Multilingual Education – A Word of Caution

On forums and Facebook groups for bilingual/multilingual parents, I have read about a lot of parents eagerly exposing their children to several non-heritage languages to raise their children multilingual. Though I am a multilingual education enthusiast, I would like to raise a word of caution.

There are challenges on the way that are worth bearing in mind when planning a multilingual journey :

  1. The more minority languages, the greater the challenge – Raising a child with just one minority language can already be trying. Even when the minority language is a heritage one, the child does not necessarily feel the need to use it when he or she knows his or her parents speak the Majority Language.
  2. The more minority languages, the greater the exposure headache can be – Now exposure can be simultaneous to that of the other minority languages (which is what we do at home), but it will still multiply your task by your number of minority languages. How much exposure to which language and when?  How to strike a balance between all the minority languages?
  3. Not speaking the minority languages yourself, will be an additional hurdle – you will be deprived of the capacity and of being the easy exposure source.  You will be dependent on external sources of input, and media will not suffice; actual speakers remain the top-most quality of input.  If you are intent on learning the language, it will involve an incredible lot of hard work on your part.
  4. The more languages, the more resources, the more budget and the more invasive in your household – To give you an idea, we have 523 minority language children’s book in our home. That is excluding the DVDs, board games and all minority language toys. And that is only for 2 of our 3 languages.
  5. Keeping a steady determination on the long-term – The more languages the more work. How motivated are you? Because we are talking of a roughly 18-year-long multilingual journey here. It needs to be unwavering determination to put your family through this journey… and there will definitely be highs and lows.
  6. The more languages, the less vocabulary – Science has demonstrated that usually little bilinguals’ have the same amount of vocabulary as that of monolingual peers, but that quantity, instead of being concentrated on one language, is spread over 2 (or more) languages. Hence, when a monolingual kid has 100 words, the bilingual kid will have 50 in each language.  This is something I witness in my own almost 7 years old trilingual daughter. She has big vocabulary gaps whilst her monolingual friends have a smarter use of our Majority Language. The more languages, the more pronounced the phenomenon. This will add to your multilingual parent workload to try and counteract this phenomenon.
  7. Defining a crystal clear language use strategy – So as to make it clear in your child’s mind when he or she is expected to use each minority languages.
  8. The more languages, the less likely it will be to strike a balanced multilingualism – According to Pr. François Grosjean in “Myths about Bilingualism”, it is a myth to think that “Bilinguals have equal and perfect knowledge of their languages”.  Facing the Majority Language giant sometimes makes you feel like David facing Goliath. Balancing 2 languages can already be complicated for bilingual families, so balancing between 3, 4 or more languages will not get any easier.

Having these challenges in mind, the questions that you should attempt answering for yourself before launching your multilingual journey should be:

  1. What is your objective for your child – The higher the expectations will require more work and might be more challenging to obtain depending on the number of languages you are planning to rear in:
    • A passive or active multilingual ability?
    • A balanced multilingualism?
    • A multilingual and multiliterate ability?
  2. What language strategy are you planning to use?
  3. How strong is your long-term determination?
  4. Will exposure time in each language be anywhere near the 30 hours a week mark?
  5. What lifestyle do you want? (The more multilingual the most stressful it can be, depending on your personality.)

I write this post with my hindsight as a trilingual mom. Truth is, it would have been so much easier for us if we had just talked to 2 languages (French, our Majority Language, and Spanish, my husband’s mother-tongue). We would have used ml@home as a strategy, and it would have made the workload easier. And it would have taken that pressure off my shoulders regarding a third language, which is not really a heritage language (though I have a strong bond to it from my personal story). I cannot say I regret it, because after all that we went through with my eldest’s initial resistance (see Our Story), I am delighted to be where we are today. But let’s be honest, it is exhausting and I think and breath trilingual education 24/7.  Not such an easy-going lifestyle.

A multilingual education is possible. I have read some success stories such as that of Ute’s but also less successful ones where parents acknowledge difficulties. Hence before throwing yourself lightly onto this multilingual journey, do take the time to think it through, and make the wisest informed choices, based on your own circumstances.

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