I am trying to teach my youngest child three languages. I am determined to make it work, even if I only speak one perfectly. I am making a conscious decision to do something that is almost as awful as pulling teeth (in my opinion). I am determined to force myself to come out of my comfort zone, even if it means being laughed at; yes, it happens sometimes. My attempts to teach my young child English, Arabic and French were inevitably a disaster waiting to happen, except that it happened right away. It is a deliberate act of madness on my part, and I hope that my son makes it out alive.
Here’s a little background on my adventures. I have always been a passive bilingual. In my case, I understand spoken French (mostly), I understand written French (greatly), and I can speak some French. The problem is, as the years go by, my linguistic ability coupled with my self-confidence dwindles. And boy is it ever complicated! Along with my love for French, I found it necessary to study and learn Arabic – I married an Arabic speaker. Sure, he speaks English, but my mother-in-law doesn’t speak more than ten words of English.
Learning a new language in your late 20’s is something different. I have always respected immigrants who move to new countries and learn the language (through no choice of their own of course), but now I respect them ten-fold.
Born in a country (Jamaica) where English was my mother tongue, but a dialect (patois) was my daily reality, I didn’t “really” speak English until I was forced to at the age of nine, when I immigrated to Canada. It is now as careless and ordinary as blinking, or in my husband’s words…I have a beautiful tongue. My English, unlike French and Arabic is a careless form of no-nonsense poetry. It takes almost no effort at all. Deep in my psyche, I wish to have this relationship with at least one of my non-native languages. Oh, but what’s a wish really?
What’s a wish when time and effort are the key players? I know what I have to do; I have to buckle down and just do it. I know this. Aside from my inability to really grasp the language, there are just a few road blocks. Arabic and French confuse me. I think however, that it is my lack of ability to truly master at least one of the second languages that is the most frustrating. My confusion lies behind the fact that while I give it my best, my best has never been good enough.
My son is not my first language guinea pig. Years ago, I tried to teach my kids French. Their young minds were already being challenged because they were also learning Mandarin at a private Chinese school. They were excited about language — all the kids they knew were bilingual, or on their way to being bilingual. I must admit, at that time my ability to communicate in French was much better than it is today. My young children not only understood my commands, they had a great French vocabulary. Unfortunately, while my French was great, my life was too busy, I could not focus. I could not make the switch from English speaker to French speaker, much less to French teacher. Little did I know that I did not have to.
Years later, with no bilingual child at home, I can see where I went wrong at every turn. Sure, there are a few regrets, however, after trying to push my older children to learn “any” language, I have come to the conclusion that they will do it, when they want to do it. I have not given up… I embrace the challenge yet again.
So why am I trying to teach my infant son two languages that I am obviously less than mediocre in? And here’s the question of the day: why doesn’t my husband teach our young son his first language? After-all, the script is awkward, writing from right to left is something that I can’t get used to.
Why am I punishing myself? Because I have matured enough to understand and accept the fact that my ultimate goal is not necessarily to teach him to speak French or Arabic. My objective is to teach my son to appreciate and love the process of learning. I also want my child to be a citizen of the world; I want him to appreciate the process of being a part of something, even if he wasn’t born into it.
After all, his mother was born in Jamaica, immigrated to Canada, and married his Yemeni father in Egypt. That’s pretty global in my opinion.
What are the little things that nag you about parenting or bringing up your children? Do you ever feel that other moms can do it all but you can’t even get started? When do you decide to give up, or keep moving forward, on teaching your children a new skill?
This is an original post written for World Moms Blog by Salma. You can find Salma blogging at Chasing Rainbow and Party of Five in Calgary.
Image credit to Tobbias Mikkelsen. This image has a creative commons attribute license.
My goodness, you are brave!
I think it’s awesome that you are teaching your son to speak three languages at once. Good for you.
Wow, I am impressed! Good luck with your language journey, as a fellow mom to trilingual children I know how hard it can be!And I agree with you that it’s not always about teaching them to speak a language, instead it is about teching them how to learn a language, how languages work and installing in them a respect for all cultures and languages and dialects! Great post!
Ok, Salma. We need to talk more!! I don’t speak a 2nd language really well, but I’ve been teaching my almost 6 year old French since she was 18 mos. old and my 2 year old since she was born. I’ve also started taking French classes to correct the French I was creating that was wrong!! lol
When I turned 30, I wrote a letter to myself to open when I turn 40. I remember that I said that by 40 I’d speak 2 other languages well, French and Lebanese! So, at almost 37 yrs old, I’ve been working on the French for 4 years, but I jumpstarted the French lessons this year. I am thinking about starting the Lebanese next year. My extended family spoke Lebanese around me since I was born, and I figured that I may have an advantage of making and understanding the sounds after hearing it for so long, and it is a piece of my heritage.
Which Arabic are you teaching? Egyptian?
We should have French Skype chats!!
Go, Salma! I think it’s great to expose them to other languages, even if they aren’t perfect lessons. As you note, it is about opening up their worlds. I want to be better at this too. I feel my attempts to educate my kids to be global citizens is pretty piecemeal rather than cohesive, but it’s a good. Keep us updated on your progress, and good luck!
I really like your courage to teach your child a language while you don’t master it. I love learning languages and I am interested in encouraging my children to learn foreign languages in different ways. But for a small child isn’t it so confusing for him to learn 3 different languages at the same time, why don’t you focus for one or two years on only one so he can distinguish between them? Any way I like that your are challenging yourself and trying to stretch your comfort zone, chapeau 🙂
Fabulous post – I think you are the one making me feel you are doing great when I can barely manage to achieve everything I started!
