Bilingual parents are not uncommon among the families we work with in our multilingual education webinars. To be honest, this surprised me at first. As I grew up monolingual, I thought that if anyone was going to struggle with the task of educating their children in different languages, it would be those of us who grew up with only one mother tongue.
In one of my first consultations, a mother living in Germany asked me for advice on how to support her young trilingual son’s language development. Her main concern was whether the three languages would be too much for a young child. To reassure her, I tried to briefly explain some arguments that I thought might be especially relevant to her. I don’t remember exactly what I was saying to her when she interrupted me with “Yes, I already know that, because I am bilingual myself.” I was surprised to hear this, because I really didn’t expect anyone who had successfully learned two languages as a child to be worried about their child having to deal with one more.
Since then, I have worked with numerous families in this situation, and I see what may be behind these questions in a much more nuanced way. Recently, when a trilingual mother signed up for my course to prepare herself for the education of her daughter who would have to learn four languages, I already sensed what could be at the root of her concerns and this was confirmed during the sessions.
These doubts in bilingual or multilingual parents are not simply due to the difference in the number of languages they speak, as we might think at first glance. In such cases, I usually start by inquiring about the parent’s relationship with their own language learning process. Sometimes, their positive personal experiences are linked to a specific educational method, and now when they themselves are not able to accurately reconstruct it in their own families, insecurity can arise. For example, if a parent remembers that her mother was at home with her and attributes success to that single factor, but she works, she does not see that her child has the same potential for language learning since she is overly focused on the time factor.
The same thing happens if her child needs to learn languages other than her own, or, for example, if the country where she currently lives has a different educational system to the one she had herself. I could go on.
What is often forgotten is that there are many ways to raise multilingual children. Fortunately, there are many more factors behind successful language learning than time, and multiple educational methods can be effective.
At other times, parents’ negative experiences get in the way of being able to confidently follow and support the language learning development of their multilingual children.
There are parents who have had a negative experience because, for example, they were harassed for using one of their languages, or because they have not been able to learn one language or another despite their bilingual origins. (The latter is not an issue for everyone). Moreover, they may have experienced the loss of a language, and if they have not yet healed from this, it is especially important that they learn to avoid showing or causing a negative attitude towards any of their children’s languages.
Sometimes the birth of children can activate these memories. In this case, it is best to resolve any negative feelings towards speaking different languages as quickly as possible. In my webinars we often witness cathartic moments when, because of the issues we work on, one of the participants becomes aware of their own self-limiting behaviour which may be the result of a traumatic experience or series of experiences.
However, there may be another reason why bilingual parents seek consultation: having extensive experience of how to lose a language. As monolinguals, we start to pay attention to this when it becomes interesting due to the multilingualism of our own child. However, multilingual parents will almost certainly have witnessed several negative examples long ago.
What is invaluable in the webinars is the experience participants share with the group. These shared stories, together with the discussion of the factors of language learning, of the principles of speech and of real and unrealistic expectations that take place during the four weeks of the webinar further reinforce in the participants the certainty which different paths can lead towards success.