“Back to basics” is at the core of everything I believe about teaching my children multiple languages; love is the essence. Here’s a list of seven basic virtues to help us get back to the basics in creating homemade multilingualism – with love!
My passion for languages begins with my love for my family whether in the USA, France, Mexico or Peru. I keep in touch with them through phone calls, letters, the Internet and visits. My children also adore their extended family, and they know that if they want to communicate with those they love most, they’ve got to speak the language!
If it’s our two-week Spanish period, my children know I will speak only Spanish with them, and that I expect the same from them. Every two weeks, it’s time to switch languages, and everyone pitches in! We might start a phrase in Spanish and suddenly interrupt with, “It’s English today!” This makes everyone laugh! It’s mental gymnastics, the first two days are messy, but once we’ve made the switch, it’s a hard and fast rule to stay in the target language at all times, well almost! (See Flexibility below)
I won’t lie to you; raising trilingual children can get complicated; one household, two parents, three children, and three languages: dinner can be chaotic! In addition, life happens! Sometimes, when strong emotions or fatigue set in, discipline and concentration can go right out the front door. Sometimes I confuse or mispronounce words in different languages. I polish off my mistakes by mumbling nonsense and this makes everyone laugh, no matter how tense the moment may have been! Don’t be afraid to be a clown.
Let your children know what you expect and don’t accept anything less. Explain your reasons. Guide them in their discovery of the benefits of multilingualism. Help them gain the vision. You can do this no matter what age because children are very intuitive. In our family, we started when our children were newborns, fresh from the womb! We’ve never had a hard time with our children not wanting to become fluent in all three languages. It’s part of our family culture and they’ve accepted it as the status quo.
Be indulgent when your children make mistakes! Strive for excellence but don’t be a perfectionist. I’m not saying let your children speak incorrectly; they need loving guidance and correction, but vary your correction techniques to keep them on their toes, and keep it light and funny. Too much nit picking can hamper your child’s desire to speak in the target language, or even create rebellion. Patience can go a long way in fostering your child’s desire and even passion to become multilingual.
Yes, you’ve got to be disciplined if you want your multilingual project to succeed, but discipline is not rigidity. If your child is having a meltdown, now is not the time to insist that he speak in the target language. You continue to speak to your child in the target language, but let him express himself in the language of his choice. Another example? You’re one week into your English speaking period and your child’s Spanish-speaking best friend comes over? Switch to Spanish while the friend is in your home and when he’s gone, switch back to English. Observe, use your intuition and decide what the perfect balance for each situation is.
There is no secret formula. A language is a living thing; so are a child, an adult and a family. Evaluate constantly the progress of each child. Counsel together and be willing to evolve with your plan. Keep in mind the specific needs of each person and be sensitive to those needs. Decide in each situation whether you need to be disciplined or flexible, have patience or just be funny.
A few days ago, I was out for a drive with my children and I uncharacteristically started speaking to them in French and asked them what they would think if from now on I spoke to them in only French. “No!!!!!!!!!!!!!!” they retorted, “We only want to speak Spanish and English with you.” The cherry on the cake, however, was my 10-year old son, who proudly proclaimed, “I love being trilingual!”
Homemade multilingualism is a live lingual experiment – a ’round-the-clock language lab within the walls of your own home. So, take these values and put them to the test, sprinkle in a little love and you might just be surprised at the results!