I manage French and English and I want my little one to speak these two languages. I would love to master Arabic and teach it too.
Language is the passeport to the world, a way to understand other cultures and to respect differences.
As a trilingual mother of bilingual children (and my 6 year old son is learning 2 other languages too), my word of advice is be consistent. Your husband should only speak to the children in Arabic (being that it is his mother tongue….besides, doesn’t he want the kids to be able to speak to their grandmother? 😉 ). You pick one language (whether it broken French or poetic English) and stick to it. Honestly they will learn English in schoo (and from the older siblings)l, so don’t worry too much about the English. Their brains are complete sponges at this age and they can absorb all of it – it’s amazing to see! Good luck and don’t give up….you are giving your children a gift that they will be able to take with them for life. 🙂
I am a strong believer that children should first and foremost learn and speak their parental languages. As a multilingual mother of a trilingual 6 year old and a bilingual 3 year old my advise is the same one as Maman Aya… One adult one adult one language, and one langauge at home.. in our case I always speak Turkish with my children, my husband speaks only in Russian .. So they grew up naturally with two languages… We speak in English with my husband, and make every effort not to have English dominate, since everyone speaks it and it will come naturally from school etc. by the way we live in country where another language is spoken and interact with friends in French or in Uzbek at times so the children are exposed to those languages as well though in a passive way. Now I am on my way to learn Russian and my kids are delighted to teach me.. But the key is that they know for sure that with me they can only speak in Turkish except when we have other peopel around with whom we speak in English.. Good luck to you in your efforts..
Good for you! I tried to speak a second language with my firstborn, but gave it up. Now I wish I had stuck it out. They are learning other languages now, but it is such an advantage to learn at an early age. Keep up the good work! Best wishes, Jennifer
Bravo to you Salma!
My son speaks 2 languages: English and Indonesian. He is now learning to read in Indonesian after he learn to read in English. It is a journey, it’s not always easy and he does gets frustrated at times but I just need to encourage him that he could do this and he usually get the boost he needed to try again.
I have a friend whose children speaks 3 languages fluently and she wrote a book about raising multi language children. She haven’t updated her blog but maybe it can help us moms: http://trilingual.livejournal.com/
Boy do I relate! My husband and I were both born in Italy but we have lived in South Africa since we were respectively 5 and 8 years old. When I got to this country I couldn’t even tell the difference between English and Afrikaans, never mind speak either one! By the end of the year I knew enough of both languages to pass into grade 4 (in a school where nobody spoke Italian – I only had a pocket dictionary to help me)!
Unfortunately, by the time my children were born, both my husband and I found it MUCH easier to speak English than Italian! In fact, English is our “mother tongue” in the sense that it’s the language we dream in, count in and find easiest to express ourselves in. When my children were babies, I did only speak to them in Italian, but as they got older, I found it more and more difficult to keep it up … after all, it was a struggle for me as well! 🙁
My children are already 20 and 17 years old respectively. They understand spoken Italian quite well, but neither speaks it very well. Luckily my mom-in-law is moving in with us next month and she doesn’t speak much English at all! I’m hoping that by HAVING TO speak to her in Italian, they’ll finally “get it”! Fingers crossed!!
Yes, if I have one regret it is that I didn’t manage to raise them bilingual (in Italian and English) all SA school children have mandatory Afrikaans lessons, so in SA when you’re asked if you’re bilingual they usually refer to English and Afrikaans!
Bilingualism is good for the brain, even if they don’t retain it. My son’s daycare provider is Persian and speaks Farsi, and I actively encourage her to talk to him in her language, and I’m delighted when she tells me that he is picking it up. Not because I expect him to be fluent in Farsi when he is grown up – I am sure he’ll forget it all after he leaves daycare – but because bilingualism is simply good for him.
For example, bilingual kids have been shown to have better executive function – the ability to restrain one’s impulses, problem solve, and anticipate delayed gratification. And children with better executive function have been shown to do better in school, and are more likely to graduate college, and more likely to have a good job later on.
So even if my son forgets his Farsi, I hope that the challenge to his faculties as a toddler can give him long term benefits, long after he has forgotten what “give me a kiss” in Persian is….
I don’t have a whole lot to add to the comments of others, but in my family’s bilingual journey, the major factors have been consistency and input. I am very consistent in speaking only English to them, even when it is uncomfortable. (My husband isn’t as consistent in using only Japanese, but since that is the majority language where we live, they get it at school, friends’ houses, etc.) The other big factor is input. Books, movies, CDs, whatever! Whenever possible, I try to surround them with English. It gets more challenging as they get older and spend more time surrounded by Japanese, but I think that makes it more important to give them English input whenever possible.
Salma, I am at awe! You are trying to teach your child something you are not good at, and that itself is a great achievement 🙂 I cant imagine to that myself!!!
Here in India, I cant even think International languages before mastering at least 3 or 4 Indian languages, because I married a Telugu speaking person. There are 28 states all having languages of their own and more number of dialects than a child can count. It is like a mini-Europe. Mastering them all is not a relaity of course. But a child has to learn English(first language), Hindi (National language of India), mother tongue (tamil in my case), father(if at all I am permitted to use that term) tongue (telugu in our case). That makes it 4 languages already. Then we may think of Chinse or French or Japanese.
My son is fluent in English, Tamil and some bits of Hindi.
So 3 down, 1 more to go, which is telugu. And my husband doesnt speak to my son in his mother tongue (telugu), but in mine (tamil). So, neither I nor my son have got around to mastering telugu.
I think 3 languages in 7 years of age is not bad, so I might now just go and enrol my son in that Japanese class, because he is itching to follow Karate lessons in Japanese … lol 🙂