Our Multilingual Family
My husband and I live in Sydney Australia with our two children. Leon, almost 5 and Adele 2.5. Between us we speak seven languages.
My husband is of East European decent and speaks Slovak, Czech and Hungarian. These are languages that he grew up with and has spoken since childhood. He became fluent in German travelling to Germany often through college and grad school. He also taught himself English when he moved to the US for work.
I am from Kenya and my mother tongue is Kikuyu. I also speak Swahili and English.
Together, my husband and I communicate in English. With seven languages between us, we knew our kids would be multilingual. The bigger question was which languages would we teach them?
How we chose which languages to pass on?
Our children speak German, English and Mandarin. It wasn’t an easy choice to make.
How did we come up with these?
Well, of all the languages that my husband speaks, German is the most commonly spoken language in Europe. For this reason, we chose to teach our children German.
English was the more obvious option, since we live in an English-speaking country so English is an essential language for all of us.
Mandarin? Well, though neither of us speak it, our research kept pointing to it as the language of the 21st century. Besides it being the most spoken language in the world, China is emerging as a world economic power and anyone with an understanding of Mandarin has an added advantage. Mandarin is also a language that is challenging to learn as an adult, and early exposure means one has a better chance of having a good command of it.
Indeed, it would have been easier to speak our native languages, me Swahili to the kids and my husband Slovakian, and the kids would still be multilingual; The benefits of being multilingual are there no matter the language.
The decision to choose German and Mandarin was for two main reasons. Firstly the two languages are more commonly spoken around the world than Swahili and Slovak. And second, we felt that German and Mandarin would be harder to introduce later in life, and thus choose to start with them. The other languages will come later on.
Now, aimed with the why’s, we decided to tackle the when and the how.
Weeks before Leon was born, we had a serious discussion about it. We decided the German and English would happen simultaneously using OPOL. I would speak English to our son, and my husband would speak German.
The Mandarin would be introduced when our son turned one. This was more a practical reason as at one year was when he would join a long day care and I would go back to work.
Most parenting blogs that we read talked about the ‘one parent one language’ rule, or an adaption to it. Without wavering, my husband would speak German from day one, and I English. German being his 4th language, my husband admitted to not knowing any German nursery rhymes, so he set out on a quest to learn a few that he could sing to our newborn son.
Throughout Leon’s first year, our days followed the same pattern. My husband would spend an hour before work with our son, singing, talking in German, I would spend the day with him speaking English and when my husband came home, he would take over and speak in German the rest of the evening.
Still, our shared language remained English.
Then the time came for me to go back to work. After a rigorous search, we found a government approved long day, where my then one year old son started spending two days a week with a Mandarin speaking carer.
Our Multilingual Journey
When he started to speak, Leon’s first word was auto, the German word for car. Initially, he mixed the languages a lot but this is completely normal for bilingual and multilingual kids.
My husband kept his end of the deal, speaking only German even when my son spoke English to him. Our shared language continued to be English and I have to admit, though I had feared it in the beginning, I never felt left out of the conversations in German. If anything, it motivated me to pay attention and learn.
With time, my German started improving and I could on occasion be part of the conversation between my son and his father, without needing translation.
The Mandarin exposure continued and though we did not see the results immediately, we stayed the course. At two years old, a sentence would start in German, the middle would be in English and the end mandarin.
When we could not figure out what Leon was saying, we taught him to point at things. ‘Show me what you mean’ I would say to him. He did show some frustration at times, but he never gave up.
Then one day, it seemed to just click.
Leon came to me and asked for a glass of water, I told him to ask his Papa and without hesitation, he made the same complete sentence in German. I remember my husband and I exchanging a knowing look and sighing with relief. Our perseverance had paid off.
When Leon was two and a half, his sister was born. We knew she was going to be afforded the same opportunities as her brother, so from day one, papa spoke only German and I English and the brother continued to speak Mandarin in day-care.
