Thursday, May 31, 2007

Isabella and Niki growing up with English, German, and Spanish in Austria

Alice Lapuerta, an editor of Multilingual Living Magazine, graciously consented to answer my questions about raising a trilingual family. Her daughter Isabella, age 5, and son Niki, age 2, are immersed in three different languages! To learn more about their adventures, visit her blog Jabberlingual (currently on hiatus).

What is your language background and history?
I grew up as a consecutive trilingual, with my mother tongue being German, literally, (my mother is Austrian), my father tongue Korean (my father was Korean), and English as the language of schooling. I was first sent to a Korean kindergarten in Korea, then to an International school where we spoke English, until I graduated. Now that I’m married to an Ecuadorean, I’ve added Spanish to my language repertoire. I am now equally fluent in German and English, passive in Korean and conversant in Spanish.

What languages are you exposing your children to, and how?
My husband speaks Spanish, I speak German, but we have English as a family language. When it comes to our daily family life that means that we basically speak English at home whenever everyone’s together; we leave German mostly to the environment (the kids get enough German as it is from kindergarten, friends on the playground, as well as other family members such as their grandma); and my husband speaks Spanish on a one-on-one basis with them (when they are playing together, for instance). My kids probably don’t get enough input in Spanish, but we are satisfied that they have caught up in English so that they feel comfortable talking in both English and German now. We will take care of the Spanish input later when we have the opportunity (maybe we will send them to a Spanish-speaking school or on an exchange semester to Ecuador? But that is in the future).

Why do you want your children to learn the additional languages?
For us it’s not really a choice but a necessity that grows out of our multicultural family life. We need them to be able to speak other foreign languages so we can communicate with each other satisfactorily, with us as well as with other family members around the globe. All other reasons such as doing better at school later on, having better career chances, and so forth are of course important reasons, but to us they are secondary to our main purpose: the need to communicate.

How well do your children understand the various languages? What do they think about them?
German is probably stronger now but it is amazing to see how well my daughter is doing with English. She understands almost everything and can communicate well, of course interspersed with German phrases -- which is entirely natural – and she cannot read/write yet. She knows English is the language that she should speak with Mami. I sometimes speak German with her when other kids are present (like when picking her up from kindergarten) and she actually reprimands me: “In ENGLISH, Mami!” I think she’s figured out that to be able to speak several languages at her age makes her special. I also suspect she is trying to show off a little by asking me to speak English with her in front of her friends! (Usually the opposite is the case, I’ve heard).

How have you been able to expose your children to the culture(s) where the second language is spoken?
Not as much as we would like. It’s expensive to fly to Ecuador regularly with a family of four. We do try to “import” abuelita (grandma) as much as possible, but even that cannot be more than once a year.

What challenges have occurred as you teach your children a second language?
Our main challenge was an overall language developmental one as my daughter’s been diagnosed having a slight sensory-auditory delay, which means that she’s not picking up grammar as easily as most kids. We have been told this problem has nothing whatsoever to do with multilingualism and that she would’ve had this problem as a monolingual as well. We decided to expose her to as much English and Spanish as possible anyway, and as I mentioned before she’s reacting very well to it. (See Alice's blog posts about this condition.)

What resources have been most useful to you?
The Sesame Street DVDs in Spanish have been and still are an absolute hit with us! Isabella learned the ABCs and how to count in Spanish just by watching those over and over and over and over … again. And of course books in all languages, colors, shapes. You can’t have enough children’s books, in my opinion. Isabella usually chooses a book and then decides in which language she wants it to be read (yes, that might require some creativity and good translation skills on the part of the parent) ;).

What do you think parents, caretakers, teachers, and/or researchers need to know about teaching a second language to children? What do you wish you had known when you started? What, if anything, would you do differently now?
About the first part of the question, I am not sure about the word “teaching,” which conjures up the notion of drilling and pulling out flashcards and vocab cards and what not. I wouldn’t do that, to be honest. With young kids it’s really more about just using the language in question as much as possible, in as many different settings as possible. Want your child to grow up speaking a certain language? Then just SPEAK it to them! I really think it’s that simple. What’s important is the emphasis on natural play, as kids learn only while they play. Now of course when it comes to language classes in school, that’s a different thing and I wouldn’t know how to go about teaching a second language to young kids there – but intuitively I’d say probably the same: playfully….

When we started out, I wish I had known that things are never cut in stone. Life is about change, and so do our linguistic situations. They change! I thought initially that one chooses a model, say OPOL (one parent one language), and this is what we’ll be doing for the rest of our lives. Wrong! We relocated, our linguistic situation changed dramatically and we realized that unless we adjusted our family language model as well, there was no chance of our children growing up multilingually. The majority language would take over and that was it. It is tremendously scary to make this kind of decision because there’s so much advice out there that tells you not to do it, that tells you to be “consistent” and always stick to a model etc. I wish I had known that 1) it’s totally OK to change models (from OPOL to minority language at home, like we did), and that it won’t “harm” your children. Far from being confused, my daughter LIKED the fact that I suddenly started to speak English to her non-stop (I used to speak German only).

And that 2) yes there are golden rules, there are words of advice, guidelines, and so forth. They can really inspire and help! But they are generalized advice and cannot take into account the individual situation of each family. I wish I had known that there are as many multilingual models out there as there are families, and not just one or two that we all have to adhere to. You discover via trial and error what works for you and what not. Ultimately you really, REALLY have to do that what works best for you and your family.

Alice, I'm glad that you've figured out how to make multilingualism work for your family! Thank you so much for your advice and for letting me profile you all on my blog.

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