytime soon. Nor will they have a repertoire of 80s pop music in German.
How much does it matter?
You could argue that it matters a lot, that for children to be able to make the most of their bilingualism they need broad vocabularies in both languages. True, but it’s a pretty tall order to expect both languages to develop equally, especially once they start spending hours a week at school in the local language.
Does it really matter if they only know the German word for times tables? Probably not. You could go all Tiger Mom about it, but at the end of the day it’s more likely to put the children off learning than cultivate a passion for it. Kids are naturally going to gravitate towards some activities and they will grow their vocabulary through that. If they need to know that vocabulary in their other language they will pick it up quickly because they will already have the context and, crucially, an interest in the subject.
Children learn what they need to learn
Bilingualism experts generally agree that most bilingual children are pragmatists. They learn what they need to know at any given point. So, there’s probably not much point in me going into the garage and labelling all my husband’s model airplane parts in English (even if I did know them all).
I recently talked to a couple of teenage bilinguals about how they expand their English vocabulary and they agreed that reading is the key. “We don’t really use English outside the family, so books help. It’s not really like learning – it’s just fun.” English isn’t their community or school language, but both like to read in it because their parents have always stocked the house with lots of English books.
The best part about reading for bilinguals is that the skills are transferable. Once your child figures out that the jumble of symbols are words, that words all mean something, and are all related to the words around them, they can start to figure out words they don’t know on their own. Then, suddenly, they’re reading! Even if the scripts your children need to learn are different, many of the principles are the same.
And books are not just for learning vocabulary, they’re also invaluable for bringing the culture to life. My kids love sharing their New Zealand books with friends and telling them about all the different birds – particularly the naughty Kea. They are also adamant that a kiwi is a bird, and you eat a kiwifruit. Little things that will help them feel at home when they spend time in NZ.
Friends with older trilingual children told me recently that they’d had a lot of success with showing interest in their children’s hobbies and talking about them in their individual languages. Time with teenagers is a rare and precious commodity, they warned me, so it’s a good way to make the most of it.
Balanced bilingualism is hard to achieve
Perfectly balanced bilingualism is difficult to achieve, and probably not that necessary. What is necessary is making sure that we raise our children with the skills, curiosity and resources to continue learning in both of their languages. So, instead of striving for perfection we’re going for good enough. And good enough is actually pretty damn amazing!
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