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How To Raise Multilingual Children

Carlie: Hello there, it’s Carlie with the Expat Focus podcast.

There’s been a bit of debate online about whether we’ll see a baby boom from the coronavirus lockdown. Is all this forced time at home the perfect opportunity to get pregnant, or is a pandemic pregnancy the last thing on your mind?

If you are planning to start – or add to – your family, you might want to give some thought to teaching your child a second language. It’s so much easier for them to pick up when they’re young, right?

Annika Bourgogne is my guest in this episode to talk about raising multilingual kids. She’s done it herself. She’s the author of Be Bilingual. She’s a language teacher and an entrepreneur. And Annika recommends you research and decide on your approach to raising your child with more than one language, before they come into the world.

Annika, you’re from Finland. How did you meet your French husband?

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Annika: Well, we met when we were both in our early twenties. We met at a student party in Helsinki, where he was studying a wood industry from France.

Carlie: And obviously things went well, and you began your life together. And this was in Finland?

Annika: Yes. I think you could say things worked out pretty well. This May, it will be 25 years from that meeting. We have two girls. We have Emma, who is 19, and Sara, who is 14 and a half. And the first 20 years we spent in Finland. And then, five years ago, we moved to Strasburg, to try out living in his country, for a change, as well.

Carlie: So, you were in Finland when you had kids. Did you and your husband discuss, at the time (when you were going to become parents), how you would approach fostering bilingualism or ensuring your children were exposed to both of your mother tongues?

Annika: Oh yeah, absolutely. We did. Especially with my background, having been born in a bilingual family but only learning to speak one language. It was really, really important to me that our kids would learn both languages.

And I wanted to study at the university for my master’s thesis, to find out what the factors were that contributed to children learning, actively, to speak both languages.

Carlie: So would you say that your interest in bilingualism really came from the fact that you, by the sounds of it, missed out on it yourself growing up?

Annika: Definitely. So, my mom was a Swedish speaking Finn, who spoke both languages as her native languages. And she spoke to her mom in Swedish, to her friends in Swedish, and to me in Finnish, because my dad was a Finnish speaker. And that’s part of the reason, I think.

Also, at that time, people were not that sure if bilingualism was really a good thing or not. But my mom really should’ve known better, because she was bilingual herself. So, I did feel that I really missed out on a big part of her culture, that I was not really entirely part of her world.

Carlie: I can actually really relate to that. My father immigrated to Australia, as a child, from Malta, and when he and my Australian mother had children, they discussed whether it was worth teaching us Maltese. And he decided that no, it wasn’t.

And fast-forward 30 years, and I’m in France. And I’m like, ‘Oh, I wonder how my language acquisition may have been different, my third language acquisition, if I’d had a second language, Maltese, from when I was a child.’

Annika: Yeah. I understand. But now, you will be in the situation to pass on two languages, like me. I thought, Okay, well, I’ll do better with the second generation.

Carlie: Yeah, exactly. So, what were those discussions that you had with your husband about how you were going to expose your children to French while raising them in Finland?

Annika: At the beginning, we really thought that it was just going to be a walk in the park, that we just had decided – and, of course, the decision is a big part of it – that we were both going to speak our own language to our children.

And we thought that, like sponges … You know, people say that children are just automatically going to soak up both languages. But the more I met Finnish-French families, as I was doing research for my master’s thesis, I noticed that it was not that easy, that there were certain things that could actually make the difference in whether or not the children learned to speak.

To understand, they learned quite well, but to actually actively speak both languages, it did take more than that. So, all through my studies and my master’s thesis preparation, we talked a lot about the things that it was going to ask from us. It was not just going to come automatically.

And I think that we were both prepared and, even so, it took us by surprise, how much you need to reinforce the second language, which is not automatically in the culture around you.

Carlie: So, what would you say is a common approach by parents to fostering two languages in their kids? And how can they be doing it better, based on what you discovered?

Annika: A lot of parents – maybe instinctively or maybe because the language approach is so talked about – use both their native languages with the children. For example, Gilles and I spoke our native languages. Gilles spoke French whenever he spoke to the kids, and I always spoke Finnish. To me, it was the natural approach.

I’ve since then learned that it’s not the only approach. It’s a good approach, but it’s not necessarily the best one in each situation. And the reason for that is that the minority language needs reinforcement.

If you look at French and Finnish, you would maybe have a hard time thinking that French would be the minority language, but when you live in Finland and you have a French-speaking parent, a Finnish-speaking parent, and a whole community that speaks only Finnish … Well, in that situation, it is the minority language.

