Challenges of being Multilingual

As parents we are very concerned, how we nurture our children. Of course we want the best of the best for our children. As parents one of the important things that stress us in this globalized environment is the requirement to be bilingual or multilingual.

When we arrived in Germany, we wanted our children to learn more than two languages simply because of our Indian ethnicity, born in Britain and living in Germany. Being brought up in these three cultures, we wanted them to thrive in their Indian, British and their newly adopted German culture.

However, we were concerned about many issues such as:

  • How can we contribute to our children´s learning of a second and a third language?
  • What are the best processes of learning more than one language, especially in their early years?
  • Will learning more than one language confuse our children?
  • Do they have to be clever to learn more than one language?
  • Will they be able to cope with more than one language?

Working in multilingual early year’s settings, my research and experiences showed that starting to learn languages at an early age benefits the child and is least stress-full for all. The key fact is that the children should be in an environment where they are constantly hearing, seeing and feeling the second language, as babies and children use all their senses to learn and develop.

Going back to my concerns:

How can I contribute to my children´s learning of a second and third language?

We made the decision to share our languages with our children. As soon as my first child was born my husband spoke English with our son and I spoke Gujarati, a dialect from the Indian state of Gujarat. We continued with this approach with all our children. 

What are the best processes of learning more than one language in early years?

As an early years practitioner this gave me the opportunity to observe and to conduct research on how to support children learning more than one language. Following these observations we created a learning environment which used “Learning through Play” approach to support them in learning a second language.

Therefore, in our home environment we used activities like cooking Indian food, reading Indian story books, singing songs in Gujarati etc to create an environment for a second language. Having said this both English and Gujarati were there first language.

My husband spoke with our children in English and I continued with our mother tongue (Gujarati).

It is very important that a child learns authentic and day to day language e.g. English. To achieve this we made sure that they played native games, attended playgroups, kindergartens where language was taught by a native speaker, watching English television programmes and integrated with the local community in which the language were used.

When in Germany we made sure that the children listened and watched German programmes. We integrated with the local community where they were more exposed to the language and culture, e.g. joined the football team, dance group and mother and toddler group. Not only did the children benefited but both my husband and myself benefited in learning German. This goes back to creating an environment which is fun as well as supports learning.

These activities created a strong foundation that supported the “Three Culture Objective” we had set. Learning languages is not just to speak a language. This formed a sound foundation for understanding the three cultures Indian, British and German, their identity, the people and their heritage.

Will learning more than one language will confuse the children.

No! Learning a second language did not confuse my children, as long as we followed our decision by sticking to our languages. We encouraged them to use these languages, mistakes did not matter and praising them at every opportunity. This gave them confidence to try new words and experiment.

Do they have to be clever to learn more than one language?

No, we all have ability to learn new languages especially children as they have no inhibitions or fear. Second or more languages are just like the first language and can be learned at all levels by all children. In our experience adults need to create a right environment for learning and supporting.

Will they be able to cope with more than one language?

Yes, the important thing is to remember that all children are individuals. They automatically cope, especially when more than one language is spoken in their home or environment – this was our experience in Germany. Time and space is needed to grasp new languages. Babies instinctively process and separate different languages and use the right language as the situation demands. Real language should be used not 'gooo ga ga ” etc...