Whilst pregnant, my husband and I were so excited to bring a new child in to our world, to teach her all the things we know and start our little family traditions. My husband was also particularly eager to bring his own family traditions in to our lives too. Being from a different country, he had been brought up with some very different customs and celebrations, and it was important to us both that our children would experience the best of both of our cultures!
My husband was born and raised in Romania, spent a long time in Spain as a child, and has since been in the UK. I’ve always been jealous that he can speak multiple languages and has learnt to speak English so fluently considering he used to skip his English lessons at secondary school as a child! I remember a lot of people asking us if our baby would be brought up to speak Romanian or Spanish as well as English. I found this a bit strange at the time, of course they would! Why wouldn’t you want your child to speak multiple languages if their Dad and other family members could? I envisaged learning Romanian and Spanish from them too, so that I could join in with conversations at family reunions and on holidays. In fact, there were other advantages too. I read about a study recently that found that exposure to bilingual environments could be considered an advantage in the early development of attention in infancy, and could set the stage for lifelong cognitive benefits.
From reading up about raising bilingual children, there are some common misconceptions. It is not confusing to speak two or more languages around children, they can distinguish between them easily. People often assume that speaking multiple languages around a baby can lead to speech delay too, which is not the case. In my case, I assumed it would be fairly easy and that’s also not true.
In fact, I realise now how naive I’d been. My 3 year old is a fantastic speaker, singer, story-teller….in English. Her language development in Romanian however, is nowhere near as advanced. She can count to ten in Romanian, and can speak and understand a few basic instructions and phrases like ‘How are you?’ and ‘Good night’. In fact, she understands the same amount of Romanian that I do, which is no coincidence. My daughter has spent the majority of her life in my company. My hard-working hubby has simply not had the opportunity to speak much Romanian around her because he’s been at work 5 days a week, and when he is home he has to speak to me in English and it just doesn’t come naturally for him to speak in Romanian anymore. He even dreams in English! Our children don’t have enough exposure to any other language than English to pick up much understanding. It’s frustrating, and disappointing, especially for my husband and his family.
It got me thinking though, about how well other families manage in multi-lingual households. I got in touch with some other Mums from Suffolk Babies, and asked them for their experiences. It was interesting to hear from a bilingual Mum who speaks German as well as English, although her husband only speaks English. She made the decision to speak to her children solely in German from birth, in order for them to learn her native tongue. This came with its challenges in public situations, as people often thought she was shouting at her children when that wasn’t the case! She persisted though and now her children, at 9 and 11 years old, have perfect understanding of German. However, she reports that their written and spoken German is not as advanced as their English, despite still only speaking to them in German, and refusing to answer them if they ask her something in English! I think it’s absolutely amazing that she has made this commitment to teaching them German, and I think her efforts support the theory that you have to expose a child to a language consistently in order for them to pick it up fluently. This lovely Mum did mention though that it has been frustrating at times having to correct grammatical mistakes, encourage German satellite channels over the ease of watching CBBC, and find the time in a busy household to be diligent with her efforts.
I think, in summary, that if you can dedicate that time and effort in to speaking an additional language around your children, it has huge advantages. Life can be very busy though and the opportunity to expose a second language to your child enough is not always possible. I’m not going to feel bad for not being successful in teaching our children Romanian, and we certainly won’t give up trying, it’s never too late! Perhaps though we’ll focus more on those cultural traditions, and respecting different backgrounds for now.