This is Part 4 of a special five-part Global Life Q&A Series with Simone Courso. Click here for Part 1: On Self-Care.
Ever since I was a child in Canada and first heard French spoken by a character on the television show Sesame Street, I have wanted to learn more languages. My parents didn’t speak French nor did any of my friends. Little did I know at the tender age of 7, that I’d one day become a professional French teacher for a number of years.
Growing up in Vancouver with bilingual and monolingual parents was the first step to my curiosity about languages. For me, having friends and classmates from around the world during my primary and secondary school years was the second step to my interest about languages and cultures.
The catalyst to deep language learning motivation arrived in my heart when I finally traveled and educated myself outside of the limitations of my own experiences in English-speaking Canada and landed in French-speaking Québec. I shared some of those (and other) personal highlights with Global Living magazine here and on the Global Wise Parenting website here.
I asked Simone Courso, a long-time expatriate and parent within a transnational and cross-cultural family to offer her thoughts on raising bilingual and multilingual children. Both her personal experience and years of professional work as a counselor with expat families shed light on the complex topic of learning languages within the family.
Q: If you could offer a new parent advice about raising bilingual or multilingual children, what would you suggest?
A: What is bilingualism and multilingualism anyway? Does it mean that you’re as fluent as a native speaker in each of the languages you speak, read and write? Can we think of it in more general terms and speak of competence in different languages instead? In most cases, even children or adults who are bilingual or multilingual in the true sense of the term have on language that is dominant.
There is a lot of research on bilingualism, some on multilingualism, but in my humble experience and exposure to this topic, I don’t think that there is black and white advice to be given to new parents. There are just too many different situations, personalities and abilities, and we won’t even mention children who have a developmental delay, as in this case, a psychologist would be very likely to say that the parents should expose the child to as few languages as possible.
Here are a few examples gathered along my journey away from my home country.
When we raised our children my husband spoke English, I spoke French and our children grew up in a Swiss-German environment. They learned Swiss-German at school and in fact everyone of my children has a different dialect, based on where their kindergarten teacher came from. Are my children multilingual? Probably not. On the other hand they do understand French, English and German, but do they speak these languages equally well? Can they write fluently? They don’t. The good thing is that they have a huge advantage when they travel or when they seek employment, and they would become fluent very quickly if they lived in any country in which one of the languages they learned is spoken. Are they immersed in the culture of our countries? They aren’t, and that is something that is often overlooked. Even though we already spoke English at home when they went to university, our three children felt like foreigners when they went to the US to study.
What we didn’t consider when my husband and I chose to each speak our mother tongue is that it would make it very difficult to communicate within our family. Slowly our children only spoke Swiss-German and since we could understand, we allowed this to happen. It didn’t make sense anymore once we moved to Bangkok. We didn’t have any German books at home, didn’t speak the language either, so we decided to send our children to an international school where the language of instruction was English. After some initial difficulties, our family’s common language changed too and it made a huge difference to all of us.
I have a friend who is bilingual (from Canada) and his wife is a French teacher, but they have decided to raise their two daughters in English as they want the family to communicate in one language only. At the moment they live in Hong Kong, so English seems to be a good choice. Even thought I understand what they are trying to do and have experienced the difficulties with communication in my own family, I do think that it is a shame as children are like sponges, their brains are very malleable and they learn very quickly and accurately. Once they are older and learn a language like a second language it will never be the same as learning it as a native speaker. In fact th area for language acquisition in the brain is different depending on whether you learn your native language or learn a language as a second language.
Other friends living in Switzerland raised their children bilingually. The mother was from the US and only spoke English to her children. The father was Swiss and only spoke Swiss-German. It was interesting to see that the son who felt very close to his mom preferred to speak English and moved to the US, and the daughter who was close to her father preferred to speak Swiss-German and stayed in Switzerland.
When I lived in the Principality of Liechtenstein where people also speak a German dialect, I had a French friend who had married someone from Liechtenstein. Her husband agreed that they would speak French only at home, in an attempt not to confuse the children. What this meant once their children went to kindergarten is that, in spite of having a local father, they were considered as foreigners and also had initial difficulties at school. One of my neighbors at that time was from Romania and she too, was married to someone who spoke German. Instead of speaking her mother tongue, she used the local dialect and as she had a very strong accent, her child took it on too, and was also perceived to be a foreigner.
Something that is a challenge in my family at the moment is the language my twin grand-daughters will speak. They are two and a half years old. My son speaks English, French and German and a little Thai. His wife speaks Thai, English and a little French. For her, it’s simple, she will speak Thai to her children. My son hasn’t been able to make a real decision yet, as his best language is German, but his wife doesn’t understand it, and he would rather raise his children in French, but he is not 100% fluent. My daughter-in-law has spent a lot of time teaching her two children English as they lived in Hong Kong and the would have attended an English-speaking school. English is more practical when you plan to live in different countries as you will almost always find an international school with English as the language of instruction. Now they are moving to Flanders…
I hope that these examples show that there is no cut and dry advice in terms of bilingualism or multilingualism. Since more and more people are deciding to leave their country for another one, multilingualism is becoming a lot more frequent.
Based on what my friends and I have experienced regarding bilingualism and multilingualism, this is what I would like to offer to new parents:
- It is certainly not a problem to raise your child bilingually as long as each parent is consistent about the language he/she speaks and as long as the language spoken in the country you live is one of the languages spoken at home. That is the most simple case.
- If you live in a country where they don’t speak your home language, I would advise to learn the local language for sure, as you might have to help your child with homework if he/she attends a local school. But I wouldn’t necessarily speak the local language with your children unless you’re fluent. Otherwise your child will just adopt your accent and won’t be considered as a local, which might be an issue in some countries in which you’re expected to adjust and fit in quickly.
- Why not expose children to as many languages as possible at an early age – as long as it is situational. They will have many advantages in life, it will shape their personality and particularly their openness to other cultures and languages.
- Keep in mind, however, that they might also be at a disadvantage at school as they might not be as fluent at the language of instruction as other children.
- In terms of schooling it is an advantage to have one of the parents who is fluent at the language taught in school.
Simone Courso was born in Alsace, a province in the Eastern part of France. With her husband and her three children she has lived in Switzerland, the Principality of Liechtenstein, Thailand, and Hong Kong. Simone has a Masters Degree in Linguistics and in Counseling Psychology, and is certified with the National Board of Certified Counselors in the US. For the last 18 years she has been working in international schools counseling and supporting students and their parents mainly in the areas of cross-cultural adjustment, difficulties with relationships, stress, sadness and self-harming. In her free time, Simone likes to travel and explore new countries and cultures, read, watch movies, or simply spend time with her family.