Raising bilingual/ multilingual children
A Personal Journey and Guide for Parents
We are an international and trilingual family
I am Indian and have grown up speaking Marathi and English. My husband is German. As an international family, it is important to us that our daughter also speaks all three languages because they also communicate a lot of the culture and her heritage.
This is great for the kids but also not always easy. Now that my daughter is talking a lot, it is something I think about more and more. It is our responsibility to make sure that our children have the words to communicate their needs, even if we don’t speak English or German to them at home.
While talking to my friend Christin, I realised she is in a similar situation, so I asked her to share her story in this post. Read below:
As a German mother married to an Australian husband who speaks German fluently, I understand the challenges and rewards of raising bilingual children. Let me share my personal experiences and perspective on the journey of multilingual parenting.
My husband and I have always been committed to raising our daughters to speak both English and German. We believe that bilingualism offers many practical advantages for them, but we also always found it natural and obvious that they grow up with both languages. Highly interested in education topics of all kinds, I knew that the earlier a second language is introduced, the easier it usually is for children to achieve fluency. While there are different approaches to multilingual education, we adopted the OPOL (One Person, One Language) approach, where each of us consistently speaks our native language to our children. I speak German to them, while my husband speaks English.
My older daughter always responded to my husband in German during her first few years. However, when we spent parental leave in Australia with her and our new baby, she suddenly began speaking English with a girl she met at the playground after just a week. She obviously needed a so-called Sprachbad (immersion experience), and since then – she was 3 at the time – she has never spoken German with her dad again.
Our second daughter is nearly three years younger and spoke both languages from the beginning. Very strictly separated: English with Dad, German with Mom. At times, she even translated for me what she had previously said to her father. The abundance of English she heard in our household probably contributed to her perceiving both languages as natural right from the start. Since we spent time in Australia again, she occasionally even wanted me to speak English with her instead of German. As her language development was already quite advanced, I did so. That phase has passed now.
Kita and school choices for bilingual children
I am often asked if it does not feel strange that my husband and the children speak English with each other, and the children and I speak German (my husband and I also communicate in German unless we have English-speaking friends visiting). It is not strange for us at all, as it feels completely natural and we have done it this way from the beginning. On the contrary, any other arrangement would probably feel wrong to me: When my husband occasionally says a German word to our daughters, it feels almost disturbing.
When raising multilingual children in Germany, one of the challenges you’ll face is navigating the school and kita system and finding the best option for your children. There are various schooling options, including public, private, and international schools and kitas. In public schools, most education is provided in German, with some offering bilingual programs. Private schools may offer a more extensive range of bilingual or international curricula but often come with high tuition fees. An international school might be right for you if you are looking for a school catering to an international curriculum, such as International Baccalaureate (IB).
In my opinion, a bilingual kita can be advantageous if the language is actively used and not only, for example, in the context of a few songs that are sung with the children.
However, children who speak their second mother tongue at home do not necessarily need a bilingual kita because they will not become literate until they go to school anyway. On the contrary, if neither parent speaks German, it may even help with language acquisition to let them attend an all-German kita. You will be surprised that your little one will pick up the German language in no time.
For our daughters, we chose both a public German school and an all-German kita, considering that long commuting might put extra weight on our daily life. We supplement their education with resources from my online English school and additional language activities at home. Additionally, we often meet English-speaking friends, which of course also demonstrates to the children the usefulness of speaking their second native language. In this regard, living in Berlin has its benefits: There is a community for almost every language. Many families also specifically look for contacts who speak the same language, for example, in Facebook groups like International Families in Berlin.
Benefits of being multilingual
The good thing is that your child will benefit from learning a new language, whether they attend a bilingual or international school or kita or not. Research has shown that bilingual education offers numerous benefits for children:
Bilingual children tend to have better problem-solving skills, increased creativity, and enhanced mental flexibility. They often have a greater sense of empathy and understanding of different cultures, helping them to form meaningful relationships with people from diverse backgrounds. Furthermore, proficiency in multiple languages opens up a world of opportunities, both academically and professionally.
Raising bilingual children in Germany has been a quite good and easy-going experience for our family so far. If you’re a (soon-to-be) parent and thinking of raising children multilingually, I hope my story inspires and encourages you. And if you ever encounter difficulties on this journey, there are numerous support options available that are definitely worth a try. So don’t give up too quickly!
Christin Zylberberg is the founder of FamiLingua, an English online school and educational guidance business for international families.
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