Rita, you're an expat and mother who helps people through the process of raising a multilingual family. Tell us a bit about your own background, and what led you to this career path.
I was born in Finland and grew up in a bilingual home (Swedish and Finnish), then went on to study languages. Most of my jobs have been somehow language-related: I have worked as a language teacher at university and in adult learning, as a translator, interpreter, editor and manager of multinational teams.I now live in England and have two adult daughters who have grown up to become multilingual, being able to communicate in English, Swedish, Punjabi and Finnish. I am passionate about children and languages and have always been interested in bilingualism and the process of learning multiple languages within a family. I am now a full-time writer and family language coach helping parents and teachers through workshops, lectures and family coaching.
Your book, Bringing Up A Bilingual Child, is out now; could you give a brief overview for our readers?
My book is an easy-to-read guide book for parents and parents-to-be of bilingual children. The subtitle of the book, “Navigating the 7 Cs of Multilingual Parenting: Communication, Confidence, Commitment, Consistency, Culture, Creativity and Celebration”, picks up the essential ingredients of the recipe for successfully passing on more than one language to your child.
In the book you talk about how a lack of confidence is one of the main hurdles to overcome when teaching your children new languages. What do you think it is about starting a multilingual family that feels so scary, and what can people do to overcome this?
I wouldn’t perhaps use the word ‘scary’, rather that parents feel unsure about different aspects of the process: when to start, how to go about it, whether their own language skills are good enough and if their children will want to speak the language(s) when they grow up. By reading blogs and books about the topic, speaking to other parents as well as participating in forums and social media groups parents can find lots of support and helpful advice. It is also important to emphasise that by no means all or even most families find this to be a difficult task – it is equally common that parents just naturally find the best way to raise bilingual children.
In your opinion, what are the benefits of speaking more than one language at home?
There are many general benefits to speaking more than one language, starting from the obvious of being able to communicate with a wider range of people and having an edge on the employment market to the lesser known advantages such as being able to focus better and – in the unfortunate case of becoming an Alzheimer’s sufferer – being able to function on average 4.5 years longer than monolinguals. The benefits of knowing the family languages gives you confidence as you can more easily stay in touch with your heritage and maintain family relationships across geographical and generational borders. Having a solid knowledge of the home language (no matter which language) is the best base to build on when learning English or any other additional language. I always recommend migrant families to continue speaking their language at home and not switch to the community language. When immersed in the majority language, children pick it up amazingly quickly.
Some parents find that their children happily speak several languages until they are teenagers, when they become more reticent to communicate in the minority language. What would your advice be for families in this situation?
The time when a child starts to attend nursery or school in the majority language as well as puberty are both crucial phases in a child’s language journey. It is very important for parents to stick to the home language at this point and not slip into using English (or whatever the majority language is). When kids get used to speaking more English at school and with their friends, they often try to switch to it at home as well. Being aware that this will probably happen is important so that parents are prepared for it and can consciously increase the exposure to the home language, for example through trips “back home”. Getting an answer in the “wrong” language is one of the biggest challenges parents of bilingual children encounter, and I often write about it in my blog, multilingualparenting.com.
The second phase is when the teenage child questions the importance of the language and perhaps wants to be like “everyone else” and only speak English. I know this can be really difficult to tackle and the best way to avoid it is to instil a pride in the language and its culture well before this age. It is also important not to let the language become the object of a power struggle – telling a teenager they must do something is very rarely a successful strategy. My advice is to stick with it – it might not feel like it at the time, but your rebellious teenager will one day thank you for doing so. I am yet to meet anyone who says that they regret learning a language. On the other hand, I have lost count of the times when an adult has said that they wished their parents had made sure they had kept speaking a home language.
Are there any specific tools, apps or techniques that you would recommend to parents who want to bring up a bilingual child?
Interaction is key when a child learns a language. TV programs and online apps are a great help but the majority of the language exposure needs to come from using the language with other native speakers and learning through doing. With older children who already know some of the language, I would recommend looking up for example educational games in the language, which can be found on many national broadcast companies’ websites as well as on school related pages. It is important to take into consideration what the child is already interested in and find videos, films etc. about these topics. Skype, Facetime, Google Hangouts, Oovoo or some other online video-application is essential in every migrating family to be able to stay in touch with relatives and friends in the home country.
Do you have any more general advice for people who are considering their first move abroad with children?
When it comes to language, children will generally cope a lot better than what the parents anticipate and indeed, pick up the local language quicker than their mums and dads. The younger the child, the easier the transition usually is. With small children, I would say that there is very little need for preparation. For older kids who start school in a new language, I would recommend to start learning/using the language at home – for example during meals or at the weekends. Doing it together as a family and making it a fun experience is motivating for the child. However, I would like to reiterate that even if the parents help their kids with their new language, I would not recommend that they switch to using it exclusively – this to ensure that the parents’ native tongue is maintained as a home language.
Finally, what do you do in your spare time?
I and my husband love going for hikes in the gorgeous English countryside, the Peak District being our favourite. More importantly though, I am about to become a grandmother for the first time, so much of my spare time in the coming months and years will undoubtedly revolve around the new family member. I couldn’t think of a more enjoyable way of spending my time!
You can keep up to date with Rita's techniques and recommendations, and order a copy of her book, at multilingualparenting.com.