Are you growing a child in a bilingual or multilingual environment? In this post, I am sharing my tips to raising multilingual children.
I have three children who speak four languages. English, Urdu, Arabic and French. All three of my children were bilingual since birth. By the age of 7 years my children could speak four languages. You can do it too.
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 recommend those tips.
I am an Indian expat in Saudi Arabia. I have been living here all my life. My parents and siblings live near us in the same city but we’re just two families in all. We converse in Urdu and English at home.
I speak more English than Urdu. My husband on the other hand speaks more Urdu. When we had our son, we spoke to him in our own languages. Mom spoke in English and Dad spoke in Urdu.
Here in Saudi Arabia, we have not just Arabs but Asians, South East Asians and other expats as well. My children have grown up hearing so many people from around the world. Add to that that they go to a multicultural school.
So at school and out and about, my children had friends and teachers who conversed in Arabic.
Setting the foundation to learning multiple languages.
As an expat living away from my family , it wasn’t easy teaching my children everything about my culture myself.
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.
Multilingual children start talking a bit late
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 sounded like it was his own language – a mix of English, Urdu and some blended words!
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 an English infused Urdu.
When we went out, it was Arabic all around because we live in Saudi Arabia. The shopkeepers, our friends, the janitor – all spoke in Arabic! He was hearing three languages!
If you’re not fluent in a language, you can confuse your child.
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.
Finding the right school can be a struggle.
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 here.
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.
You have to create the environment where languages can be learnt.
It wasn’t very difficult teaching him Arabic because little children pick up language very fast. We let him play with more Arabic speaking friends. We bought him books and toys that were in Arabic too.
When we introduced screen time to him (age 2), I would let him watch television in Arabic. Dora the Explorer is in Arabic here. She also speaks English and children in Saudi Arabia actually learn English from Dora! 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.
I use to give him only 20 minutes of screen time during the early days because that was how much was healthy for him. Even then, he picked up the 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 multicultural environment, it was natural for him to see so many different people speaking so many different languages.
Whether you homeschool or public school, decide the medium of instruction.
When it was time for him to homeschool, I started in English using the Charlotte Mason Way by adapting it to my needs.
We even became members of a local Library here in Jeddah. 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 had various cultural and educational activities for little children all through the year in which we participated. We would also occasionally participate in their story time. They had two stories each in English and Arabic. I’d let him sit for both of them.
When he turned three we did a lot of Computer time in our homeschooling because we really didn’t have much resources for books at that time.
Also, I hardly had any support. Most mums here don’t believe in homeschooling or understand what it really is. Our reason to homeschool was actually a need.
We had briefly put our son in a Montessori school here but a month after he started school, our daughter died. It was all too depressing to sending away our only child. He was only 3 years old at the time. So we, continued with the homeschooling. He was 4 years old at that time.
It is very important to find the right school.
Son joined school again when he was four and a half years old. He needed company as 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.
His teacher could not understand his needs. He felt alienated as he was the only multilingual child there. Most children spoke only Arabic and minimal English. The teachers would often converse in Arabic.
My son was speaking more and more Arabic by then but his Urdu and English wasn’t improving at all. 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 that had mostly Arab kids. It was clear that the school wasn’t experienced enough to handle multicultural children.
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.
A good teacher can really make a difference.
We were lucky that at his new school, he came under a teacher who believed in celebrating individuality. She understood his needs and his weaknesses. She had had ample experience with working with children of different communities. She set out to create a whole plan on how we would work on my son.
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 she built up his confidence.
When he started grade 2, my son was reading, writing and singing in French too.
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.
Updated June 2020: I wrote this blogpost 6 years ago. Since then, I have raised two more children who are multilingual. Now we have three children who speak four languages.
6 Tips for Raising Multilingual Children
I want to share with you six tips that I have made a difference to how we raised these children to speaking, reading and writing four languages.
- Create the environment to learning multiple languages.. Provide books, show videos, play games, meet people, do activities, have printables for them. Take them places where they get opportunities to meet people who speak these language.
- Read to them for at least 15 minutes every day. When they see you speaking or talking or reading their books. They will want to do it too. Practice makes perfect, right? I have seen many parents who don’t read to their children and wonder why their kids aren’t learning the way they should. Your child sees your reading to them as love. They associate reading time with quality time. Reading to our children is the best way to encourage them to read.
- 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.
- 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 thye will have the opportunity to learn from you. Mother language is also the easiest to master.
- 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. Let language learning be something fun and enjoyable.
- Play and invent new word games. When you play with words you master it. There are many language games available like Scrabble or Boggle . You can create your own games too.
This is my experience to raising multilingual children. 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? 🙂