Saturday, 3 May 2014

Multilingualism with the 'One Parent- Four Languages' approach!

Languages were a priority for the classical gymnasium I attended for a few years. There were at least three classes a week for each language, and we studied three or four languages simultaneously. The lessons involved textbooks, chanting and tests. It was all rather dry, and I don't speak any of those languages today.

Despite being horrendously bad at textbook learning, I am fluent in five languages. Three of those came with my ethnic and cultural heritage, while two didn't. When I had kids, even before I knew I'd be homeschooling, I knew that it made sense to pass all the languages I speak on. I grew up bilingually, but felt rather stupid when I went to live in a country that formed a significant part of my heritage unable to speak the local language — so I vowed that wouldn't happen to my kids.

Do You Need A "Method"?

Plenty of people have plenty to say about raising children multilingually. OPOL, “one parent, one language”, appears to be the most popular way to encourage multilingualism in multicultural families. This method makes sense. It helps kids associate one language with one parent and another language with another parent. This prevents confusion and encourages fluency.

Another method is speaking the home language within the family, and the majority language outside of the house. This method, too, maintains a strict separation of languages. A child attending school in whatever language is pretty much going to be forced to become fluent in that language, while still being expected to speak the home language at home.

What do you do if you speak more than two languages? Or if you are a single parent? Or if you homeschool and can't do the school language vs home language thing? Or all of the above, as in our case?

I learn best by getting on a plane and being dumped into an environment where most people don't speak a language I already speak, or where not being able to speak the local language would be embarrassing because my ethnic background means I really ought to be able to. I suck at learning through textbooks, and I don't think I'd do much better teaching that way. 

Multilingualism Happens Naturally

After some discussion, my husband and I came up with a plan for our firstborn — basically, OPOL. The plan didn't work out very well. The first kid didn't start speaking her first words until she was two, and my husband passed away shortly after the second kid was born.

What happened next was interesting. When the first kid was three and the second a year old, they both started speaking in complete sentences in two languages. One was early and one was late, and they both developed simultaneously. I spoke my home language indoors, and the local language outside and when we had visitors. The kids were exposed to my home language through relatives as well.

When my oldest was four and I'd decided to homeschool her, it became clear the kids would have to learn English as well. The best educational materials that are designed for home use are in English — it's as simple as that. I wondered how to introduce English, and decided to try it the simple way: by speaking it. I didn't translate anything, or use any textbooks. I did, however, make gestures and point to things.

The first kid taught herself to read in the local, completely phonetic, language when she was newly four. Both kids were busy acquiring English at the same time, and I introduced English phonics through Explode The Code that year as well.

By the time the oldest was five and the youngest was three, both were fluent in three languages and the oldest could read and write in two. The youngest is currently five and learning to read English, while the oldest can read and write in three languages now.

We started learning a fourth language, again through immersion, about five months ago. I used the same method of just starting to speak the language one day. My kids learn really well through the “swim or sink” method, and learning progresses more smoothly with each new language.

Perhaps multilingualism is a science, but I don't know much about that. The price we pay for multilingualism in our family is a weird accent in all languages we speak. Since we're perpetual foreigners anyway, that's quite appropriate. I'd rather have kids that speak five languages with a weird accent than kids who speak one language with a weird accent. 

Since what we do is so incredibly simple, I'm pretty sure almost anyone could do it. If you have languages to pass on, don't miss the opportunity. Just start speaking your target language one day, and wait for the magic to happen.

Jack is the enthusiastic, opinionated mother of two kids who are frustratingly similar to her. They are "global citizens", otherwise known as perpetual foreigners. Happily, they're comfortable with being in a minority, and it's just as well because they're just about the only homeschoolers in their Eastern European country of residence and are multiethnic to boot. Jack enjoys knitting, redecorating furniture, and talking about things that shock people. She homeschools because she wants her kids to have a decent education and a childhood in which they can feel normal, despite being multiethnic, Jewish, vegetarian and raised by a widowed mom.

1 comment:

  1. I loved this article! For a minute there I forgot my children's language learning disabilities and felt I too could be Multilingual Superwoman! Well, Bilingual Superwoman anyway. :D