My son speaks four languages. He is almost seven years old. I have been asked to write a post on our journey to teaching him those multiple languages. The 6 tips that worked for us are towards the end of the post but before that, you will have to know why I give you those tips.
My family and I live in a multicultural society. That made it easier but there are many other people living in multi cultural societies and they don’t think it is that easy. Here is our story as to how we started.
I repeat, I wouldn’t say it is easy. Teaching your child any language, completely, is a challenge. When you set out to teach a child multiple languages at the same time, it gets even worse. For one, my child wasn’t really talking as in ‘talking’ till he was three years old. He did speak till then but what he spoke, was his own language. It was after we had more children that I understood that he was confused because both his parents talked to him in their own language. My husband in pure Urdu and me in English or a English infused Urdu. When we went out, it was Arabic all around because we live in Saudi Arabia.
When we had our eldest, my husband and I were both on the same page on our decision to teach our son our mother tongue, Urdu, first. My Urdu wasn’t very good even though it was our mother tongue. My husband believed that we were responsible for giving our child our tradition and our roots and that it should begin with our language. He was right and so in the process, with our son, I got better at my language too.
When it was time for him to start school, there was of course, no choice of him going to a Urdu school because… well… there aren’t any Urdu schools. Urdu, even in India is a second or third language. The first langauge or the medium of instruction is always English. You get a choice of a second language and for a third optional one too. In Saudi Arabia, the choice is either English or Arabic as a first language followed by a second language. Since we were living in Saudi Arabia and our children were being brought up here and the fact that more people around us spoke Arabic than English, my husband wanted our son to be better at Arabic before English.
It wasn’t very difficult teaching him because little children pick up language very fast. When at age 2 we introduced screen time to him, I would let him watch television in Arabic. Dora the Explorer is in Arabic here. She also speaks English and children actually learn English from Dora here. It was the opposite for us because, my son learnt Arabic from Dora! Even Teletubbies and In the Night Garden comes in Arabic here. Television, I must say, really helped my son early on.
There are many Arabic channels for young children here in Saudi Arabia. There is MBC3, Spacetoon, Baraem, Nicklodeon, Disney and now even BabyTv has been showing Arabic channels. Our son had only 20 minutes of screen time during the early days because that was how much was healthy for him. He picked up his vocabulary really fast. When we went out, he heard Arabic all around him, at the playground or the mall or the playgroups that we went to. I encouraged him in making friends with children of other cultures and since he was growing up in this environment, it was natural for him to see so many different people speaking so many different languages.
When it was time for him to homeschool, I started in English using the Charlotte Mason Way by adapting it to my needs. We became members of a local Library here in Jeddah called MyLibrary. It was a library solely for mums and kids. We found many books there in not only English and Arabic but also in French and Spanish. They have various cultural and educational activities for little children all through the year. We would occasionally participate in their story time, which was my son’s favourite. They have two stories each in English and Arabic.
We had a compulsory Computer time to our homeschooling because we really didn’t have much resources for books and there was hardly any support. Most mums here don’t believe in homeschooling or understand what it really is. Our was a need. We had briefly put our son in a Montessori school here but a month after he started our daughter died. We were all too depressed and sending away our only child who was just 3 years old at the time was even more depressing. We continued with the homeschooling.
Son joined school again when he was four and a half. He needed company and we found that his language wasn’t really very clear. He was mixing three languages when he spoke and it looked really odd. We put him in an Arabic School with an American Program. We were hoping that being among Arabs would mean he would learn to speak better Arabic as well as English. Unfortunately, although KG2 was good, the next year, he hadn’t learnt anything much. His KG2 teacher understood that he was above average and that he could already read and write English. She encouraged him to read and write more. His English improved but the next year, the staff changed and his teacher was an Arab who spoke English with an accent. More over, she could not understand his needs. Son started resisting going to school and after their cultural event at the end of first term, we realized that he wasn’t settling in as his school had mostly Arab kids and they were not experienced enough to handle and educate children of other communities.
We were in luck, we found a place in a well known school for the next term of KG3. There were hardly three months left for graduation and I was very worried that my son was not ready yet. We were lucky that at his new school, he came under a teacher who believed in celebrating individuality. She had had ample experience with working with children of different communities and the school actually had a different set of English and Arabic books for the different communities. In less than a month, my son was reading, writing and speaking really good English as well as Arabic. We were shocked by his progress. The credit went to the teacher because we saw how his confidence built up too.
He will start grade two next week now and he speaks French also. I think he is well set on his path. I have shifted my focus to our two year old daughter now. She is an early starter and already speaks clearly in Urdu and English. We haven’t started on Arabic because she never gave us a chance to teach her. She is bilingual because we converse at home that way. Hopefully, in a month or two I will be starting to homeschool her and then we will focus on a plan.
Moral of the story: My tips to raising multilingual children
1.Give them the opportunity. Provide books, show videos, play games, meet people, play games. Take them places where they get opportunities to meet people who speak the language.
2. Learn with them. When they see you speaking or talking or reading their books. They will want to do it too.
3. Find a good teacher and a better school. If you can get someone to teach your child, it so helps. Someone who is proficient and experienced in teaching children, would be better. It would be faster actually because there will be a time when they will actually sit down to work on the language compared to when you are doing it whenever you get the time or opportunity.
4. Start with your mother tongue and then move on to what is the most commonly spoken language or what your environment is. It will be easier for your child and he will have opportunity to learn from you. Mother language is the easiest to master.
5. Always stay connected to your child and his feelings. A child who is sad or depressed will not want to learn. Don’t push them if you think they aren’t comfortable.
6. Play and invent new word games. When you play with words you master it. 🙂
This is what my experience is… It wasn’t all that easy and there is a lot that I can say about studying each of those languages… that will just have to be another post. 🙂
Are you raising bilingual or multi lingual children? what is one tip you want to share with other mums starting out on the adventure? 🙂