I don’t remember we ever discussed raising a multilingual child. It seems to me that it was always the obvious thing to do.
I am a bilingual Dominican; I speak Spanish and English. My husband is a bilingual Dane; he speaks Danish and English. We live in Punta Cana, a tourist enclave in the Dominican Republic. We have been together for nearly two decades, and choosing a common language at the beginning of our relationship was very easy: I had no patience for my husband’s stuttering Spanish.
When our daughter Nadia was born eight years ago, it seemed logical to raise our daughter as an English speaker, the lingua franca at home. We figured she would inevitably pick Spanish from school and friends, and we purposefully chose an all-Spanish daycare that she started attending before she could form more than a few words.
Danish was an entirely different story. We are half a world away from Denmark, we see my husband’s Danish family twice a year, and that includes our summers in Denmark. Worse yet, my husband spends months at a time away from home traveling abroad. Teaching Danish to our daughter was an experiment that seemed destined to fail.
But not speaking Danish was not a choice we could give her. Not everyone in my husband’s family speaks English. His dad does not, and, at the time, his nieces would not start learning English at school for another 10 years. Not teaching her Danish would have meant severing her from one half of her cultural identity and family. In the end we jumped in: sink or swim.
I am not completely sure there is a name for the method (or lack thereof) that we followed. I always spoke English to her, from the moment she was born. She would speak Spanish with my family, whenever they visited, and at daycare. My husband spoke Danish to her from the beginning. The results seemed uncertain for a while. By the time she was 18 months old it was obvious she understood all of us — as much as an 18-month-old can understand anything — but her limited vocabulary remained defiantly English, with the possible exception of the word “aguacate”, which she found hilarious.
We pushed forward, my husband pretending he could not understand her English, forcing her to speak Danish. A few weeks in daycare and she was forced to try and communicate her needs to the staff. Out of frustration, I assume, eventually the dam broke, and out came the neverending babbling in three distinct languages.
She’s 8 now, attending an international school, where, except for a daily hour of Spanish classes, she’s schooled in English. Her Danish continues to grow and improve, thanks to large doses of books, comics, music and online age-appropriate television when her father is not home, and long, meandering conversations and lackadaisical home schooling when he is. Our visits to Denmark, and my in-laws trips to Punta Cana every year help immensely. When we travel to Denmark, we try to pack as much travel, language and culture as is possible in four weeks.
Her English is above the average 8-year-old English speaker, with a rich vocabulary gifted to her by her insatiable reading habit. Spanish lags behind in vocabulary, but her diction, grammar and spelling are very good. Unfortunately she does not enjoy reading Spanish as much as I would like, and I hope that changes at some point. Her Danish is nearly on par with Danish kids her age, and her reading and writing is adequate for her age. She has a native but indeterminate accent in all three languages; I can loosely describe it as “neutral pronunciation”.
If I can leave a single idea with you, it would be this: Don’t give up. It can be done. Don’t listen to naysayers and the uninformed. You will not harm your child. Yes, your child might lag a bit at the beginning (it did not happen to our daughter). Yes, your child will be frustrated in the beginning, but all children get frustrated when they try to communicate complex ideas with a limited vocabulary. Persevere. You will be opening a world of opportunities for your child. You will be connecting your child with your family, culture, identity.
I have met many a multicultural child that regrets not having learned that extra language as a child. I have yet to meet one that regrets having learned more than one.