Commentary: Raising bilingual children is challenging but immensely rewarding
Keeping children motivated in speaking their mother tongue is often the most significant challenge to raising bilingual children, but persistence is key, says NUS’ Leher Singh.
SINGAPORE: Parents in Singapore often report significant stress when raising children to speak their mother tongue.
In spite of their best efforts, even at a very young age, children can simply refuse to speak in the mother tongue. This can cause family strain and even disharmony around bilingualism.
Even though parents value the ideals of bilingualism, in practice, raising multilingual children can be challenging.
READ: Commentary: In English-speaking Singapore, children face huge challenges in mastering mother tongue
This is not limited to Singapore. Annick de Houwer, a linguistics professor in Germany, has written extensively of “harmonious bilingualism”.
Noting parents might feel shame when their children resist speaking their mother tongue, or that children’s resistance towards the mother tongue can cause internal family conflict, Professor de Houwer is a strong and powerful advocate for cultivating positive attitudes towards bilingualism within the family.
But for many parents in Singapore, mother tongue learning has become the stuff of classrooms deeply intertwined with academic success. As a result, children too can associate the mother tongue primarily with homework, exams, and rote learning, causing stress.
GENUINELY HARD TO RAISE BILINGUAL CHILDREN
Raising bilingual children is genuinely hard. Unfortunately, it often becomes harder as children get older.
All over the world, there is evidence that children gravitate towards the language of their peers and larger community as they mature.
For many in Singapore, that language is English. As our children grow, they experience a strong desire to socially conform to their environment.
For example, children start speaking like their peers in terms of accent and colloquialism, shedding the home accent in favour of the accent used amongst their friends.
In a similar way, speaking the language that prevails in the larger community can become a powerful force. For many students, English is also the language of popular culture and entertainment choices, which gives it a great deal of social appeal.
Even children who have strong mother tongue proficiency in early childhood, after a few years of primary school in English, can become dominant users of English over the mother tongue.
Children’s views of their mother tongue can turn from positive to negative within a few short years. For this reason, igniting children’s motivation to speak their mother tongue can be a significant challenge.
CULTIVATING POSTIVITY AROUND MOTHER TONGUE
So, what can we do? First, we can introduce our children to environments where the use of the mother tongue is relevant and useful to children in their own eyes.
In my experience as a bilingualism researcher and as a parent of bilingual children, I have noticed that as adults, we often cite specific reasons for why we want our children to know their mother tongue that are important to us as parents.
We often think about how helpful their mother tongue will be in their adult lives, for their academic test scores and later success, and other real-world factors that don’t always appeal to children.
Instead, thinking about reasons that might resonate with a child may be more effective. What opportunities will children feel they will miss out on if they do not know their mother tongue? Are those opportunities of personal value to the child?
Studies have shown that children who see the language as relevant to their personal goals learn it more readily and with greater motivation than those for whom mother tongue use is limited to the classroom.
A special connection with a warm and caring mother tongue teacher, an affinity for songs or games associated with one’s culture and language, or a special bond with a grandparent who speaks the mother tongue can engage children in their heritage language.
It’s worth remembering that for each child, the touchpoint with the mother tongue is different. As with most things, young children’s preferences can be highly idiosyncratic.
Learning about what makes your own child tick with regards to the mother tongue and building off that connection with the language can help a child break through motivational barriers.
PERSISTENCE IS KEY
One of the most common complaints I hear from parents is that their child has stopped talking to them in the mother tongue and only wants to communicate in English.
READ: Commentary: Surviving home-based learning in the long haul may require parents to dial back on kiasuism
This is very common: Many children go through a phase where they resist or altogether refuse responding in the mother tongue, even if they can understand what is being said.
When faced with these challenges, it is easy to default back to English. But persistence is key.
Without creating negativity and tension, families should continue to speak in their mother tongue to children to provide continued exposure and gradually build children’s willingness to engage in conversation.
In general, children who speak (and not just understand) the mother tongue fare better with bilingualism than those who only understand. Parents should encourage and motivate children to use the mother tongue, all the while accepting that this may be a long and gradual process.
To help with mother tongue learning, bilingualism researchers have often argued for setting up individualised goals.
Is your main goal for your child to get a high PSLE score, for your child to eventually live in the country where the mother tongue is dominant, to keep contact with extended family, for your children to pass the language onto their children, or some combination of factors?
Recognising and acknowledging these goals can help families to direct their efforts and resources to the kind of bilingualism they aspire to. In thinking of ways to realise these goals, developing strategies to foster the child’s personal interest is very beneficial to mother tongue learning.
BUILDING A PERSONAL CONNECTION WITH MOTHER TONGUE
Finally, it can cause stress for some bilingual families when their children aspire to drop the mother tongue at the first opportunity – particularly if it has been a source of intense academic stress or if the child feels disinclined towards learning additional languages.
I often poll my students on their relationship with their mother tongue. Those for whom the mother tongue serves as a social or family connector often express more fondness and motivation for the mother tongue than those whose mother tongue experience has been purely academic.
Building a personal connection with the mother tongue, outside of the classroom, can go a long way towards encouraging its use.
Even for parents whose children have dropped the mother tongue, they can take some comfort in research that suggests children who learnt a second language earlier in life find it easier to pick it back up as adults, even when they have little or no memory of it. Languages encountered early in life hold a special and dedicated place in our mind and aren’t easy to erase.
There is no doubt that raising multilingual children can be challenging for many families. It is most certainly a marathon, not a sprint.
But the rewards can be immense. Knowing our mother tongue can bring great joy and fulfillment, as well as valuable connections to our extended family, personal history, and culture.
Leher Singh is Associate Professor and Director of Research at the Department of Psychology, Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, National University of Singapore.