De Nayr Ibrahim

19 mai 2014 - 16:32

Being bilingual image

British Council

Even though I had conscientiously spoken to my son in English since his birth, he persistently replied in Portuguese. By the time he was five, I shrugged my shoulders in surrender …

And we continued this unique mother-son English-Portuguese relationship … until the day I switched to Portuguese.

That day he looked up at me and said: Why are you speaking to me like that? With you, it’s English. Stunned, overjoyed, yet acting like nothing extraordinary had happened, I switched back to English. My stubborn-five-year-doubt-filled crusade had paid off.

Parents are full of uncertainty when building a language relationship with their children in a multilingual context, especially when the children don’t necessarily respond with the same enthusiasm. This journey is even more treacherous when the language in question has minority status, and one wonders if the effort, the time and the resources are worth it. I think they are. Ultimately, bilingualism is as much about creating a positive and enriching ‘normal’ language environment as it is about acquiring a grammatical and lexical system. Below are some nurturing characteristics that will fuel your language relationship with your child.

Be patient: Children will speak your language when they are ready for it, not necessarily when you wish it! Not responding in your language does not mean children are not aware of the language or that they have rejected it completely. They may need the comfort of the ‘silent period’, while they process the different language systems, work out the differences and similarities, decide who to speak the languages to and for what purpose.

Be persistent: Bilingualism is not a 100m race. It’s long-distance running and these well-trained linguistic geniuses need you to be their language trainer. Create opportunities for natural exposure so your child can see the need for that language: a visit to a bookshop or library, bedtime reading, joining a play group, watching cartoons and letting your child see you use that language, e.g. speaking with other adults, reading books and magazines, surfing the net.

Be enthusiastic: You have a wonderful world to transmit to your children through your language and culture, so show them how proud you are of that heritage. Make your culture an integral part of family life: tell your children stories about the country, culture and people; bake those delicious deserts and cook those tasty dishes with them; teach them playground games, songs and chants. It is these moments that children will treasure as adults.

Be positive: The most important aspect of a child’s multilingual development is building self-esteem. Praise their efforts when they use your language, even with glaring mistakes. Focus on what they say correctly, and model appropriate language use by repeating or rephrasing; highlight new words and expressions and build on that in the conversation. Strike a balance between effusive admiration and treating their language use as normal.

The more children resist speaking your language, the more understanding, empathetic and talkative you need to be. So keep the lines of communication open as long as possible until the child is hooked by the magical sounds that cement that special relationship with you.

Photo of Dr Nayr Ibrahim, Head of Young Learners at the British Council in Paris

Nayr Ibrahim

Nayr était jusqu'à récemment la Directrice de l’enseignement des enfants et adolescents et de la section bilingue au British Council. Elle a aussi travaillé au Portugal, en Egypte et à Hong Kong. Son intérêt pour le bilinguisme s’est éveillé grâce à son travail avec les élèves bilingues. Elle a écrit plusieurs articles et blog sur le bilinguisme. Elle est doctorante en bilinguisme à l'Université de Reading.