Raising multilingual kids in the US – III

               As in other things in a marriage, one of the key indicators of success in raising multilingual kids jointly is agreement between you and your spouse on the expectations. A friend of mine said that he would be really upset if his wife and daughter conversed in a language he didn’t understand. I completely understand this kind of feeling. I would have been feeling left out too, but only initially. If I had been in such a situation, I’m sure I would have picked up at least a bit of my spousal language after marriage, and not wait for the kids to happen to do that. Thankfully, my husband can follow most of the Bangla we speak, though we speak to each other primarily in Hindi. But he fully supported my decision that I should be able to converse in Bangla with the kids.

               Recent research shows that – During the first 6 months of life, babies have the ability to babble using sounds that make up all the languages in the world. They then learn to talk using only the sounds and words they pick up from their surroundings, most importantly from their caregivers. A baby’s brain will then slowly discard the ability to speak in languages he or she does not hear. Children need to be exposed to a different language for at least 30 percent of their waking hours to become multilingual.

The rest of the post is in the form of bullet-points that I intend to use as a resource later on – the things that I found most important for raising multilingual kids:

  • Decide on the expectations for each language – There are 4 stages of language skills : Understand/ Speak/ Read/ Write.  Set realistic expectations on what you want your child to be able to do in each language. We thought that if our son could follow, speak and read Bangla and Hindi, that was more than enough. Of course, we expect him to be able to do all the four in English in future.
  • Decide on the language system – You can use One Person One Language (OPOL) or Minority Language at Home or Immersion Program. Basically, we used a combination of the first 2 strategies. I would only converse with my son in Bangla; while my husband and in-laws would only converse with him in Hindi. Also, we made sure that we spoke no English at home initially, though we played English rhymes, songs and DVDs for him to watch and enjoy. We did speak English to him in front of neighbours or in other public places where the Majority language is at play, but overall our focus was only on the Minority languages – Bangla and Hindi.
  • Common words – Chances are that there will be a lot of words common between the different languages you are teaching your child. Start using those initially. e.g. I used the word ‘khatam‘  (i.e. ‘Finished’ or ‘All done’ in English), which is a common word between Bangla and Hindi. Later when my son started speaking this word himself and I was sure he knew what it meant, I started using the other common word for it – ‘shesh’ – gradually in Bangla sentences, like তোমার গান শোনা কি শেষ হয়ে গেছে? (‘Tomar gaan shona ki shesh hoye gechhe?‘ i.e. ‘Are you all done listening to music?’). A lot of nouns like car, train, pen, microwave, computer, diaper, high-chair  will be the same in Bangla, Hindi or English. Of course, you are free to teach the word ‘ लौहपथगामिनी’ (louha-patha-gaamini) for a train if you want to stick to pure Hindi. 😉 But as I said earlier, it depends on the expectations you set for yourselves.
  • Labelling – Most kids start expressing curiosity at the world around them by pointing or bringing the object to you. I started telling mine the names(e.g. truck, spoon, paper, shirt etc.), colours/ sizes (e.g. It’s a biiiiiiig red-colored bus! Such a tiny ant!) of the things around them in Bangla first. And my husband would do the same in Hindi when he was playing with them. We would also add ‘In English, we call it spoon’ sometimes. But mostly we kept telling him everything in Bangla and Hindi first. Soon it became a habit with my son to ask us back ‘What is this called in Hindi?’ or ‘How do we say this in English?’ 
  • Materials – Get relevant materials in  forms of nursery rhymes books, DVDs, audio CDs in the languages you want your child to learn. We got some and intend to keep buying these age-appropriate ones from time to time. There are numerous youtube videos on teaching Hindi/ Bangla and we have been using many such as: Jataka tales, Panchatantra, Hindi Aksharmala, Moral stories, Baal-Ganesh, Chhota Bheem, SriKrishna, Nonte-Fonte, Gopal Bhaar, Haanda-Bhonda, Aabol-tabol, Haanshi-Rashi and last, but not the least – the Amar Chitra Katha series.
  • Support – Don’t feel shy stating your intentions of teaching your child your mothertongue and requesting your grandparents/ friends/relatives to converse in Hindi or your native-language if they are speaking in English to your child. Some of you may disagree with this. But the fact is that even listening to a group of adults conversing in a language such as Hindi will be a very useful experience for your child. Or being asked questions by parents’ friends in Hindi sends out the message to your child that it is okay to respond in this language; that it is not just his parents who use this particular language. In short, it can be a good motivator. Also, if you get a daycare  or nanny or playgroup which also speaks your language, all the better.
  • Start now – As they say – शुभस्य शीघ्रं | (‘Shubhasya Sheeghram’, The earlier you start a good task, the better it is). This is particularly true in case of language-learning. Between 1 and 3 years of age, when the brain is still being wired for language-learning, it is most effective to start a set of 2 to 3 languages around the same time. No need to worry about your little one not being able to handle it. The truth is that their brains will eventually sort it all out.
  • Correct gently – When your child is still learning to talk in a language, initially it is ok not to focus on the grammar. He/she will sort it out with time, if you correct gently. Finding faults with their speech early might shut them off from speaking that particular language, especially if the kid is a bit shy one.
  • Find your child’s interest – This I believe is the most important thing while teaching your son or daughter a language. My son would get all excited whenever he spotted an aeroplane or helicopter in the sky. In general, like a typical boy, he was always interested in all kinds of vehicles. And expectedly, most of his initial vocabulary consisted of these kinds of words – blue car, yellow bus, pickup truck, fire-engine,aeroplane, rocket, dhuaan i.e. smoke in Hindi) and I could go on and on. Similarly, the game of bubble-making would excite him to no end as he ran after them and his first word (after Mammi-Papa) was bubbles. If your little one is interested in animals, play with her while making sounds of different animals. Chances are that she will start saying doggy, duckie, birdie, quack-quack etc. excitedly whenever she spots one, even if it is as a picture in a book.
  • Constant reinforcement – It is important not to give up when things don’t seem to progress much, but one should keep on interacting with the kids using the native languages and other relevant material.

