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
A cultural identity is about the feeling of belonging to a particular cultural group or community. To achieve a positive cultural identity the child needs to feel comfortable within one’s culture and language. However, growing up with more than one cultural background can be confusing and it might be difficult for intercultural children to find a place where they feel they belong to. It is possible to feel at home in more than a single culture but for understanding oneself and appreciating one’s background, one must have knowledge of the parents’ cultures. The certainty of knowing their heritage helps children in multiple ways.
It was psychologist Erik Erikson who wrote in 1968 that a person’s identity development works through the interaction with others. The first influencing people are parents who are followed later in life by other members of the community and society. As the first closer point of interaction, parents play an important role in supporting the child’s healthy sense of self. By sending positive messages of one’s cultural background parents can help the child develop a positive and strong identity.
Teaching the child both parents’ languages is a useful way to immerse children within both cultures. Communicating with your children in both of the parents’ mother tongues supports the children to become bilingual but although language has been seen as a gateway to culture, supporting the child's cultural identity works also through other aspects than language. To help children understand where they come from, parents should also tell the children about their heritage which may or may not be done in both parents’ native languages.
Supporting the child’s identity can be as simple as telling about one’s cultural history, traditions and customs. For example, parents could teach their children about their culture’s cuisine, religion or important events. Also, staying connected with the relatives is a great way for the child to understand more about one’s background as they most likely have a lot of stories to tell. Often grandparents are more aware about cultural habits and beliefs which make them a valuable source of information. Children love to hear stories and sharing stories and experiences of both parents’ cultures helps children to achieve a positive cultural identity as they do not learn only about their family but also more about themselves.
For the child’s well-being it is important that the parents view their culture in a positive light. For example, parents could think what cultural traditions made them happy when they were children or what do they value the most about their own culture at the given moment. If these questions seem hard to answer, one could study one’s own, and also the other parent’s culture together, by such activities as going to an ethnic restaurant, learning about culture through movies, attending cultural events, or listening to traditional music. Besides exposing the children to your culture, familiarizing with the partner’s culture will also help to prevent misunderstandings.
In any case, studying both cultures through practical activities such as visiting your home country, watching movies in the native language or teaching children about the games you used to play or songs you used to sing as a child, is likely to be a fun way for the family to spend time together. Whatever the child’s age, if the child is asking about traditional food or language it is only an advantage to share your knowledge with them.
By having knowledge of their heritage, intercultural children become more able to assess which aspects of their cultural backgrounds they want to embrace as part of their own identity. Although parents might have ideas about how they would want the child to balance the two cultures, it is important to let the child absorb the parts of the culture that for him or her seem the dearest. Appreciating their cultural background helps the children to support their self-esteem and mental well-being. When a child has a positive cultural identity, he also has a more positive view on life.
As the parents teach the child about their culture they can help in securing the transition of cultural knowledge from generation to generation. This way parents can offer the child a more enriched life which will make the child appreciate different cultures and develop positive attitudes towards cultural differences. As a parent, you can help to contribute towards a society which embraces cultural diversity.
Question: What do you do to introduce your culture to your child?
Parenting practices and taking care of children: Cultural differences? (Duo's online lecture 29.4.2014)
(This online lecture was not recorded, but you can read the summary of the lecture here and download the lecture handouts.)
Although psychological research aims to understand the preconditions for healthy child development much of our knowledge about parenting and child development come from industrialized middle-class contexts in Western countries. Research thus ignores the “Majority world’s” children who live outside these specific minority societies. However, parenting and infant development are always embedded in the cultural and physical environment where families live in and affected by the families’ living conditions. Therefore the bias in research greatly limits our knowledge about what is “normal child development or “good parenting” worldwide.
Even though parenting practices vary across different cultures and times, parents all over the world want what they think is best for their children. The parental concepts and ideas, conscious and unconscious, are connected to wider cultural values and sociopolitical factors. Therefore differences in parenting practices are not random but have their own internal logic and meaning.
Parental values and ideas are also connected to the way parents take care of their children and to the way they interact with them. For example, the importance of interpersonal relationships (i.e., getting along with others and being a respected member of the group), is related to the characteristics parents want their children to develop (i.e., learning to take care of others) and therefore to parenting practices (i.e., parents teach the child to control own his/her own emotions and to share with others).