So, we needed to find … And this is the situation that most parents using this approach find themselves in … We found ourselves in the situation where the kids were not going to learn French, if it was only Gilles, my husband, who spoke to them, especially since he spent quite a lot of his time traveling around the world for work.

That was the biggest challenge that we had. And a lot of parents face this, around the world – finding ways to reinforce the language that isn’t naturally in the community around them.

Carlie: And so, how did you do it? How did you bring more French into your Finnish lives?

Annika: Yeah, that’s a really good question. The thing is that kids are really smart, and they don’t want to do anything that you force upon them. So, first of all, the key is to start when they’re really young.

Honestly – and this is a hard thing to say right now, as we’re in corona-quarantine – travel was the number one thing that helped us bring up two bilingual children. Every summer, we went to France, and even better than that, when the kids were about five and above, we sent them to their grandparents alone.

Don’t get me wrong, we got some pretty heavy criticism on this. We had friends who said that we were just getting rid of our kids and then having the time of our lives.

Carlie: How dare you.

Annika: I know, I don’t see what’s that bad about that. No. But actually, obviously we were worried – it was difficult to be separate from them, even though we really knew that they were in great hands with their grandparents. But I think, now, looking back, it was the best thing that we could have done.

Because, first of all, they developed great relationships with their French grandparents. And also, they were in a situation where they needed to use French. And when it comes to minority language acquisition, I think two things are key: the kids needing to use the language, and the kids having a motivation to use the language (not kids being forced to use the language by their parents). That usually doesn’t work. That’s not just about language.

We had a French babysitter, and we even had a French au pair for a while. We looked for everything and anything that was cool in French. And, obviously, what is cool is a big factor, and it depends from one kid to another. For Emma, the oldest, cool was everything that was linked to soccer. And for Sara, it was Barbie.

So, for Emma, Gilles would introduce her to this female soccer team in France. Later on, she actually participated in camps by this female soccer club. And for Sara, we looked for Barbie songs, Barbie movies, etc. in French. And we just went with their personality and what they were interested in.

Also, the biggest motivation for a kid to use the language is to put them in front of another kid who speaks that language, because then the motivation to really communicate is there.

Carlie: To be able to play together.

Annika: Exactly. Yeah, that’s it. We usually look for expat families. When there were recently-arrived expat families from France, we would immediately suggest getting to know each other. And the kids didn’t speak Finnish yet, but they spoke French. So, French was the common language.

And then, when we moved to France, we were recently-arrived expats. And even though Emma spoke French already by that time, the Finnish families here in Strasburg immediately asked her to babysit their kids in Finnish, of course. So that worked out pretty well.

Carlie: So, what was the motivation, after starting off in Finland, to make the move to be living in France as a family?

Annika: It was the kids; it was really the kids. I felt that their French was very good. They went to Finnish-French school. We were lucky to find one, a state school, nevertheless, in Helsinki, but the older they got, and Emma was starting to prepare for matriculation exams, the less French they were using.

They were teenagers. And I could see a scenario where they would use less and less French to the extent where they would maybe not use it at all anymore.

So I felt that it would be good for them to live at least for a couple of years in their second homeland, or their fatherland (because their dad comes from here), so that it wouldn’t be just a holiday, that they would instead actually see and live the culture for more than just a couple of weeks or a couple of months a year.

And obviously, it wasn’t very easy to sell it to them. Emma was 14 and had a lot of friends, and it’s difficult at that age to change. But I’m sure if you asked her, now that she’s been thriving in high school here and she has a great boyfriend … I’m sure she would say that it was the best thing that we could have done. But at that time, it was tough.

Carlie: I was going to ask if age played a part in it, because I have heard that, if you want to expose your child to another language (obviously yours had it from birth), that there is an age at which they can best acquire the language, versus whether it will always sit in their brain a little bit differently.

Annika: Actually, even we adults, we can learn – if it’s just about learning a language – if we really put our minds into it, we can probably learn it as well as a child learning it from birth. Of course, it depends on the circumstances. It’s possible.

Carlie: So, is the sponge theory a myth, or is there hope for me?

Annika: Well, I mean, the sponge … First of all, sponges, they need to be dipped in water. I mean, the air does nothing to them. But if you have a linguistically rich environment, in which the sponge, the children, can dip in, then yeah, it works very well. But you do have to pay attention to the linguistic environment.

But, as to the age, the real advantage that kids have, except for the fact that they’re already used to learning stuff (they’re learning to walk; they’re learning to do so many things) is that their brains are geared towards learning, and they’re motivated to learn the things that they will need.

