Wednesday, 28 September 2011

Bilingualism and Growing up Abroad

I just read Libby Stephens' blog  Bilingualism and Emotional Competency. I would like to encourage parents, educators and third culture kids to read her post. It is really full of information.

Libby writes that language is so often tied to identity. I really agree on this one. Many of you have probably read my story. I was born and bred in Africa. After living there for the first 19 years of my life, I left Zimbabwe and headed off to the Netherlands to study at university. All my years in Africa had not changed the colour of my blond hair and blue eyes. My passport too was Dutch. So even though I had never really lived there many people referred to me as the Dutch girl. Well let me tell you that "the Dutch girl" was so happy that her parents had made the effort to teach her to speak, read and write her own language: Nederlands (or Dutch).

During my time in Africa many hours of my holidays were spent learning Dutch. It was compulsory. My parents always ensured that we spoke Dutch in the home. You must understand that all my schooling was in English. In Malawi I attended international schools. Often it was very tempting to switch to English when I was playing with my siblings, but my parents kept their ears open.

We were encouraged to write letters in Dutch to our grandparents and extended family. My mother ensured a never-ending supply of Dutch children's books. In Harare, the capital of Zimbabwe there was a small library with Dutch children's books and so we would travel 366 km to get new library books. I am telling you this to show you the amount of effort needed to learn a language or to keep the language fluent.

I am so grateful that my parents encouraged us and made such an effort to teach us our family language. How would I have ever been able to communicate with my grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins etc if I had not been able to speak Dutch? Please parents make wise choices on this language issue. Seek expert advice, don't take the easy road. Remember language has everything to do with identity. Remember there is also a language of the heart.   

Every now and then I meet people who regret that their parents did not teach them to speak their home language. Well I could write another whole post on this subject but maybe I can summarize it in two main words: PAIN and REGRET.

Morgu file Vahiju
Recently I even read that bilingual brains are more healthy.  Canadian neuroscientist Ellen Bialystok finds that people who speak two languages cope significantly better with the disease. Even late-life language learning is beneficial, probably because it is way of keeping the brain active.

Some time ago I wrote a post in Dutch called taal.
I also wrote about the book Make Your Child Multilingual by Silke Rehman.This is my most recent post: Third culture kids learning their mother tongue.

Do you have advice on bilingualism or multilingualism? Do you have tips for parents? Did you grow up bilingually? What's your story? Please share it.


  1. We raised my daughters trilingual. I only spoke English with them while my husband only spoke German with them. Their first language, however, was mainly Dutch as they were in a Dutch creche and started out in a Dutch "basisschool". They were allowed to reply to us in whatever language they wanted and we did not start correcting them until they were about 5. We would often repeat what they were saying to us in correct English or German so that they would hear how to reply. It seemed to work as now as teenagers they are totally fluent in all 3 languages and are studying a fourth at school!

    The important thing, we found, was to be consequent and stick to our native languages. They only heard us speak another language when someone else was present and we didn't want to leave them out of the conversation. It was harder on us as parents I think as we would on a daily basis end up speaking 3 languages and it did get confusing at times! But as you mentioned, it was worth it in the end!

  2. Thanks for the comment. It does give children lots of possibilities if they can speak a couple of different languages. As you say: it is worth it in the end! It can be hard work for the parents. I do agree that it is very important to be consequent. I your case you spoke English to the children and your husband German. Experts say that is important. As I write I'm wondering in what language do you communicate with your husband?

    Especially if there are more than two languages involved it is good to have a "plan". Decide what the language strategy will be for the family. To end with information from Libby her post: bilinguals think more creatively and are more flexible in their thinking!

  3. Great post. And I do agree with what Libby writes about.
    I'm from the US and my husband is German, but we are living in Asia. When our son was first born, I spoke English and my husband spoke German for about a week. His job was in an English environment (he's a TCK), so when he came home he wasn't thinking in German.

    We have only come across problems with our kids not being able to speak German fluently in the past few years. All of my husband's immediate family speaks English fluently, except for 2 cousins. In a way, I think we regret not sticking to the plan completely. Did we fail our kids? I don't think so, but they may tell us that we did when they get older.

  4. Yes I agree this "language thing" is complex, and there is not a solution that fits all families. Each situation is different. I think parents need wisdom to know what to do. I would like parents to at least spend sometime thinking about this topic, reading a book about it or consulting an expert about it, because language is a very important part of raising kids, especially third culture kids.

    At least it is really nice that your kids can understand German and maybe speak it a little. Many Dutch people are surprised that I don't speak German. Nearly all schools here in the Netherlands teach children German, but because all my schooling was in Africa I never had German lessens. Another thing that makes me different as TCK, as a "hidden immigrant"...

  5. I completely agree with feeling blessed that my parents taught me our native language of Creole. It's so easy to ignore its importance because it's only spoken by Haitians (there are various forms of it throughout the Caribbean). I think what speaking Creole did for me, aside from allowing me to speak to all my relatives, was give me a sense of identity. Cultural identity can be so fluid that I think having this connection - communication I gave me a strong sense of being Haitian; no matter where I lived.

  6. Thanks for adding your comment. It is very precious to be able to speak in your `mother tongue` to your relatives. If language does influence our sense of identity, which I think it does (and so do you), it makes it even more important! Especially when families make many international moves this sense of identity is even more essential.

  7. I was a late bilingual, meaning that I learned my second language (French) in what Tokuhama-Espinosa calls the third window of opportunity. Nevertheless, I learned through immersion in a French school in France and gradually became both bilingual and biliterate. Today, my professional French slightly surpasses my English, though my colloquial English is slightly superior. Libby talks about emotional competency for bilinguals - our relatives and home (emotional connection) was English-speaking, while the outside environment was French-speaking. Since learning French, I lapped up German, Italian, Mandarin and try hard to maintain all of these. It has been such a privilege and opened my eyes forever. The languages you know truly shape the way you view the world. This is the main reason I am avidly reading up on how to pass on the gift of multilingualism to my own children.

  8. Thanks for your comment. Yes bilingualism or multilingualism is a real gift we can give our children. Usually it does require parents to put lots of effort into it. Kids are not always grateful at the time but wait until later and then they will thank you!
    Wow you really have dived into many different languages.