The specific parenting practices also affect child development. Accordingly, cross-cultural studies show important variation in the way children acquire motor, emotional, and cognitive skills that stem from successful adaption into different sociocultural contexts. In two-culture and in immigrant families children’s adaptation to the host culture may sometimes cause surprises and raise questions, as the children may behave in a way the parents do not consider appropriate or good.
We all have thoughts and behavioral models that are affected by the environment(s) in which we grew up and live, and there is no one right way to raise children. In two-culture families parents should first and foremost be aware of their own parenting beliefs and values before taking an interest in the partner’s views. Finally, in all families parenting is affected by many other factors than just cultural background. For example, parents’ personalities, formal education, past experiences, and current life situation always play a central role in parenting practices.
Delivering your baby in a different culture than where you were raised will require for you to think childbirth in a deeper way. Childbirth practices are different around the world and even in Europe there are great differences. You probably have something in mind for your labor and delivery, but that can be quite different from the Finnish way. Our background and unfortunately media, has a great impact on that.
When you deliver your baby in Finland you might face some issues that are maybe conflicting with your own image of birth. You need to find out the history and reasoning behind both of them and decide which one is closest to your way. In Finland we have great government supported maternity care system and delivering your baby in Finland is one of the safest in the world. This does not mean that you need to fit into the system one way and forget your background and wishes.
I urge you to find out how the Finnish system works, compare it to your own experience and knowledge and find your way of laboring and delivering your baby.
In the online lecture "Childbirth in Finland" you can find information on how the Finnish system works. Educate yourself also on how birth unfolds, how your body is designed to labor and you can totally do it! Find out how you can be an active participant as well as on medications and interventions. This way you are well prepared for the greatest experience you will have, the way you would like to have it.
(Marjaana Siivola, Childbirth Educator and Doula)
After hearing these kinds of concerns from more than a few of my friends, and having experienced some similar issues with my son, I started to reflect more deeply on what the cause of such problems might be, and to discuss it with both my Finnish and foreigner friends. Although any problem usually has many roots, causes and facets, I noticed the words most repeated in our conversations were these: Independence and Freedom.
Independence - Is it always a positive thing?
In Finland we promote and encourage the independence and individuality of children and youth. "He is very independent!", one mother says of her son. She says it with pride.
Of course, no one will argue the fact that independence has very many good and important points. It encourages development of the personality. It teaches practical skills. It builds self-confidence and self-esteem. And, let's face it - it makes life a lot easier for the parents, especially if both are working outside of the home. But is independence in a child always a good thing? Often when I have asked this question, it has been waved away with a, "Oh, but they can do this very well, it's not difficult for them!" But, if a child is able to do something independently, does that automatically make it good for them?
"I used to walk with my three-year-old son in the forest, and young school age boys would ask if they could come with us, or they would just follow us, and chat with us as we went along. I understood from these situations that their parents were not yet home from work, and that the children were home alone after school. I understood that these children were feeling lonely."
Antti has a smartphone, why can't I have one?
It is common habit for young people to compare their own situations with their peers. They question why they cannot do certain activities, or have certain things, as their friends do. With regards to permissiveness, there can oftentimes be a stark contrast between Finnish and other cultures. This can be difficult for parents of intercultural families.
To adapt, or not to adapt? To compromise or to stand firm?
While we don't wish to isolate our children from the others, at the same time we sometimes just cannot reconcile ourselves to allowing something we feel goes against our values and what we believe to be good parenting. One has to make such decisions nearly every day.
The issues may range from simple to quite complicated:
One couple wish to teach their child respect for elders, and they feel it very strange to hear the children address their parents and teachers by their first names.
Another mother is reluctant to let her 6-year-old boy play in the neighborhood out of sight, where the other kids are allowed to play, and often after dark. The mother is faced with a difficult choice. In her culture the smaller children are always in the company of an adult. Not only for safety, but for the purpose of guidance, and to nurture their sense of security.
Some parents don't react if their children talk back at them. Others don't allow it at all.
Some families are very strict, and keep a consistent discipline of behaviour. Others give more space and freedom, allowing the children to do almost anything they want.
While there is value in the encouragement of independence and the freedom which children are given in Finnish culture, it may have another side which is not conducive to the development of a healthy personality. Also, when independence crosses the line of balance, it may also encourage the child to go against the parents, teachers and other adults.