Again, when she turned one, it was time for me to head back to work. This time, we decided to hire a Mandarin speaking Nanny who would stay at home with them. The idea behind this was to make Mandarin seem like an everyday language and not just one spoken away from home. They would play sing, cook and go to the park in mandarin.
We saw results right away. My son’s vocabulary improved, he became more confident in constructing sentences in Mandarin and more importantly, he was having fun.
Leon is almost 5 and his sister is 2.5. Together, they speak English, German or Mandarin depending on the game they are playing, the mood they are in or who their carer is for the day.
On Monday through Wednesday, the spend time with me. English is the dominant language, although I will hear them speaking German to each other or they’ll sing songs in Mandarin.
Thursday and Friday, they speak Mandarin for sixteen hours. The Nanny will take them for a walk, they might care for our plants cook together or read books. We try to change the activities from week to week to make sure they are expanding their vocabulary.
Saturday and Sundays are known as Papa’s tag, or Papa’s day in English. During this time, they communicate only in German. This is the same for evenings when papa walks through the door.
The language automatically changes to German and although Mama may respond in English, after five years, I find I can stay in the loop for most of the conversation. It has become second nature and although a few friends have pointed out how odd it sounds listening to us interact, that is our normal.
My daughter still starts her sentences in one language and finishes in another, but we know it’s only a matter of time before it clicks for her too. There is less pointing as I now ask her brother to translate.
Do we introduce other languages?
Our extended families would like us to teach the kids Slovak and Swahili.
On our recent trip to Kenya, I found myself wishing my kids could communicate with their great grandmother. My husband feels the same way about the kids communicating with his family in Slovakia.
Now that Leon has established the three main languages, I have started introducing Swahili to him. I am sparing my daughter as I feel like she needs more time to figure out the first three languages.
Twice a week, I sit down with Leon and go over the names of wild animals in Swahili. This is the only way to get him interested since he loves wild animals. I am hoping that in time, I can teach him basic words that will help him hold a simple conversation and that with time, his sister will join us too.
Will they hold on to these languages as they grow up?
This is a question a few friends and acquaintances have asked. They live in an English speaking country so I am confident they will keep their English. I am also fairly confident that they will continue to be fluent in German due to my husband’s dedication.
I worry about the Mandarin. We want them to continue being fluent, however my son will join one of the public schools here in Sydney next year and he will no longer have sixteen hours a week of Mandarin.
How do we make sure he continues to speak the language fluently?
Will the one hour a week of tv in mandarin be enough?
Will we have to pay for classes?
So far, he has known Mandarin as an everyday language. Will he be interested in learning it in a restricted and timed environment?
One thing I know for sure is that we want him to maintain his command of it, and as such, are interested in exploring any avenue that helps us do this. We are definitely keen and confident we will figure it out.
As for the Swahili, at this point, I am happy to teach him the names of animals, and see how things goes. On our next trip to Kenya, my hope is that he can communicate with his relatives to some degree.
Are we just being greedy?
People have questioned our push to raise multilingual kids. Someone once called us ‘greedy’, and perhaps we are, but we are all having fun with it. In all my years interacting with people from all walks of life, I am yet to meet someone who wishes their parent had not taught them a second language.
Author: Maggie is originally from Kenya but lives in Sydney Australia with her husband and two super energetic third culture kids. Besides trying to learn new languages, the family spend their spare time exploring the beaches and national parks around them. You can follow their adventures on Instagram.
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.
Why did you decide to teach your children Swahili rather than your mother tongue, Kikuyu? Because it is more widely used?
Yes. Swahili is more common in Kenya and parts of East Africa.
This was really helpful for me! If nothing else because I am teaching my little girl Spanish but it’s not my native language. I am very fluent and confident, but I don’t know lullabies or some of the things that relate directly to children. It gives me confidence to see someone else (and another dad at that) staying consistent in teaching a minority language that isn’t a native language.