When I married my Indonesian wife back in 1996, I never gave much thought to the fact that she didn’t speak English as her mother tongue. Her grasp of the English language is actually very good, and her vocabulary is as rich as many native English speakers. Only her slight Asian accent and some grammatical idiosyncrasies reveal that she was born some distance away from our shores.
But a few years later in 1999, when our daughter was born, it occurred to me that my wife would want our daughter to speak Indonesian as well as English. Although I was more than pleased that my daughter would also acquire her mother’s culture heritage by learning her mother’s mother tongue, I was also worried that my young daughter might get confused in learning two languages simultaneously and that she would subsequently not speak English as well as other kids.
Fortunately, my fears were largely unfounded. The fact is that many children throughout the world grow up in a multilingual environment and do not suffer for it. In Europe, Asia and Africa, there are many children who become bilingual and some even go on to learn three or more languages. In fact, for many children, their ability to speak two or more languages fluently may in later years work to their benefit, especially if they want the option of living in either of their parent’s countries.
If you are raising kids in a multilingual environment, you should be aware that the process of learning two languages is not the same as learning a single language. Up to the age of two or three, the child in a multilingual environment will build up a single list of words just like a monolingual child, although the list will contain words from both languages. This is not really surprising – how is the young child to know that certain words are from the English language, while others are from another language?
However, you may face some problems if you are unable to speak your spouse’s native language, as your child will use words from both languages when learning to speak to you. Basically, you cannot expect your very young child to speak to you only in your mother tongue and to your spouse in only his or her mother tongue. For this reason, it may be a good idea to learn your spouse’s native language if you can’t speak it already so that you will be able to understand everything that your young child says to you!
Although young bilingual children use words from both languages in a single sentence (for example, my child might have once said moon besar (‘a big moon’), the amount of vocabulary mixing rapidly declines the older the child gets. By the end of the third year, the child is largely able to distinguish between the two languages, and will then speak the mother’s mother tongue when speaking to the mother and the father’s mother tongue when speaking to the father.
Many linguists suggest that the best way to bring up a child in a multilingual environment is with each spouse speaking to the child in his/her mother tongue. This should create a balanced learning environment in which the child will identify each parent with a particular language.
If you are the breadwinner of the family, with your spouse bringing up your child at home, you may be worried that your child will not speak your mother tongue as well as your spouse’s mother tongue. But in fact, there is no need for concern. Even if you are with your child much less than your spouse is, most bilingual children will actually reach the same level of proficiency in both languages as their monolingual counterparts do by the age of four or five. Remember that it is not just the amount of time that you spend with your child but also the quality of that time spent. Make sure to set aside some time every day to be with child, and that you use this time effectively, through activities such as reading and playing.
And most importantly, don’t stress out your child. It is not necessary to develop some sort of elaborate language acquisition policy. Setting up rules that the child will be exposed to the two languages on different days of the week, for example, as some parents have tried, will only result in tension. Other no-nos are forbidding school friends from visiting or restricting the viewing of television programs in an attempt to maintain the use of your mother tongue.
In short, parents have no reason to be concerned if they are bringing up their children in a multilingual environment as long as they treat their kids in a normal manner and do not stress them out by imposing an elaborate language acquisition policy. Above all, have fun. Learning languages may be difficult for us adults, but young children usually take to them like ducks take to water!