Encouragement and motivation are good for everyone. But why are they so important for children who grow up in a multilingual environment? Firstly, because learning a language is not an overnight process, even if you start early. Secondly, because multilingual children are surrounded by many monolingual people who speak their dominant language with great confidence and don’t remember ever having made language mistakes. It’s likely that multilingual children will have to face the fact that they may make minor or major mistakes, whether in speaking or writing, or may not be able to express themselves in as varied and colourful a way as the monolinguals around them.
Sometimes parents are also on the lookout to see how well their children use their language in a way that is appropriate for their age, and at school they have to pass a strict screening process to be accepted as native speakers. The less insight parents or teachers have into a child’s other languages, the more they are convinced that the child should know the other language or languages better and the child may therefore be under greater pressure to do so.
With several languages, it’s only natural that mistakes will slip in, and this can be even more pronounced in written language. If mistakes are not seen as a tool for a child’s learning, but are used as a way of saying “of course, with too many languages you’ll end up not knowing any of them properly”, this can be a serious blow to their confidence. This will be a further barrier to effective learning.
But how do we get out of such a vicious cycle, or: how do we help our multilingual children effectively? With the right encouragement and motivation. Because there is also inappropriate encouragement. For example, blackmail or intimidation, which may show results for a while, but the child’s self-confidence suffers.
Of course, there are also milder forms of these, such as a situation that an engineering graduate mother told me about the other day. She said she had always been a good student, but when she took home her report cards her parents had responded to her straight A’s by saying, ‘I expected nothing less from you’. It’s a sentence that suggests, for example, that they trusted her, but she wouldn’t remember it to this day if it hadn’t been for the feeling of incompleteness that came from not having a word of praise about all the work that went into her grades.
There is a harsher version of this, where children are told “I don’t think you can do this”. Presumably in the hope that the child’s self-esteem will kick in and they will do it “just to prove they can”. However, frequent use of this method may also lead to the child resignedly accepting that he or she really can’t do it and not even trying. Especially if it is sometimes proven that the defiant attempt has not been as successful as expected.
Encouragement or motivation is not just a way of praising the child for his or her skill, for how much he or she already knows, or for how nicely, quickly and cleverly he or she has done something, although these are essential. Sometimes it is enough just to raise an eyebrow or make a gesture to show our appreciation.
At other times, helping them with a task also acts as encouragement, by explaining small ways of solving a problem, or by, for example, looking up something in the dictionary or in the previous pages of their book.
If we give our attention to the object of their worry, they will feel that it is worth putting more effort into and will be happy to do it. Learning in a good atmosphere is always more effective. And undiminished self-confidence can work wonders.