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On raising bilingual children

>> 17 September 2007

When I was pregnant with our first baby an important question popped up. How do we raise our kid language-wise. I am a native Dutch speaker, my other half is a native French speaker. Together we speak French and we live in a country that has another, third language: Luxembourgish.

After some research and reading of books, I came to the conclusion that information contained on the web and in books is helpful but that each situation is different and particular. Hence, there is no one-solution-fit-all.

I was born and raised in Luxembourg but up until the age of 4 only spoke Dutch at home. Getting to Kindergarten I did not understand a word of what the kids were saying. Back then (early seventies) the community was much less international than it is now, so I was the minority. I do not remember feeling left out for long though. I do not remember having any difficulty language-wise.

The particularity about Luxembourg is that Luxembourgish is only an official language since the 80ies and that French and German are the norm when it comes to written language. Our schoolbooks were in German, so after learning to speak Luxembourgish, German was the next (at age 6) and French shortly thereafter (at age 7). I had no problem with German, as all the books were in German, Luxembourgish (in which I was by then fluent) is very close to it and most television was in German. I had a bit more difficulties with French, but so did everyone else. Eventually English was added (at age 13) with which I had very few problems compared to my fellow students. Later, during my career, I also came to learn Italian and Spanish.

When asked which language is my mothertongue I have a hard time choosing between Dutch and Luxembourgish. Dutch because it was my first language - but I never poperly learned how to write it and being a kid of expatriats, the language the parent's speak is not always up to date. Luxembourgish because it is the language I was most immersed in during childhood (I count and most of the time think in Luxembourgish) but it was never taught in writing and there is hardly what can be called literature available in that language.

Over the years my brain has gotten so used to all the languages that switching from one to the other is not a big deal. I speak much more English and French nowadays than I do Luxembourgish so I find myself thinking in the language I speak.

We have decided to raise our son with the OPOL method: One Parent, One Language. I speak Dutch to him, my other half French. My parents, who watch him a lot too speak Dutch to him as well which means that currently his most strong language is Dutch and his first words (he is almost 16 months now) are mainly Dutch. But he understands my other half perfectly and the daycare speaks French to him too so the first French words are coming as well. When he goes to school (at the age of 3) he will be immersed into the Luxembourgish environment (as I was when I was little) and will learn Germand in primary school. He will already have perfect knowledge of French by the time his friends are starting to learn it - so that's one less to worry about.

What we do still not know is how we deal with education after primary school. Luxembourg has a variety of schools on offer (European School, International School, French School) - all of which are far away from where we live. So logistically it would be a drag. Financially they are also quite a burden. And to top it, these schools are hard to get into because priority is given to European Community workers, French Nationals etc.

We do think however, that higher education focused more on one language (French for example), with books, teachers, literature in that language (instead of German and French and English etc) would be an advantage.

We believe that raising a bilingual kid is easy on the homefront but difficult in an international environment where the school system does not have a primary language focus.

I'd be glad to hear your experiences in this area. Email me.

Links:

Raising Bilingual Children by Marsha Rosenberg

FRENCH:



DUTCH:

Schools in Luxembourg:

5 comments:

Indeterminacy 18 September 2007 at 09:17  

This is a post for me, as a parent of a 10 year old son, also raised in the OPOL way. I've also been subscribed to the Bilingual Families forum for years.

Our experience was similar to many - since we live in Germany, the German language is dominant, but I have strictly followed the rule of speaking only English with my son, from the beginning. The complication we had is that my son has seen me speak German with others, especially my in-laws, who speak no English, so he never had the idea he had to use English with me. Hence he will almost always respond to my English with German. When we have English-only company, he shows that he can speak English quite well, though occasional words are missing, and there's a slight accent, and in sweet mistakes in general.

I've posted recently a video of my son reading English, something he seems to have worked out by himself, as he never wanted to practice with me: (video).

I would think it would be an advantage if the school uses several different languages, rather than concentrating on one, but I don't know what the research says. Our son has started 5th grade now and is taking the bi-lingual program, which for the time being has more hours of English, and leads up to several subjects later which are taught entirely in English. So the education will be in English and German. This is part of the curriculum of the gymnasium he is attending. The bilingual class was so much in demand they had to set up two parallel classes, though they had originally planned just one.

By the way, I would avoid the Waldorf school, if I were you. Too strange.

MindFul MiMi 18 September 2007 at 11:16  

Indie, thanks for your comment. The problem in Luxembourg is that the spoken language is Luxembourgish and books are either in German and later in French. So Germand and French are both already foreign languages. Your son follows a bilingual class and that is good; But to him, German comes natural as it's his mothertongue. For kids in Luxembourg it remains a foreign language. And the teacher would still explain things in Luxembourgish (at least at lower school levels). I also remember that we never got really deep into a language. We've never studied Goethe, Moliere or the likes. But I guess that depends on the teacher or on the fact that the language remains foreign and kids have trouble reading a normal text, let alone some old literature.
I listed Waldorf because it recently opened in Lux and I liked the idea of kids roaming the woods to learn things. But I agree that the concept sounded a bit vague.

La delirante 1 October 2007 at 16:49  

Thanks for the links! It is really an interesting post for me as I wish to have a child in future. My native language is Spanish and my other half's native languages are both Maltese and English...Sometimes I wonder about these things...One of my main concers with regard to this is the fact that I don't speak Maltese...I understand some things but I am far from being fluent...

Robert Padgett 24 March 2009 at 17:27  

Hi, your post was very interesting. In my case, my parents speak spanish both of them, but we were living in Brazil and I was studying at an English school. Sometimes as a kid I found that it was a lot of work to study english and portugues at school and study spanish at home with my mom. But in the end I feel that the extra effort was worth it, I can speak and write in al three languages. I just want to encourage you with you kids, I know it is a lot of effort but speaking several languages is wonderful.

marion 19 May 2010 at 16:03  

I recently came across your blog and have been reading along. I thought I would leave my first comment. I dont know what to say except that I have enjoyed reading. Nice blog. I will keep visiting this blog very often.

Lucy

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