Does being bicultural automatically mean being bilingual? Real life experiences of grown-up bicultural children
Bringing up a child to be bilingual is one of the most common concerns among intercultural families and parents. One persistent myth related to bilingualism is that children grown up in bicultural environments will automatically become also bilingual. Instead, raising bilingual children is a choice that requires careful planning and effort from the parents. Parents can never know what the future brings with it but supporting a child´s bilingualism helps in keeping different options open for them.
We do not have the skills to see the future but what we do have is the ability to learn from other’s experiences. This can be a valuable source of information to other parents and families dealing with the same concerns. To learn more about becoming bilingual, I set out to talk with Christian, Laura and Sandra who all have grown up in intercultural families with parents having different native languages. They were all happy to share their stories about dealing with the choices and challenges that different situations and environments set for bringing up bilingual children.
Christian was born to a Finnish mother and a Norwegian father, who in his youth lived in Canada with his Norwegian parents, but moved to Norway when he turned 22-years old. Christian was born in Norway where he also lived in his preschool years. He went to a kindergarten in Norway, but moved to Finland with his parents when he was just 5-years old. At that age, he spoke only in Norwegian although he could understand also Finnish and English. Currently, Christian speaks English and Finnish perfectly and can understand some Norwegian.
Laura’s mother is German and father Finnish, but both of them have lived a large part of their lives in Canada where they met, and raised their family. There was a period in her childhood, when Laura went once a week both to a Finnish and German school where she was taught her parents languages. Now, at her early twenties, Laura speaks only English.
Similarly to Laura, Sandra comes from a Finnish-German family, yet with the mother being Finnish and father German. Her Finnish mother studied German and moved to Germany to do an internship during which time she met Sandra’s father. They decided to build their common home in Germany and that’s where Sandra grew up. The language mostly used at their home was German. Nowadays Sandra considers German as her mother tongue, but she can also understand some Finnish.
Changing the language setting
After moving to Finland Christian struggled with Finnish language as living in Norway his parents had spoken mainly in Norwegian and English. Coming from an environment where Finnish was the minority language to an environment where Finnish was suddenly the majority language brought challenges when meeting other children.
“Finnish was hard for me at first. It was hard for me to get friends. I started playing with my neighborhood kids, and I could get along, but it was hard for me because I didn’t know the language that well yet so I spent most of my days at home.”
But Christian’s parents had chosen potentially the best age to move a child abroad – before starting school. Being very young at the time of the move, he adapted to the new language very quickly and spoke Finnish perfectly in less than a year. Yet, his Norwegian skills started to change as the family changed its language practices. The communication at home switched now to mostly English and there was so little communication in Norwegian both at home and outside of it that his former skills declined.
“I think it was some time in elementary school that we didn’t speak Norwegian at home anymore, or sometimes they did spoke Norwegian a bit, but I started answering back in English and English became the dominant language at home. I went to school, I spoke Finnish with my friends, I came back home and spoke English with my parents.”
Moreover, Christian rarely saw any of his Norwegian family and when he did see his grandparents, he could speak English with them:
“They could speak Norwegian back to me and they did this. They spoke Norwegian together, they spoke Norwegian to me, but I always answered in English after I turned 7 or 8.”
English was now the dominant language of their family, although when alone with his mother, they spoke in Finnish.
From ‘less and less’ to speaking only the majority language
Although having used Finnish in her communication with her mother before and attending Finnish school once a week, Sandra refused to speak to her mother in her native language at the age of 5. She knew that her mother can also fully speak and understand German, and therefore she understood that she actually doesn’t need to speak Finnish. Without having equal exposure to both Finnish and German it happened that German became more important in Sandra’s life.
“My mother taught Finnish to me when I was a kid but when I was about 5-years old I refused to answer in Finnish, so I have forgotten a lot. Sometimes she still tried but it got less and less.”
Teaching but not living the language
Laura’s parents didn’t speak their own native languages at home but instead they turned to language schools to supplement Laura’s German and Finnish language exposure and to teach her more about both of the cultures. Yet, the hours spent there were not enough to hear and use the languages in a regular basis. Due to her parents speaking primarily English at home, similarly to Sandra, she didn’t have the real need to talk in German nor Finnish. Also outside of the home, there wasn’t a rich enough environment to support her language learning.
Is bilingualism really a bridge to the parents’ culture?
After many years Laura started studying German again in her university in Canada. She states that ‘it was kind of like re-teaching herself which was nice.’ She is currently living and studying in Finland where she has started taking Finnish courses but she hopes to be able to go live also in Germany to show her mother that ‘she is also German’. Also Sandra’s life has brought her to her mother’s country of birth Finland but her weak Finnish skills have brought her some challenges:
“It would be a lot easier for me now. For example when I meet my Finnish relatives they only speak in Finnish to me, so knowing Finnish would be very helpful. When I am visiting them alone, it can be quite sad when we don’t understand each other.”
This shows that although there is a close link between language and culture, a person doesn’t need to know the language fully to embrace his or hers cultural backgrounds. Both Sandra and Laura feel related to their parents’ countries of origin and have taken the leap to go live there now when being grown-ups.
Parents can never know what future brings with it but it is best to help keep options open for the children. As can be seen, teaching the child both parents’ native languages is important already for the reason that in this way the children can communicate with the rest of the family.
What can intercultural parents learn from all of this?
Christian, Laura and Sandra all come from different circumstances, yet what unites them is that language learning was not their parent’s conscious decision. Bilingualism often does not come automatically unless parents really think through which languages will be used and how, and make efforts to use these particular approaches. Raising bilingual children is a choice and even though Laura and Sandra are not bilingual themselves, they believe in children’s ability to successfully learn their parent’s languages. With hindsight, all interviewees support the more active use of both parents’ languages.
Teaching your children your languages will not be without its challenges but it is important to keep in mind that you are actually not “teaching” your child, not more than teaching them to walk. Still, it is a very common misunderstanding that children will just ‘pick up a language’; but instead, it requires effort from the parents.
Some of the things you should do are to decide as early as possible on what your goals for your child’s language learning are, offer your child enough exposure to the language and stick with the choice of languages. Also, you cannot expect your child to become proficient overnight like you cannot expect your child to become a violinist just with one day.
Tips from the interviewees to intercultural parents
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