For my husband and I, the idea of understanding our multilingual children falls into two categories...do our boys understand the multilingual world that surrounds them and how as parents can we understand their needs as multilingual children? Just over three years ago we moved from the UK to France. Our home life is exclusively English and our two boys get their French language education purely from what they hear at school. Their progress has been quick and it never ceases to amaze me their seamless slip into their second language.
The school holidays have just come to an end and every morning for two weeks Reuben, aged 7, had swimming lessons for the first time. On the first day I suddenly had a thought in the car...would he understand everything the instructor asked him to do? Vocabulary is a huge topic as unless they are exposed to words or specifically taught them (in both languages) how else do they learn them? I was hit by the worry that he may not understand 'swimming' vocabulary in French and hated the thought of him not understanding instructions alongside his peers who would understand everything. When I put the question to him he replied that if the words were easy it would be ok, but there might be some things he wouldn't understand. He didn't seem bothered by this prospect and in hindsight I realised my worry was a bit silly. At school they have had to learn how to deal with not fully understanding everything from day one and to date this has never hindered their learning (they've both had glowing reports!) or held him back in any way. As an adult we may be afriad to surround ourselves with a language we do not know, but not understanding everything is not necessarily a fear that our children may have and it's important that we recognise that.
As parents of multilingual children we understand that our boys may have difficulties at times speaking their two languages. We often cringe at some of the English words and phrases that come out of their mouths and hasten to correct them, but we recognise that this may be a common feature for kids exposed to and using two languages at once. We are constantly explaining the meaning of unknown English words that pop up in books, television, or in conversation, and we help translate French words into English when they struggle to find their meaning.
How do we help and understand our multilingual children?
We listen to the English language that they use, gently setting them straight when the vocabulary is not quite right or words are not placed in the correct order. Although we don't want to be doing this constantly we recognise the importance of doing this to help them progress and continue learning in their mother tongue.
We talk! As they are only exposed to English at home it's important that we talk...lots!..over dinner, with books, to family over the phone. The more vocabulary they hear in both languages the more their language will develop.
We encourage and lead by example. We show them that although our French is far from perfect my husband and I try and learn from the friends we have made and the people we talk to everyday. We encourage them to use their French outside the comfort of the school environment.
We support them, with their French at school for example. We help them with their homework when we can, which in turn aids our own understanding of the language.
Do you have tips on understanding multilingual children? If you do we'd love to hear them. Also, if you have the time do take a look at some of the other posts from the series. There is lots of good advice and stories from families raising multilingual children around the world. You can find all the posts here.