Later on, what happens, especially in pre-puberty and puberty, is that they start to be aware of the fact that they might have not have all of the words that they need, that they might sound a little different than the others who speak the language.

And, all of a sudden, since kids don’t want to feel different after a certain age, they start avoiding speaking that language. Whereas younger kids, they don’t have that at all. They just want to get the message across, whether it’s correct grammar, whether they have to use some creative words, or whatever.

So, in that sense, it’s great if kids can learn or be exposed to languages early on, because they’re not self-conscious at that age, they just, you know … So, in that sense, the sponge is true about them, but they do need to be exposed to language and a rich language environment.

Carlie: So, all those language learning hang-ups that we have as adults really start at that point in children, when they’re becoming conscious that they’re learning.

Annika: Yeah, that’s true. And especially when they’re becoming conscious of being different from the others. We did have certain moments at preschool or kindergarten, when we went there, and the kids noticed that, wait, nobody else has a dad who talks to them in French.

And both kids, at that same time, asked Gilles not to speak to them in French in front of the other kids. ‘Can’t you just speak Finnish?’ ‘No.’ They wanted to be like the others.

Carlie: And did Gilles speak Finnish as well as French?

Annika: Yeah, he speaks very good Finnish.

Carlie: As a family, you could have very easily spoken Finnish all the time?

Annika: Absolutely. We could have just used Finnish. Actually, Gilles has a brother who lives in Sweden, and the family only uses Swedish. But we talked to the kindergarten staff, and we explained the situation.

And they took groups, and they talked about the things that the kids did at home, and then they pointed out that Emma and Sara spoke two languages at home, and ‘isn’t that great?’ And ‘wow’, and ‘could you maybe teach a couple of words to the other kids?’ And that was very valorizing for them. I know that’s not the right word, right? That’s French.

Carlie: Valorizing? Validating? Socially acceptable?

Annika: Yeah, exactly.

Carlie: I can imagine how much it would foster that social acceptance within your children and make them just feel that little bit more confident and comfortable speaking French and having a dad that speaks French.

So, we spoke about how Gilles does speak Finnish. How difficult was it, then, to enforce both of you speaking different languages at home with your children? And in what scenarios would you decide, ‘This is a family meal,’ for example, ‘We’re going to speak Finnish.’ Did you speak French in the early days? Were you able to switch between languages like your husband?

Annika: Oh, yeah. I was studying for my master’s degree in French at that time, but I still felt comfortable talking to the kids in Finnish when they were small. I didn’t even consider the fact that I could use French with them.

Between the two of us, Gilles and I always spoke French, but we decided that we would both want to bond with our kids in our native language. Later on, however, when I met some other families, where they used, for example, French … They would use French all the time, because both parents spoke it, and they wanted to reinforce the minority language, to sort of create a haven within the house to cultivate that minority language.

And we thought, well, why wouldn’t we try the same thing? Because I also spoke French. And of course, when you do that, you have to be prepared to hear some criticism about your language skills.

And, in fact, in our case, that had actually happened already, when Emma was three and a half years old, and I called her dad to ask for a piece of clothing that she had, and I used the wrong gender. I was asking, ‘Where is this?’ And Emma just looked at me and said, ‘Mom, why would you say “le,” it’s “la?”

I was just thinking, wow, I have a master’s degree in this language, and this kid is three and a half years old, and she’s correcting me. But I loved it. I really loved it. That’s what I wanted to achieve.

Carlie: I’ve heard stories like that from friends before, too, with the children they babysit correcting their second language, or their toddler children correcting their language. And I find that very confronting. I’m still at a stage where I’m considering whether I want children. And knowing that my child will always speak better French than I ever will … That’s quite a confronting thought.

And I guess, you know, you were studying the language. You were writing about multilingualism for a master’s. You must’ve been much more comfortable with that scenario than me thinking about it here.

Annika: Yeah. I do have to admit that there were times, especially when they were pre-teens, that it could really get on your nerves, especially since I was a French teacher as well. Sometimes, when I would make a mistake, Emma would just look at me and just use this tone of voice that only preteens and teens have. She was like, ‘And you’re supposed to be a French teacher.’

Carlie: Oh, the snark!

Annika: I know. But this has changed now that we live in France. A lot of times, what comes up when I talk to people … They often ask where I’m from, and then they say, ‘Yes, you have you have a small accent.’

