3 Sep 2013

Raising a Bilingual Child

We live in a multicultural, multilingual society. So when you have a baby, and your native tongue is not  English but Marathi, what do you do? This was a real dilemma we faced since the day we found out we were going to be parents. (Yes, that early on. We are firm believers in the theory that babies can hear, and are listening, when they are in the womb. So we presumed J was listening in to all that went on in the outside world, in English, in Marathi or any other language that came his way).

M and I tend to use a combination of English and Marathi, with the occasional Hindi thrown into the mix, when we converse with each other. It would be terrible for our child to grow up not understanding what his parents were saying to each other if he learnt only English (although some would perceive that  to be a distinct advantage). We most certainly wanted him to be fluent in English, as that would be the language of his peers. But we did not want him to miss out on the use of his native Marathi either.

We made the decision to raise J as a bilingual child. The question was how best to go about it. 

Do you converse with the child exclusively in English, so that he doesn't get left behind his peers? Like I mentioned before, this was a definite no-no. Why stick with just one language when you can so easily use two?

Option 2 was to emulate our own up-bringing. (More than enough reason for us to shelve the idea even before we started considering it - no offence, anyone!) Interestingly enough, the health visitors suggested we do this as well - use only our native Marathi at home for the first 2 or 3 years before start of school. The logic behind this being that once the foundation for one language was laid, the other would follow easily enough. "He will pick up English once he is at school." Well, it did work for us, so...

But it would be impossible to use this technique with J, not when I was taking him to singing groups and play groups since he was a tiny baby. All the rhymes and songs were in English; I wasn't about to sit and translate everything into Marathi for him!

The next option was to try the often recommended method where one parent uses one language and the other parent uses the other when conversing with the child. This would never have worked in our case; M speaks 1 word for about 10000 of mine. So J would have ended up knowing just the language I chose to speak with him.

That brings us to our last option. Use both English and Marathi around the child, with the occasional Hindi thrown in, and hope he doesn't end up confused!

This is exactly what I have been doing for over two years now. I say everything to J twice, once in English and once in Marathi. It helps that children need telling more than once anyway!

J seems to be coping amazingly well. He understands both languages, and has a varied vocabulary in both.

We do have our moments. When there are similar sounding words that mean different things in the two languages. Bus in English is a motorised vehicle. Bus in Marathi is to sit down. The poor child was bewildered when I said to him,  "Bus madhye bus." (Sit on/in a bus). And don't even get me started on eye, I and Aai (Mum)! Perhaps I will just start using Spanish instead.

27 comments:

  1. bus madhye bus! lol
    'take' mhatla tar hatatli goshta gheto ki bhintila jaun tekto :-)

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    1. hasn't figured that one out yet ;-)

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  2. I am sure that being bilingual will give him lots of advantages in life.

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  3. I think being bi-lingual brings so many benefits- but seeing as we struggle to even manage English properly In our house, I cannot imagine the complexities of trying to balance the two! Sounds like it is working well for you though.

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  4. I am in admiration of anyone who can fluently speak any more than one language, let alone teach it to a small child. I would love to have a bilingual child but alas, my poor education means I can just about give directions in german, not a very useful thing for a baby to know! I am doing some baby signing with her via you tube videos though, does that count?
    Sounds like you've worked out the best way to go about it, anyway!

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  5. Annie has friends at school who were brought up only speaking Polish and they are now learning English at an astounding pace.

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  6. I cannot believe the HV suggested that and glad you have gone with the best option. When we are born we have the ability to speak every language and what we do is lose that ability as we get older, tuning into the ones that we hear. It's a bit more complex than that. I wish I was good enough at languages to have done it with my children.

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  7. Oh wow... I'd often wondered how this works in bilingual families. Sounds like you're doing a sterling job even with the slight confusion over certain words and J will benefit hugely from it as he grows up :)

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  8. That's fab, would love to have raised my boys bilingual but we don't properly speak any other languages! x

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  9. When I was younger we had family friends who were Dutch, living in the Spanish speaking Canary Islands. They hired a German nanny and sent the children to the British School there! Their youngest (who was born there) barely spoke until she was 5 years old, then suddenly came out fluently with all four languages :)

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  10. It's great that he copes so well, I've no experience of raising bi-lingual children but it sounds like it can really benefit them.

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  11. It's wonderful to bring children up being bilingual wish I could with mine. Better get those Spanish lessons started!

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  12. My husband spoke nothing but punjabi until he started school. He remembers chattering away to his peers, trying to tell them in punjabi that he didn't understand a word of what they were saying! He picked it up and has a greater vocabulary than many mother-tongue English speakers I know. I guess it's that concept of total immersion the HV is recommending. Canada, where we're currently living, is a bilingual country (English & French) and you can choose to send your children to French Immersion schools where everything is taught purely in French. My French isn't fluent anymore so I don't know how I'd help with homework or monitor their progress if we did that...

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  13. I love the idea of having bilingual children, languages are so important. I wish schools put more importance on it!

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  14. Speaking more than one language is a great advantage in life, shame I only know English!

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  15. Understanding more than one language is such a gift for your child. I can imagine, like you say, it is confusing at first but I'm sure they'll soon get the hang of it. It's much easier to practice when you are young, without fear of getting it wrong :) Do whatever is easiest for you.

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  16. Lucky little ones being given two languages! A bilingual friend simply divides the day, English in the morning and German in the afternoon!

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  17. Wow - it's a tough one, but you seem to be handling it incredibly well. Children have a natural affinity for language, so I think it is much better to grow up bilingual than to have to pick up a language at a later date. Us English are notoriously lazy when it comes to learning languages, and I really wish they would start teaching them earlier in schools as they do in other countries. Just take it as it comes I think - do what's best for you and your family. :-)

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  18. I would love to raise my kids to be bilingual so it's such a gift for your child. I think we need to find some language lessons for our children.

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  19. A child's ability to absorb language constantly amazes me. I'd love to bring my children up with more than one language, but neither my husband or I are able to speak any other language well enough. Good on you!

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  20. I used to work with a lady who spoke 7 languages fluently!! She was Italian and her mother used to work for the Italian government and they used to move around a lot. She has always said that she learned them at a really young age and it is just second nature to her, so teaching kids to be bilingual is such a good idea - I wish I had another language!

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  21. I love the idea of children being bilingual and I really wish the schools here could support that from a young age rather than waiting until secondary school to focus on it.

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  22. I think you went with the best option.Kids are like sponges and can develop a learning for language from early on.

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  23. WOW being bilingual is so useful and children adapt and learn so well.

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  24. we are using both in the same time - kids learn very fast and they know which words belong to which language (to be honest I have no idea how)

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  25. I'm full of admiration for multilingual kids and their parents. Good for you! x

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  26. I speak Hindi and English with my 19months old kid. My in-laws speak Marathi. They are the ones at home with her when m at office. She understands all 3 languages but speaks only Marathi..I wonder when she will start speaking Hindi ...

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