Wednesday, 1 August 2012

RAISING BILINGUAL CHILDREN: How pushy is too pushy?

At Kumasi market... sadly the one in the UK, not Ghana!

So you've decided you'd quite like your children to learn a minority language, you start speaking it to them and soon see that they understand. They even start speaking it back to you! Great, you have a bilingual child! Then.... they start school in the community language. Suddenly they stop speaking the minority language and you watch as their vocabulary starts to dwindle, feeling like all your hard work is going down the drain.

At this point, some parents get tough! They insist their child talks the minority language to them, and may even pretend not to understand when the child speaks in the community language.

Other parents take a more relaxed approach. Hey, a passive knowledge is still amazing and will surely become active when the child is older and more motivated, or when we visit the country where it is spoken. I'll just keep on talking to my kid in the minority language, they can answer me in whichever language they want.

Of course some parents will give up the whole project entirely at this point. If my kid doesn't want to talk in the minority language, that's their choice. I'm not going to put any pressure on them.

So, which parent model are you?! And which way is best?

We had to deal with this problem even though my kids started at an immersion school! It really is so hard to predict which children will just go with the language flow – Schmoo started at the immersion school, but in the English section, and so spoke about 80% English at school. She still showed a strong preference for French! Pan-Pan, even after a whole year of 80% French at school, still preferred English, to the point where he was struggling to say anything in French!

Maybe it's because I am a non-native speaker myself, but I couldn't bear the thought of Pan-Pan losing all of his French speaking ability, or not being able to be an active bilingual like his sister. So I fell straight into the 'pushy parent' category! While I didn't pretend I couldn't understand what he said in English (he was probably already too old for that!), I immediately started insisting that he spoke only French to me. If he struggled, I supplied the words he needed. I kept explaining to him how wonderful it would be to speak fluent French and how a little effort now would make all the difference down the line.

Was I worried he would end up hating French? Hating talking? Hating me? I really was! Especially as some very well-meaning friends suggested that I give up the whole thing. But I was really determined and, after 2 weeks that felt more like 2 years, we made a breakthrough and Pan-Pan started talking in French to me again without any prompting. It was clear he still preferred English, and he spoke English whenever possible, but after another few months, that changed and now he is equally happy in both languages (even though we've now switched back to English at home!).

I don't know if my pushy intervention helped, or if this would've been the outcome anyway, after a bit longer at the immersion school, but I feel that it certainly helped him see how much I value the language, which hopefully made him keener to pick it up at school.

I always tried to be pushy in a gentle way, so although I never wavered about the rule (he always had to talk to me in French), I did back off if he became frustrated, and was quick to give him help with expressing himself when needed.

So my question is, are you a pushy parent? Have you had this exact problem? How did you handle it?! Pin It now!

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