For some reason, this gets on my nerves quite a bit. But it’s okay; it’s fine. It doesn’t matter. But the kids are actually quite protective of me in this respect, in that whenever they hear somebody say it, they often say, ‘Well, not really’ or, ‘Not that much.’ It’s kind of cute.

Carlie: And how has your approach to languages at home, and how your children look at languages, changed since you all made the move to France?

Annika: Well, the interesting thing is that our minority language has definitely changed. It’s now Finnish. Even though the kids were nine and 14 when we moved and had a lot of Finnish up until then, I still continue to talk to them in Finnish.

We go there in the summer, but not really in the winter anymore. I’ve noticed that especially Sara, who is younger, needs some Finnish reinforcement from time to time. Her Finnish is still, of course, very good. But I can see her translating; there’s interference from French.

She might use French word structure. She might translate some expression from French. So, I mean, they’re never done – the bilingualism and the languages are never done. One of the languages is always a little bit more dominating, and that’s fine. It’s not something that we should stress over. It’s just the way it is.

Carlie: I did see a Facebook post from you the other day, and you shared a shopping list that one of your daughters had written in this gorgeously cute combination of Finnish and French.

Annika: Yeah, with apéro snacks. Yeah, it’s true. And I think we were talking about that, and I asked Emma, ‘So what prompted you to write, for example, all of the other fruits in Finnish, and then you wrote them in French?’

And she said, ‘I don’t know. Maybe Dad was walking past and said, “Oh, by the way, remember to buy apples,” and he used the word pommés, so I just wrote pommés.’ So, I think we were all talking, and then she just jotted down the words that were said.

Or sometimes, you might have found the word easier in one language. But I did notice that the vin rouge (red wine) was in French, and the drinks other than wine were in Finnish.

Carlie: Well, that’s entirely appropriate.

Annika: I know. It was very logical.

Carlie: So, you said that you do need to do some Finnish reinforcement with your youngest, especially since you’ve made the move to France. What does that look like? Do you intentionally make sure that she’s socialising with other Finnish children? Do you have her in a French-Finnish school here in France?

Annika: It’s a lot more difficult than when she was four and we had to do it with French, because now she’s a teenager and she has friends and they do everything in French. And so, there’s no forcing her to do it. So, again, I can just try to look for things that are interesting for her in Finnish, for example, books and things to read or things to watch online.

I’ve been looking for YouTubers that she would follow in Finnish, but apparently the Finnish ones are not cool enough. So, they need to do something about that, because we have a lot of Finnish kids abroad who are teenagers.

Carlie: You must’ve had a bigger resource of French entertainment when you were in Finland than going the opposite way?

Annika: It’s definitely true. I really think there would be an opportunity to develop something in this respect in Finland. But what we do is we try to look for TV programmes that are funny, and there are these comedies and things like that. These are usually the ones that she likes to watch with us.

And then, during the summer, we try to make sure that she meets as many other Finnish kids as possible. Well, of course, I have again been criticized for managing her social life, but sometimes we have to try to help things.

Carlie: You know, in 10 years, she’s going to look back and she’s going to thank you for this.

Annika: Yeah, exactly. That’s true. The kids usually speak to each other in French, but if I go past and I say, ‘How about in Finnish?’ then they switch immediately. So, it’s okay. And I’ve asked the older one, Emma, I’ve said, ‘Why don’t you speak to your sister more in Finnish? Because I think she could benefit from that.’ And when Emma thinks about it or remembers it, she does.

Carlie: As you said, it is continuous work. It’s not something that you start, and then as soon as your children hit school, well, they’ve got two languages and that will be fine. You need to keep reinforcing it, and, as you said, making sure they don’t forget if they’re put into a different language environment.

Annika: It’s true. And, at the same time, I really want to take a step back and reassure parents that this is only because, for us, our language goals were set very high. It’s not the only way to measure success, and the goals are not the same for each family.

Because I always say that, yes, if you want to have kids who speak, actively, both languages, you need to make it a priority. But I don’t suggest anyone making it a stress, a source of stress, because we have enough sources of stress as it is.

It’s not a failure if the kids only understand the language, but don’t actively speak it. Or if they don’t sound like native speakers when they speak that language. It’s way better than what I had, with a mom who was bilingual. I could understand some words, but I really had to learn the language when I was an adult to be able to speak it.

Whereas if you even just speak your language to the kids, even if they speak back to you in the community language, they are still registering what you say. And one day, when they decide to pick it up or learn it by themselves, they’re way ahead of the others, who are just starting from scratch.

