Meet Mamapoekie, originally from Belgium, who now lives in Ivory Coast with her Belgian husband and their toddler. She is a prolific blogger--check out her musings on being a mama at Authentic Parenting. I'm so pleased that she agreed to be interviewed here, because the majority of the families profiled on my blog have been in North America and Europe.
Mamapoekie is a stay-at-home-mom and her husband is an engineer. She has also lived in Sweden and Cameroon. Both parents are both multilingual: her mother tongue is Dutch, she characterizes her English and French as "very good spoken and written" (and based on her blog, I would push her English far beyond just "very good"!), and she can converse in German and Spanish as well. Her husband's native languages are Dutch and French, his English is very good, and he has also studied some German.
To read more about her impressions of the trilingualism of her home country, click here.
Their daughter (DD) just turned two a couple of days ago!
What languages are you exposing your children to, and how?
Currently French and Dutch, we live in a francophone country and the huz speaks French to DD too. I speak Dutch. Our carrier language is Dutch too. She’s a little bit exposed to English (we only watch English spoken TV – which she doesn’t get to do yet, but she hears it all the same - and hear a lot of English music), which we would like to up a notch. After our next holidays, we will be reading to her in English and I also ordered some English lullabies on CD.
Why do you want your child to know more than one language?
That’s a tricky one. I think we always wanted to benefit from our bilingual household situation to also raise our children bilingual. The fact that we now live in a francophone country is just an addition. We’ve gotten a bit more deliberate about it recently as to wanting to add English to the mix, just to benefit from the early language acquiring skills.
How well does your child understand and speak the different languages?
She understands Dutch and French perfectly. She speaks French in whole phrases, but Dutch only in words.
How have you been able to expose your child to the culture(s) where the different languages are spoken?
She has been on holiday in France multiple times and has so far lived in two francophone countries in West Africa. We go on holiday every six months and spend a part of our time with the grandparents in Belgium.
What challenges have you faced as you raise your child with more than one language?
Having lived in a francophone country for close to four years now, surrounded by only French speakers, makes me lose my language. I had set out to only speak French to my daughter, but I feel as if it is impolite to do so around French speakers, so I catch myself speaking more and more French to her. I even start doing it when there’s nobody else around – especially given that she knows I understand, so she will speak to me in whatever language comes first and I tend to respond n the same language, which most often is French, sadly.
Do you have any advice for us?
See previous answer. I find this very hard. We do get to balance it a little by visiting the Dutch speaking grandparents and family twice a year. I think most important is to try as much as possible for the minority language speaker to continue to speak that language, however hard it may be. And to keep correcting them if they address you in the ‘wrong’ language.
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?
I don’t think we’d do anything differently, although we would like to move to a country that’s neither French nor Dutch speaking one day, just to add a little to the language soup.
I think conversation and immersion are the two most important factors in anyone learning a language.
Kids pick up languages really quickly and understand much more than we do, so as long as we don’t fall in the trap of translating it to the kids language it’s fine.
I think any education of a language should be in that language only. Even if the pupil doesn’t understand, the teacher should not translate, rather point it out throuogh gesture and images etc.
Answer your own question now--what did I not ask about that you would like to comment on?
Just one little thing: A lot of people think/say that language evolves slowlier in a bi- or multilingual child. I beg to differ. I think much depends on how much of the child is spoken to. My daughter, who is a mere 23 months old, has a much larger vocabulary, speaks both languages and speaks in full sentences, when I compare to a monolingual boy she plays with, she is in fact in advance, even while the boy is almost three.
Just talk talk talk and try not to do kiddie talk.
Mamapoekie, thank you for being such a compelling advocate for bilingualism and also for admitting that it is a real challenge for you. I think a lot of families are in the same boat, and it really helps to hear that others struggle with using their mother tongue when living abroad. Can we revisit this profile in a couple of years when DD is older to see what has developed?
And one more question from me: Can you address the fact that West African French is a bit different from Belgian French? Does your daughter notice the differences? And does your daughter hear any African languages as well, the way that two-year-old Julia does in Namibia?
I'm always looking for other bilingual or multilingual families to profile...email me at babybilingual (at) gmail (d0t) com if you'd like to volunteer!