When they start their own families, our multilingual children will face this situation and some parents have already turned to me for help in this matter. For example, I spoke to a German mother of Turkish origin and a bilingual Basque-English mother. They did not have it easy, living in Barcelona, but they both managed to find a school which used one of their languages so that their children could also have support from their educational institutions. However, the challenge was greater for a Hungarian-speaking mother from Slovakia who wanted to transfer both her languages to her children in Barcelona, since there is no school here that teaches either of her languages.
Multilinguals do not show the same emotional connection with all their languages and even if they speak several languages excellently, their vocabulary does not generally coincide completely in all their languages. There are activities whose terminology they know best in one language, or speaking to children may work better in one language than another. The German-Turkish mother, for example, chose to speak with her baby son in Turkish, and shortly before kindergarten she began to introduce German to facilitate his integration. It was important for me to make her see that later she would need to give him support in Turkish to balance the input.
The Basque-English mother told me that in their family conversations they are used to mixing both languages, and it is difficult for them to concentrate enough to prevent themselves from using words or expressions in the language they are not speaking. This is very common, especially in bilingual communities where the status of both languages is similar. Obviously, this behaviour is not helpful for the children’s language learning, but if there is support from the school, in class children will work on separating the two languages. Children will face less discrimination if language switching is a general characteristic of an entire region than if it happens with a small group of children, or a single student in the class.
However, even if a parent does not find a school using any of their or their partner’s languages, they should not give up – both parents will not be able to share the task of teaching multiple languages between them. At first, if possible, it is useful to hire a caregiver who speaks one of the languages to play with your child regularly for a few hours a week.
Parents can also introduce a doll or a stuffed animal into this family adventure. The important thing is that the bear, for example, does not understand more than one of the languages the child speaks. You can sing to him, pretend to talk to him, while he accompanies you for everyday moments – sitting at the dining room table or sleeping in his crib in the child’s room. We can put a movie on for the bear in his language, suggesting that the child keeps him company. Don´t forget that children pay attention to everything and understand much more than they can express verbally.
It is true that talkative bilingual parents have an advantage in transferring languages, as they can speak mostly without effort. Introverted parents should find topics or activities that encourage them to express themselves. Although in a multilingual family the time spent using one language is limited, with perseverance and awareness it is possible to achieve good results in every language.