            You might ask – What’s the downside of raising a multilingual kid in an English-majority country like US ? Not many, I would say…In any case, the benefits far outweigh any concerns we may have. But still, it is good to have realistic expectations. Firstly, your child may start her speech a little later than her monolingual peers. But when she speaks, it will be in 2 languages or more! Secondly, the socialization part may get delayed too initially. I have heard of cases when a child knowing only the mother-tongue had problems initially in a daycare/preschool with a different language of communication. But again, this is a temporary problem. My son picked up good English with reasonably good grammar within 2 months at the preschool, but he could communicate with his teachers and class-friends right from day 1.  Don’t ask me how! 🙂 Kids find their ways to fulfill their emotional and social needs. Thirdly, your child may have slight or heavy American accent while speaking Hindi or Bangla or any other language. But in my opinion, speaking Hindi in a slight American accent is far better than speaking or understanding no Hindi at all.

               Between the time of my last post in Part 2 of this series and this one, we made a trip to India. I remember our last trip to India in 2010 when Advik was just 2 years old. He couldn’t speak any language at that time. Some of the suggestions mentioned at the beginning of Part 1 came from well-meaning relatives back in India during that trip. One of my cousins told the horror-story of a boy who was not speaking even at 4 years of age and his parents had to quit their jobs in the USA and return to India for his treatment. Listening to all such stories, any desi parent in US would despair. But this year’s India trip was vastly different. It was great seeing my son take part in and enjoy all the activities in and around family, friends and relatives; he could really interact well with kids his age. My relatives, on their part, were amazed to see him speaking in their languages and following everything that was going on.

               Raising a multilingual kid in a foreign country, has both its own pitfalls and rewards. But then who said parenting is an easy task? Our journey has just started and I know it is a long way to go. But then I’m not complaining…..and neither would you! 😉