Intercultural children who live outside their parents’ countries of origin often speak more than two languages in their everyday communication. When it comes to teaching the languages to the child, learning three or more languages does not differ much from bilingualism but because of the higher amount of languages, supporting all of them equally is more challenging. In Finland, there are currently more than 7500 families where the partners come from different countries, but where neither of the partners is originally from Finland. I had a change to meet one of these families, an Indian-Ecuadorian couple raising their 4-months old lovely baby boy, and talk to the father about the ways they are planning to support their child’s language development.
Nithin, the baby’s father, comes from the Indian state of Karnataka. His native language is his state’s official language Kannada which has about 49 million users around the world but which in the context of Finland is very rare to come by. His wife is from South America, Ecuador, and she speaks Spanish as her mother tongue. The language they communicate in is English. Thanks to the family’s cultural diversity the little baby boy will have the opportunity to be introduced to multiple languages.
As each parent speaks a language different from the majority language their child has the opportunity to be exposed to four languages - the mother's, the father's, English and the community language Finnish, when he starts kindergarten or school. Coming from a Spanish speaking country, Nithin’s wife has decided to speak with the child in Spanish as this comes most naturally to her. Yet, Nithin has had doubts if he should speak in Kannada or English as he is fluent in both languages, and also because English has always been a part of his life. Moreover, as many intercultural parents before him, he has questions such as: Will my child know everything in all of these languages? Will he have enough vocabulary? Which language will he think in?
When a parent has grown up with many languages or when a later acquired language plays an important role in the parent’s life, choosing what language to communicate in can be quite difficult. Although Nithin appreciates his cultural background and native language greatly, he believes that unless his child decides to study or go to work in the place where Nithin is from - Karnataka - the Kannada language will not be useful for him.
Also, while her wife has her sister, brother and mother living in Finland, who can help in offering more Spanish language input to the child, Nithin is alone in this task. His entire family lives back in India and to the best of his knowledge there are no communities in Finland who speak the Kannada language. Moreover, due to work he gets to spend time with the child in the mornings and in the evenings. He acknowledges that because of the limited amount of interaction, it can be difficult for the child to learn Kannada.
But how to decide which language to pass on? A parent with multiple options, like Nithin, should take into consideration that unless he or she changes the language strategy along the way, he or she will be speaking that language with the child for their entire life. Yet, parents are encouraged to stay persistent in speaking the chosen language. For this reason it is best to choose a language that comes most naturally, and of course, where one feels most fluent. For example, speaking in a language that one heard as a child is useful for the reason that one knows children’s songs, such as lullabies, in that language. A parent also has to consider in which language the relatives can speak with the child so they wouldn’t get cut off from his or hers life. Having spent many years away from the home country, it might feel a bit uncomfortable at the beginning to speak in a language that one has not used for a while, but eventually the confidence will return.
If Nithin chooses Kannada, it definitely needs a lot more reinforcement, but he is aware of that. However, his family can be considered very lucky in the sense that thanks to his work in a global company he has the possibility to spend a year in Ecuador and a year in India before their child starts school so the child could hear the languages being spoken in their natural environment. Nithin knows also that he will need a variety of language resources and therefore he is planning to start reading to his child a lot, telling stories, singing and listening songs and showing story books. He has even considered having somebody from India travel to Finland to spend time with his child.
When both of the parents are living outside of their home country, the language input can be quite low, but in addition to the actions Nithin and his family are planning to take, parents in similar situations can use also other material to complement the minority language such as watching cartoons, playing board or video games in that language, talking about pictures in books. Language learning should be incorporated into activities to make it fun and even if the extended family leaves far away, making regular Skype calls with the child being a part of it will provide the child additional input. Diverse situational vocabulary should be included and that’s why spending family time outside home would be beneficial.
However, for Nithin, his culture is even more important than the language as he wants the child to have a global outlook. Knowing about different cultures and having wider cultural experiences certainly make children more open-minded towards difference and diversity and encourages cross-cultural awareness. But, like Nithin says himself, with language come more opportunities for consuming culture – more music, more literature, and easier ways to travel. "I just saw a video about a kid born outside of India, but her mother is asking questions about India, she is like 2 or 3 years old and she is answering. I hadn’t thought about it before but that video made me feel proud. Although these people are not in India, the kid still knows so much.“
Whatever is Nithin’s decision on which language he will continue speaking with the child, I am confident that his family can make his child’s eyes shine of interest towards the rich heritage of both the father’s and the mother’s culture. And if both parents support each other’s language development and discuss openly the concerns they have, language learning is bound to be much easier.
In Finland, there are currently more than 7500 families where the partners come from different countries, but where neither of the partners is originally from Finland.
When a parent has grown up with many languages or when a later acquired language plays an important role in the parent’s life, choosing what language to communicate in can be quite difficult.
A parent also has to consider in which language the relatives can speak with the child so they wouldn’t get cut off from his or hers life.
Knowing about different cultures and having wider cultural experiences certainly make children more open-minded towards difference and diversity and encourages cross-cultural awareness.
Intercultural families living outside of their home countries: choosing which languages to speak with the child
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