Raising multilingual children, or polyglots

As a parenting coach in an expat community, I get this question a lot:

How does one raise children with 4 languages?

Yes! We raise our children multilingual. My husband speaks only Portuguese with them, I speak German and Danish, my hubby and I speak English with each other, and our kids speak Danish in kindergarten.

When our first son was born, we had the privilege of being supported by a nurse, provided by the Danish welfare system, who visited us frequently in the first year of our son’s life. We were very lucky with Liselotte, our nurse, who advised me to speak my own language to him, and my husband speaking his language to our son.

It was really a no-brainer. We trusted it’s possible. Thank you, Liselotte!

In the beginning, I found it pretty intuitive and easy to speak German to him. But around his first birthday, and with my son developing his language so quickly, I realized that I was blocked in my mother tongue. It would have been easier to continue with English, after all, I spoke more English than German in my day-to-day life. This block has more to do with my emotions associated with my mother tongue than anything else.

What about speech delays?

As a conscious parent already back then, I worked on my block and continued to speak in German. Our son started speaking at the age of 1 and showed no signs of speech delay. Unlike most of the research suggests.

With the birth of our second son, things changed. Just like they do when you add another family member. He is an entirely different child. While our oldest son connects through talking, loves to talk, and has always something to ask and say, to comment on or observe, our youngest son seemed to be the opposite.

I remember when he was about 1 year old and I bathed him, I talked and talked, about the toys, and the water, made conversation about play and tried to connect with him through my words, he couldn’t be bothered. He didn’t need me to speak. He didn’t even respond. He was so engaged in his play, that this was all he cared about.

This was when I fully understood how different he was from his brother, and from me for what it’s worth.

With these characteristics, he began to speak very late compared to his brother. Although he would totally understand what we said to him, he just wouldn’t use words to respond. That could be quite frustrating.

At the age of 3, he had his first speech assessment in kindergarten. In the district where we live, there is a focus on the integration of children of non-danish families. And one important aspect of this integration is language. One day, when I picked him up, the pedagogue pulled me aside and showed me his assessment results. Red, Red, Red. He had a sobering 5% out of 100% correct.

His brother is always above average ranging between 80-90% on these tests. They grow up in the same family – and are yet so different.

Comparison is the thief of joy – and happiness.

I knew that these results don’t depict the entire truth. He doesn’t need the language to connect. He actually doesn’t really need a lot of people. His Human Design is different from his brother’s and even though I didn’t know anything about human design back then, I knew that we cannot compare them with each other. This would only create pressure, leading to resistance and unhappiness as we would try to parent him without seeing him for who he is.

Only three months after this assessment, and shortly before the institution would have kicked off a range of interventions to bring him up to speed with his Danish, he started speaking!!

Portuguese! Danish! German! The words would just pour out of his mouth. And there it was, he could finally, on his on timing and terms, start sharing his thoughts with us through language.

What does our daily life look like with 4 languages?

I understand Portuguese and my husband understands German. This is a huge advantage. But still, there are times when we get confused or don’t fully understand the other one’s conversation with the kids. Being open, having a curious mindset and non-judgemental attitude are crucial to navigate family life.

The boys’ strong languages are German and Danish, and when they play or talk to each other it’s either in German or Danish.

They mix up languages, yes. And I think that is a natural way of the brain to deal with a situation when we don’t remember the word in that one language on the spot, we just say it in another language. Even I adopted phrases and words in Portuguese that are difficult to come up with in another language.

Our kids understand English, and the oldest starts speaking English now. They have a headstart to life, just by us being conscious and trusting. I love this.

And another beautiful thing that comes with this is, that our families are tied together through the languages of our kids. When we go to Portugal, they can communicate with their grandparents and uncles, and aunts. They go to Austria on holiday, have great conversations with their family there and can attend a skiing course in German with the local kids.

Consider these when raising multilingual kids

Trust your child! They can do it. You are giving them a great start to this life by allowing them to learn and speak your language. They will learn more about you in your authenticity than if you would speak your second language. They are connected to your roots, and the world is bigger for them.

Stay consistent especially in the first 5 years of your child’s life. Only speak your language. Don’t mix it up. If you can’t come up with the word, sportscast this. Say “Oh I am realizing that I forgot that word, let me quickly look this up” Or you describe the word. Through this, your child will learn, that it’s ok to think of a word and that it’s ok not to know everything on the spot. That doesn’t mean they are stupid or incapable. It teaches them diversity and patience in conversations.

Expose them to your mother tongue without the stress. Your child doesn’t need a playdate in your mother tongue unless they like the other child. Read books in your language, repeat what they are saying back to them correctly, and play games like “I spy with my little eye” in your language. Exposure can also mean phone calls with their grandparents or cartoons in your mother tongue. Remember, children learn through play and not through pressure.

Accept your child for who they are. This is my mantra along my parenting journey. Our children are not mini-us. They are not ours. They come through us, with their unique purpose and attributes for life. If your child doesn’t speak your language, don’t take it personally. By you talking to them in your mother tongue, you give them a great opportunity already. What they want to do with it, is not up to you anymore. You offer, that is all you can do. Stay in the zone of love and kindness, no matter in which language your child responds.

I had the honor to speak to Bettina Gruber about raising multilingual children. She is a linguist and specialist in helping parents who struggle with passing on their mother tongue. Sit back, relax, and enjoy the episode below. Visit Bettina’s website if you’d like to learn more about Bettina and the work she does.