When Carlos first came to Finland he was shocked at some of the things he witnessed, such as seeing young children playing at the Central Railway Station by themselves, and pre-teens smoking and drinking. He feels that there are many parents who are not monitoring what their children are doing, and that this is one of the negative outcomes of too much emphasis on independence of children. "There are two extremes," he explains, "In Peru, we tend to have too much authority, too much protection. Here in Finland, for parents and teachers, it is often difficult to get children to do what they're told, and there is no respect."
There is nothing wrong with authority. It helps to set limitations of freedom in a good way. We can use freedom to live a good, healthy and happy life, but we can also use freedom to destroy ourselves. To be guided and taught by those who are older and more experienced can help us to grow into balanced and mature individuals.
Carlos believes that in a culture that makes children individualistic, these children may not have the opportunity to develop collective values of solidarity, nor a strong sense of civil behaviour, respect, compassion and concern for others.
Social consciousness on the human level
We have one of the best models of a country in the world with regards to social welfare. But in the areas of social consciousness on the human level, is there something that can be improved?
We find the most empty seat on the bus away from others, and when someone sits opposite us, we studiously avoid eye contact.
An obviously pregnant woman stands in a full metro. No one offers their seat.
A mother struggles to get a pram up the steps of a tram by herself. Most of us just look, and maybe then look away. Now on the bus, the baby starts to cry. A teen sitting nearby complains under their breath, "Can you switch it off?"
"It is different where I come from," Carlos says, "in my country the teenagers will talk with a pregnant lady, very sweetly, smiling, asking when the little one to be born. Here, my Finnish wife, who was pregnant at the time, had the experience that she very kindly asked some teenagers to not use bad language, as there were small children around. They began to attack her verbally, calling her ugly."
Carlos wonders how he can pass on to his son the good values he was taught, in a culture that at times promotes the opposite. He believes such values to be not only a necessary part of a truly healthy and happy individual, but also essential in becoming a good member of the society. He tries to be optimistic, and makes a few suggestions to other parents sharing a similar situation, "Keep trying to pass on the values. If possible, keep contact with your country by traveling there periodically with your child. Give access to both cultures and compare them in a positive way. Show appreciation of both cultures and try to imbibe and cultivate what is good in both, connecting it with multiculturalism."
Things are almost never black and white. It is difficult to say what would be the solution in trying to preserve the best of both cultures in the children of an intercultural family. Perhaps it could be helpful for parents to sit down together and discuss what each feels are important values from their culture, and how these can be incorporated into the upbringing of their child.
We are having a baby - A guidebook for expectant parents
(by the National Institute for Health and Welfare)
Pregnancy, childbirth, parenting and the life after baby has arrived are very common concerns to all expectant parents. This is especially the case in the families where both or one of the parents come from different culture compared to the country where the child is born. The common questions families might have include for example:
“We are having a baby” A guidebook for expectant parents by THL (National Institute for Health and Welfare) answers to the questions mentioned above and gives a lot of valuable information for families expecting a child in Finland.
When we think about differences, cultural differences in particular, we often think about problem. However, a difference, cultural or otherwise, does not equal a problem. Instead, some differences have no effect at all (you like classical music and your partner likes jazz, where's the problem in that?) and some differences can lead to a new solution, a new way of doing, seeing and experiencing things. Learning about differences, and experiencing them at first hand, gives us all a chance to see things from another perspective. That new perspective is often a source of joy.
There are some differences, however, that need to be acknowledged, identified, accepted and acted upon so that they would not cause arguments that stem from misunderstanding and different expectations.
Helka Silventoinen talked about these issues, the joy and blight of being different in her online lecture for Duo on 4 February 2014. The lecture was recorded and you can watch it here.
