Welcome back, friends, to Family Fridays here on the blog. This is a series in which I highlight multilingual families from around the world. Each Friday a different family shares their experience with this adventure called bilingual parenting. If this is your first time here on the blog, I invite you to meet some of the other families who have shared their story.
Today, we’ll meet a Spanish expat family living in Helsinki, Finland, raising their children in four – yes, four! – languages. I’m thankful for this interview because they share both the highlights and struggles of raising children in multiple languages.
Give a brief snapshot of your family’s language dynamics and your family’s language policy (what language(s) do you speak, who speaks what with whom?).
Although my husband and I are both Spaniards, we come from regions of Spain with different languages. Since the beginning of our relationship each of us speaks our own language to the other and we have continued doing so now that we have kids. Jaume speaks Catalan and I speak Spanish. Besides, as we are living in Finland but Finish is not our first language at work, our kids are exposed every day to Finish and English as well.
Knowing that this can be quite hard for the little ones, the first thing that we have agreed is to try to stick to our own language as much as possible. I always approach them in Spanish and Jaume in Catalan. Of course, they hear us using other languages with other people, but never among us. This helps them to learn and understand 2 languages that in the end are quite similar.
For practicing each language, we try to watch cartoons, listen to stories in podcasts or cd’s and sing with youtube videos . Furthermore, we have discovered that iPad games are awesome to teach anything to young kids. They continually repeat sentences and words, so it is easier for them to memorize.
What prompted your decision to raise your children bi-/multi-lingually?
Languages are knowledge and culture and we cannot think of a better way to enrich someone’s life in such an easy way. Although all our family members from both sides speak and understand Spanish, we think that learning and speaking Catalan is as important as learning Spanish. It is Jaume’s mother tongue and the language in which he feels himself and the same applies to the rest of his family.
As an expat family, English is a must. It is the second most spoken language in the world and it will be our kids’ main language, as it will be the language that they will speak with their friends and at school. Any other added language will be welcome, which is Finish right now.
What positive growth or results have you witnessed in your children/family because of their multilingualism?
Pol is quite young at the moment and Marc is just a baby (4 months). At 4, Pol is able to understand perfectly the 4 languages but his spoken abilities are not so well developed.
Being exposed to so many languages has not been so positive in that sense. We even feel that this has affected his relationship with other kids as he is not always able to communicate with them. But, what I found amazing is how he can perfectly distinguish the differences among the languages and how he uses one or the other depending on who he is talking to. He plays with the words repeating them in every language, singing first in one and then in the other and explaining tales using different languages for different characters.
As a family, languages have given us the possibility to know other cultures, to understand other ways of thinking. Now there are some feelings or situations that can only be described in a specific language. For example, I cannot find any other language than english to describe what a “crisp morning” is and the same applies to some words in Spanish or Catalan.
What challenges have you faced or are you facing with language rearing and learning? How do you handle them?
The main challenge is the delayed development of the spoken language as I explained before.
We know that it is something that will go away soon, but it is hard to see how difficult it is for him approaching other kids on the playground as he cannot communicate with them in the same language. He is quite good in English and Spanish but his Finish seems to be not good enough or he prefers to use the other languages to approach people.
In the other languages he also needs to improve to reach the same level as monolingual children, so we try to interact with him as much as possible, actively through role playing as he refuses sometimes to follow direct conversations and passively through cartoons, books or ipad games.
Can you talk about the cultural aspect of bi-/multilingual parenting as it relates to your family?
I do not know if the cultural aspects are related to the language or to the places they come from. We try to combine the best of all our cultures plus the culture of the place we are living at the moment. We know that as expat children they will not have or feel our local traditions but we can try to build our own traditions for them.
Share a memorable moment you and your family experienced with language learning, something that shed light or taught you a lesson about bi-/multilingual parenting.
I can think of many funny moments that have shown us how the little brains deal with the different languages.
Initially, Pol was only learning Spanish and Catalan, 2 languages that can be very similar or sometimes very different. “Water,” one of his very first words, is agua in Spanish and aigua in Catalan, so at the beginning he was totally lost, looking at both of us not understanding what was wrong with his pronunciation. At the end he realized that nothing was wrong and he started using the right word with each of us.
It was exactly the same with words that are pronounced the same, but mean something totally different as “cama.” Cama means “bed” in Spanish and “leg” in Catalan and now he makes jokes with us saying that he has his “camas” in the “cama.” It is funny to see how he knows that this is funny because he is mixing things that do not belong together.
The last one was an English – Spanish one. He was watching tv and the cartoons were talking about a waiter, so he asked his father what “waiter” means. Instead of explaining the meaning of the word, his father translated to “camarero.” As he couldn’t relate that to anything he knows, his answer was: “¿Caballero?, no daddy, that’s a knight. What is a waiter?”
How do you involve your family, community, school and/or world at large in this bi-/multilingual adventure?
By asking them to stick to their mother tongue and not changing it for him. I do not like when our Finish friends talk to him in English because they know that it is easier for him or when the Catalan family talk to him in Spanish. Language is learning by doing and making things easier now will only make them difficult in the future.
What advice or encouragement can you share with other families raising their children bi-/multi-lingually?
We are very new in the world of multilingual parenting, so it is difficult to give advice to others. We also know that our situation is very atypical, as we cannot speak the language that he is exposed to the most, Finnish. Plus, we use English to communicate with others, although it is not our mother tongue. Besides, we use 2 other different languages that he cannot practice with many other people as we do not have many friends or relatives who can speak to him in Spanish or Catalan on a daily basis. Even if our family is at the other end of the Skype line, it is not enough to supporting language learning and children do not have the required attention to follow a conversation.
What has worked for us and what we can recommend is allowing him to play with some ipad games and watching cartoons. The vocabulary that we use in our daily life will be never as extensive as the language that it is repeated over and over again in the children programs. Of course not every program is good: we select which kind if cartoons or games he can watch or play. If you have small kids like us, CBeebies (BBC channel for kids), Disney channel and Nick Junior are highly recommended for English language and Pocoyó is a good cartoon to learn Spanish.
Regarding apps, we love ABCkids and role playing games that require some interaction, so he needs to understand what to do before acting, as Spatter &Spark or G’night Safari.
Freebie! Anything else come to your mind about the issue of bilingual/multilingual parenting?
I think that is awesome that kids have the possibility to “live” several languages and not feel the pressure to learn them as a subject in the school. That is one big gift that I would have loved to have had as a child.