On raising a multilingual child

A friend’s wife is due to give birth this month, and we’ve had some conversations about raising a trilingual child. His family speaks English at home, his wife grew up in Italy, and together they live here in Israel. Their languages are English, Italian, and Hebrew. This is not quite the same as but bears similarities to my own family’s reality. My wife was raised in Russia, I was raised in the USA, and we and our daughter live in Israel. Our languages are English, Russian, and Hebrew.

This sort of thing is common in Israel because ~30% of Israeli Jews are olim, meaning that they come from other countries of origin. Among the sabras (Jews born in Israel), most are 2nd– or 3rd-generation Israelis. Due to its immigrant nature, Israel is one of the most multicultural and multilingual societies in the world. It is not unusual for Jewish Israeli families to speak some language other than Hebrew at home.

The differences in our family’s respective situations favor mine when it comes to raising a multilingual child. Firstly, I was raised in a Russian-speaking home and am conversant in the language, and my wife can get along well enough in English. Secondly, Israel has a sizable Russian-speaking population, making Russian one of the easiest languages to impart to an Israeli child (unlike Italian).

Still, I’ve been giving this matter some thought, and I think that there are some universal strategies that parents should employ if they aim to raise multilingual children. Following are my preliminary thoughts.

* * *

The first and perhaps most important piece of advice is for each parent to consistently speak to the child exclusively in one language. We received this sound advice from my mother years ago, before our daughter was born. (Although, I dare say that the Russian my parents and I spoke while I was growing up in the USA gradually morphed into a unique, Bogomolny-style Runglish over the years.)

Your self-designated language should not be the same language your child hears at school. I was raised in the USA, and I attended public school. My education was in English, but my parents spoke with me in Russian. Most children will have no difficulties functioning and even potentially excelling in the language of their classrooms, which will become dominant for them, particularly in reading and writing.

It’s fine to speak to your child in your self-designated language while speaking to others in another language. For example, I always speak to my daughter in English, but I speak to my wife and other family members in Russian, even in my daughter’s presence. (You must be able to pivot between languages quickly because you must focus on addressing your child exclusively in your one designated language.)

When speaking with your child, if you need to use a word from another language, you may, but only if you explain why you are doing so. For example, you might say, “I don’t know how to say such-and-such in English, but in Russian I would use the following word…” or: “in English there’s no word that means such-and-such exactly, but in Russian one could say…”

In the above situation, you must communicate to your child that you this is not ideal. Explain that you prefer to express yourself properly in your designated language, and then: you must actively look for a way to do so. For example, you may pause the conversation to search through a dictionary or ask another English speaker how they would articulate your idea in English. By striving to express yourself correctly in your designated language, you are showing your child that this is important to you.

Also, to the extent possible, discuss differences in grammar and vocabulary between languages with your child. Often, multilingual children (and adults) will accidentally apply grammar from a more dominant language to a less dominant one. The words we choose may also work in one language, but not another. Certain terms in different languages may share some meanings but be used differently. Every time such examples arise, these are opportunities to highlight the differences that exist between languages. Parents should share these insights as the hidden treasures of expression that they are.

It’s important for parents to correct one another’s language errors. It’s also important for parents to ask one another (and eventually the child) how to articulate ideas correctly in their respective, designated languages. Make it clear that not only the child is learning how to speak correctly. The parents’ acknowledgement of their own fallibility and their openness to being corrected is important. For example, when I speak Russian or Hebrew, I always ask my wife if I’m unsure of how to structure a sentence. For us, language is a family project; we each try to help one another speak correctly and don’t take offense when somebody corrects our mistakes. I’ve told my daughter, in seriousness, that as she gets older she will eventually be able to assist me with my Hebrew.

I hate being cliché, but you should find enjoyment in this endeavor. You should, of course, enjoy watching your child develop into an empowered, articulate person; and you should enjoy your own learning and development, which will occur in parallel.

* * *

In this stream of consciousness, my focus has been upon speaking with one’s child. Of course, there’s so much more than that. Books, games, videos… I will have to write more later.

Still, there’s one more thing that I must add. It is so obvious that it may not even occur to you, but I have seen its truth firsthand. You must invest as much as possible of your time in your child if you wish to impart your language to them. I cannot overemphasize this point. It’s not only about the educational value of interacting with you – it’s more. If spending time with you becomes a major, central part of your child’s life, then they will want to speak the language has been designated as yours… because that will be their key to you.

12 thoughts on “On raising a multilingual child”

  1. oh wow David, just came across this post and am awed. Language as a project indeed and what a project! I didn’t even know what I was saying when referring to your daughter as growing up in a multicultural world. .. There is a sneaking suspicion in the back of my mind now, that I being merely bilingual have somehow adopted the British provincial approach (don’t need a second language). But then, I am not raising children…

  2. I am reading your older posts at random, David, whenever I have time. Again, I am very impressed. I am assuming you are not a linguist, yet your recommendations are absolutely correct from a linguistic perspective. I would also add that code shifting, i.e. switching from one language to another within the same sentence is normal for a child growing up in a multilingual environment. Rather than correcting, the sentence should be repeated to the child in the designated language. Grammar should not be explained until the age of about 6 – 7 (Stephen Krashen’s theory of Natural Language Acquisition Approach).

      1. You are very welcome, David. Also, there are some studies that indicate a higher intelligence of children who grow up in a miltilingual environment, as opposed to monolingual. Get ready for an extremely bright daughter!

        1. It makes sense – because it makes the child aware that there is a distinction between objects themselves and the words that we use to label them. Also, with 3 languages, as we have, sometimes two languages use the same word to describe two different ideas, and the third language uses two separate words to describe those two ideas – it makes all of us think and leads to interesting discussions with our daughter about what words mean!

          1. Comparative analysis of the signifiers and signified – forgive the technicalities. Interesting linguistic discussions with a three-year-old will definitely produce an extremely intelligent child.

          2. 🙂

            we’ve been interacting simultaneously with her in English and Russian since she was born – even our 3-way conversations are in two languages.

  3. Hit home…I was born in Malta under British rule, raised speaking both Maltese and English. Close proximity to Italy (60 miles off the coast of Sicily) the majority of Maltese speak Italian. I speak it fluently. Married to an American who also has an aptitude for languages. My kids went to Dutch schools in our 9-year stint in Holland, and spoke Dutch. We got stationed in Germany and have been here for 35 years so we speak German. My trip to Israel and love of Israel compelled me to learn Hebrew…In Malta when I was growing up, we had to speak English in schools but of course we spoke Maltese at home. At an early age, my father and I used to speak italian at home as well. It was a brilliant blog.

    1. Thank you so much, Judy. I’m chuffed that you took the time to read it 😁

      I’m jealous of all those languages – we have those three at home, and I know some French from my school years, but it’s severely out of practice. Also, I studied spoken Palestinian Arabic for 2+ years, but I have nobody to practice with, unfortunately.

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