Elite Migration, Transnational Families, and the Nation State: International Marriages between Finns and Americans across the Atlantic in the Twentieth Century
(a dissertation by Johanna Leinonen)
My dissertation explores transatlantic migration in the context of international marriages in the twentieth century, using marriages between Finns and Americans in Finland and the U.S. as a case study. The first part of my dissertation documents and explains changes in migration and marriage patterns between Finland and the U.S. over the course of the 20th century. My research shows that among Finns in the U.S. and Americans in Finland, international marriages have become extremely common. In fact, in both migrant populations marriage and migration are often inextricably intertwined: the main explanation for the high number of international marriages can be found in the mobile lifestyles of students, professionals, and young people traveling. The occurrence of these marriages is thus related to the elite position of Finnish and American migrants today: with their EU and U.S. passports, and relatively privileged socioeconomic and racial status, they can move around the world with relative ease. At the same time, the impact of law cannot be dismissed even in the case of these elite migrants: it provides the framework in which these marriages are contracted.
In the second part of my dissertation, I challenge ―methodological individualism‖ (the idea that elite migrants are male professionals who are not bound by familial relationships) by revealing the very important roles that marriage and family play in the migration decisions of elite migrants. I also examine how Finnish migrants in the U.S. and American migrants in Finland negotiate their identities and transnational family life in international marriages. My research shows that during important life-changes, such as when a migrant has a child, transnational engagements often intensify. At the same time, these significant events may also make the migrant feel more attached to the host country. Thus, I found that a migrant‘s simultaneous engagement in the country of origin and the country of residence highlights the weakness of treating integration and transnationalism as if they were dichotomous categories. My study also contributes to literature that challenges the traditional idea of migration as a unidirectional movement from one place to another initiated by a single motive – work or family. I show that in reality, multiple motives and multidirectional movements are often involved.
Finally, I explore how these elite migrants have been incorporated into immigration discourses in Finland and the U.S. Both countries imagine themselves as exceptional but in very different ways. Finland, it is often argued, is an exceptionally homogeneous nation with no experience in dealing with immigration. Meanwhile, the U.S. portrays itself as a ―nation of immigrants.‖ I found that the differing discourses surrounding immigration and the distinctive meanings attached to the term ―immigrant‖ in Finland and the U.S. were crucial determinants of the way Finns and Americans understood their place in the receiving nation. My research also challenges the common assumption that elite migrants automatically enjoy an ―elite status‖ and can choose the extent to which they integrate in the receiving society. In fact, my research highlights that many migrants experienced a loss of occupational status when moving to the new country, especially in the case of Americans who moved to Finland.
Research: Intercultural marriages and consideration of divorce in Finland: Do value differences matter?
Intercultural marriages and consideration of divorce in Finland: Do value differences matter?
(Lassi Lainiala and Minna Säävälä)
Divorce is well known to be more common among intercultural couples compared to couples in which both spouses come from the same cultural background. In this working paper, we examine considerations of divorce among Finnish spouses in intercultural marriages in Finland, particularly from the perspective of value dissimilarity.
We employ descriptive and multivariate analyses of a representative postal survey among women and men in an intercultural marriage in Finland in 2012. Respondents were Finnish, Swedish and Sami speaking men and women who are married to a foreign language speaking spouse, and foreign language speaking men and women who are married to a spouse who is Finnish, Swedish or Sami speaker. Results are compared to similar data of monoculturally married women and men in Finland in 2008.
About 20 percent of interculturally married Finnish men and women have considered divorce during the previous year. Interculturally married men more frequently considered divorce than did men with a Finnish wife. Interculturally married Finnish women in turn have similar proportions of divorce considerations as monoculturally married women.
However, the country of origin of a foreign-born husband is related to the tendency of a Finnish wives to consider divorce. Finnish women married to a husband from a less developed country tend to have thoughts of divorce more than others: 40 percent of them reported considering divorce during the previous year.
(Lassi Lainiala and Minna Säävälä)
Duo Project's guide booklet "Love and Parenthood in an Intercultural Family" is intended for all intercultural families that are planning to have a child, expecting a baby or that already have small children. Professionals (such as nurses, kindergarten teachers and school teachers) can also benefit from the booklet. The booklet contains basic information about a couple’s relationship, parenthood, child’s identity and bilingualism.
The booklet also contains extracts from the stories of parents and grown-up children of intercultural families. The questions at the end of each section can be contemplated alone or as a couple whenever there is time for it.
The booklet is available in English, Finnish, Spanish, French, Russian and Thai. You can order the booklets or download a copy for free. The order form and the online versions of the booklets (PDF) can be found below.
The Library section includes articles, reports, research material and guides.
For articles and other material in Finnish, please visit the Duo Kirjasto.