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The increasingly frequent phenomenon of the multilingual child

How do multilingual children come to be? There seem to be two main possibilities: either they’re born in a country with more than one official language, or they’re exposed to more than language through -most probably- their parents, whose mother tongue is not the language of the country where their children are growing up.

But, why are there increasing numbers of multilingual children? Easy! Increasing numbers of expats, of course. The global expat population is increasing both with respect to the immigrant population and the total worldwide population, according to Finaccord.

If there are two expats, there’s fire

During my PhD studies in Switzerland, I met [literally] dozens of expat couples. We had lots of combinations, although I must say that same country expat couples were predominant. There were great German-German, French-French, Polish-Polish, Italian-Italian and a few mixed ones here and there. Truly beautiful combinations such as Israeli-English, Romanian-German, Chilean-Belgian, Swiss-Greek, Swiss/Czech-Italian and Argentinean-Italian (wink).

They are all married and most of them ended up having at least a child. So, you see, it’s not rocket science. Where there are two expats, there will be fire. And multilingual children will be born.

What language do the kids speak?

When locals, or even same country expat parents, talk to mixed country parents, the same question comes up over and over again: what language do the kids speak?

A variety of answers can come up, and I believe the answer has changed with time, with the changes in the migration patterns and the rise of the so-called “expats”. However, that’s a subject for another post.

Expat parents use two main strategies to tackle this interesting, yet challenging issue:

  • Minority language at home
  • One person-one language

Which one you choose depends on your specific case, but always try to talk to your kids in your own mother tongue. This will be the most natural thing for you (you’ll be able to sing to them the same lullabies that your mum sang to you) and you won’t expose them to your less-than-perfect second/third language.

Key ingredient: Consistency

There is a wealth of research dealing with consistency and children. The bottom line is that they need consistency to have a sense of structure and predictability to do well. This applies to bedtime to enforcing rules.

Consistency for our expat children is all the more important, since lots of things in their lives are not. Parents are the one beacon of reference for expat children. The language in which your parents talk to you SHOULD be consistent. So, even if you change countries, don’t change your language strategy. Pick one and stick with it.

Key ingredient 2: Start early

The best way to be comfortable with the language strategy that you choose is to start early and find it natural even before your kids arrive.

My husband and I decided to speak our own mother tongues at home. So, I speak Spanish and he speaks Italian. Even when we talk to each other. There is no common language. We ask and get answered in different languages. Do you feel like your head would blow up if you tried that? We thought so too, so we started way before any kids were on the horizon. And as it turns out, it feels way more natural that having a neutral language.

Think of it this way: if you have kids then being a language weirdo will be great for them. If you end up not having kids, at the very least you will have improved your language skills considerably and you will have done a huge amount of brain push-ups (which can only do you good!).

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