So, there’s a lot of stuff that you don’t see. You might think that a child doesn’t speak the language, but if they understand it … And they might not tell you how much they understand. But if you speak to them, they will understand. You’ve won half the battle, even more than half the battle, because that passive knowledge can be built on and can be activated when the kids want it.

So, our goals have been set very, very high, because we wanted the kids to be able to study in both countries, if they so wish. We have made some sacrifices, you might say. We haven’t really travelled anywhere else. We’ve always come to France from Finland. We most often go to Finland.

For us, those have been … Sacrifices is not the right word. Choice. They’ve been choices that we’ve made. Not everybody wants to make those changes. And that’s fine.

Carlie: What benefits do you think multilingualism has brought to your girls?

Annika: A lot. I would say, really, a lot. First of all, they’ve both learned the third language, English, really, really easily. And I think that comes from the fact that when you already speak two languages, you accept that languages are different. So, when you’re faced with a third language that is different, you spend a lot less time asking yourself, or wondering, why it is different.

You just accept it, and you move on. But also, obviously, the most important benefit, the absolute most important benefit in my eyes, is that they have been able to have really normal and natural relationships with their French family.

They’re able to talk with their grandparents, and they’re very close. So, to me, that was really the whole point of it, that they feel part of their French family. And also, they’re very tolerant of any differences, whether it’s culture wise or different people.

And I think this is also a side benefit of functioning in two cultures, just that you can see that there are two ways of doing things, but one is not necessarily better. A funny example of this, which is, of course, it goes way deeper than that, but …

For Christmas, in Finland, Santa Claus, being Finnish, obviously comes on 24th December and brings the gifts. Whereas in France, it happens on the 25th in the morning. Right? And so, when we were in Finland, we would do it the Finnish way, but more often, maybe, we were in France, and they got the presents the next day.

And you might think that it would be better in their mind to get the presents earlier, right? No. One year, we ask them, ‘Do you want to do it the Finnish way or the French way?’ We were living in Finland at that time. And they said, ‘Let’s do it the French way. It’s so much fun to wake up in the morning and have the presents there and then have the whole day to play with them.’ I guess they get to sort of pick out the best of the two worlds.

Carlie: And I believe your eldest has just graduated from high school. Hasn’t she?

Annika: Yes, she did. Yes.

Carlie: So, what’s next for her, in her path to adulthood, taking three languages with her?

Annika: Well, she decided she wanted to study in Finland with the French boyfriend of hers. And since she graduated in July last year, it was too late to apply for the Finnish universities. So, she decided to take a year off.

They spent three and a half months going around Asia, having a great time, learning lots. And she was supposed to be enrolling to a university in Finland, now, in the spring. Now, coronavirus has affected all of that.

Carlie: Right.

Annika: And we might be looking at another gap year, which is okay, because she was a year younger graduating than her peers in Finland. So, they will just be starting the first gap year now. So, it was not what she planned, but she’ll be fine. She’ll go and work, and she’ll study during this year elsewhere.

Carlie: And do you have a little bit of pride knowing that your daughter is gravitating back to her Finnish roots, I suppose, in wanting to continue studies?

Annika: I think I would be lying if I said no. Yeah, of course. I mean, I’m happy that their roots in Finland are so strong, but I’m so happy that they’re strong also in France. I would not feel good if it was just Finland, even if it’s my culture. For me, it was really, really important that they feel themselves French as well. This situation is very nice.

Carlie: Finally, Anika, I want to know what advice you would give to new parents wanting to raise their children bilingually, having gone through so many crucial years yourself now, and having studied multilingualism in children as well … What would be your best tips to new parents wanting to do this for their kids?

Annika: I would say that, before the kids are born, read a lot about the subject together, talk about it together, and make a decision together, as to how the family is going to go about it, what language approach they will choose.

And also, to decide that, ‘Okay, if we’re going to do this, we know there are going to be times when it’s going to be hard. We know that there are going to be times where we feel like it’s not working.’ But just keep going and make it a priority, but not a source of stress, and try to have fun.

If you can link your language, as the minority language, to things that are fun for the kids, then it’s great. Learning doesn’t have to be like school, and it shouldn’t be in this respect. But just try to enjoy the multilingual journey, because it can really, really be an excellent aspect, like an extra aspect in your family life.

Carlie: That’s it for this episode. If you have any questions for Annika, or want to share your own experience of raising children with more than one language, you can head over to expatfocus.com. Follow the links to our country forums or join the Facebook groups.

If you want to listen to more like this, have a look through our archive for my interview with Sarah Cole on learning foreign languages. If you like this podcast, please subscribe, share us, and consider leaving us a review. I’ll catch you next time!