It is quite common for parents of bilingual children to think that their child does not want to learn or keep up their language. Often the parents’ drive to pass on their language and culture is very strong, but it is easy to get discouraged when we think that children don’t have an interest in it. As a parent, you clearly see the benefits for the child, from the most practical, like talking to the grandparents, to the more aspirational, like travelling the world in the future. But how can you as a parent make sure that your child understands how important language and culture is to your family? And how can then translate into stronger language skills?
Learning a language or using a language?
It is common to feel that parenting a bilingual child means becoming a language expert… but do you remember how you learned your first language? It was not with flashcards or word lists. You wanted to talk because you wanted to share your thoughts with the people around you. So, when thinking about strategies for your child, think about what can make your language interesting, what makes your child connect and pay attention.
Why do most people learn a language successfully? Because they have an invested interest or a goal. So your child will need that too. The goal can be as simple as being understood by a grandparent, but remember that as children get older more and more goals are needed to keep up a language, especially in contexts where only a few people speak it.
Talk about yourself
The truth is that if you are trying to pass on your language to your child, this means a lot to you. So why not say it?
The conversation would need to be appropriate for your child’s age, but it is worth explaining who you are, how you got to learn each of your languages, and why to you this language is important. Explain why there are benefits to your child speaking the language, focusing on what they will understand as being beneficial to them in the short term.
When talking about yourself, show them pictures of the places where the language is spoken, if possible show pictures of yourself as a child, and even old class photos, showing your friends who all spoke your language.
Each language is part of a child’s identity
When living with more than one language and culture our identity is in constant evolution. Your child might feel more attached to one language or might feel that they have to choose one culture to conform with the majority. As children grow older, they become more and more aware of who they are, and what makes them similar and different to other children.
There is no point in hiding identities, or avoiding the topic at home. If you talk about your own identity with your child, about how you feel when you speak each of your languages, and how each language links to who you are, it will be easier for your child to verbalise their feeling in relation to their identity. This in turn will make it easier for them to discuss their language and culture with others, like at school and in other social settings.
A child relationship with their own multilingual and multicultural identity will impact the child’s decision to continue to use a language that at times might seem less useful or less “cool” than the language of the majority.
So, the key is to stay positive, remind each other of the importance of feeling confident in your linguistic and cultural identity, and in sharing it with the people around you!