Paul is four years old. His dad is British and his mum is Spanish. They live in Marbella, in a lovely beach area that’s popular among expats; Paul has neighbours from Germany, Ireland and the Netherlands. Paul’s dad works as a manager for a British hotel chain.
Facebook groups and forums for parents of bilingual children are full of questions about child-friendly websites, apps and other language learning resources. And while I’m not a big fan of screen time for children, I can definitely recommend you a great multilingual app I’ve got to review from Mini Poliglotini; The Fairytale of Luna.
The Fairytale of Luna is a heart-warming story of the smallest pony in a horse riding club, who dreams of becoming big. This app is designed for children aged 2-10 years old and is narrated in 7 languages: English, German, French, Italian, Spanish, Russian and Slovene.
When my son Andrés was born in Spain I received congratulations cards from all over the world, in at least five languages. My family from Poland, my husband’s relatives from Venezuela and Dominican Republic, our friends from France, Italy, UK, Mexico, Brasil, Canada and many other countries, they all sent us gifts and wished us all the best on the phone, Skype and Facebook.
When he turned one, we celebrated his birthday with a dress-up Disney party in a group of family and friends from six countries. As a toddler he spent a New Year’s Eve in Paris, carried in our arms to the top of Eiffle Tower and sleeping in his buggy as we were wathcing fireworks over Notre Dame cathedra.
And it wasn’t until now, when he turned 5 that I started to think how much he’s influenced by his multicultural upbringing.
Every now and then I hear a lot of misconceptions and stereotypes about raising bilingual children. Many of these are due to lack of knowledge; some people who live in monolingual environments simply haven’t heard of bilingualism and it’s advantages. This is why parents who raise bilingual or multilngual kids are often criticised even by loving and caring family members and friends.
Lack of knowledge often leads to stereotypes. If you have only met one bilingual toddler, who started to speak late, you may be prompted to think that all bilingual kids start to speak late. If there are several bilingual toddlers in your neighbourhood, you will see that there’s no rule; some speak late, others speak early, yet others are incredible chatterboxes. Every child has their own pace fore learning life skills, and bilingual or multilingual children are no exception.
Even my own two kids are totally different when it comes to language development. Andrés (5) started to speak late, he only used spare words until the age of 3,5 and mixed Polish and Spanish words in a single sentence. His speech dramatically improved when we moved from Spain to Poland and after a few months he became fluent in both languages. It was then I introduced English at home; he’s learning very quickly and doesn’t mix languages anymore.
Michał (3) started to speak early, he made complex sentences in both languages when he was 2,5 and he has a wide range of vocabulary. He goes to speech therapist, though, because he doesn’t pronounce words correctly in any of the three languages. He says „gu bob” instead of „good job”, ce papa” instead of „chcę się kąpać”. We joke that our little lazy boy „eats” endings of words like people in Andalusia do 🙂 ; his Spanish sounds Andalusian when he says „ta lueooo” rather than „hasta lluego” .J
What are the most common myths about multilingual children?
1) Multlingualism causes speech delay.
Npe. Some experts say that multilingual children may start to speak half a year later than their monolingual peers, but it’s not a fixed rule; I met two year olds who were fluent in two or three languages. While toddlers often know fewer words in both languages than kids who just speak one language, many preschoolers and older children have a wider range of vocabulary than monolingual kids and they find it easier to learn and memorize new expressions. So, if your bilingual child has a significant language delay and you’re concerned, don’t neglect that; there are lots of speech problems that are not related to bilingualism or multiligualism at all, and the earlier they are diagnosed, the better. Contact a good speech therapist who is familiar with bilingualism.
2) If your child starts to speak late, you must drop one of the languages
This stereotype is linked with the previous one and unfortunately it is so widespread among doctors and teachers that I’m surprised that fans of both myths don’t have a dedicated Facebook page 😉 Every now and then I read in different Internet groups that some parents from many parts of the world were advised to drop a minority language “to help the majority language development”.
On her website “Multilingual Parenting” Rita Rosenback explains parents that dropping a minority language is not beneficial for the majority language development and outlines several advantages of keeping a minority language at home. Bilingual children learn to speak in a different way than their monolingual peers and what may look like a speech delay, is just a different learning pattern. Moreover, speaking a second language gives children coginitive benefits, which will definitely contribute to their intellectual and emotional development.
What may happen if you DO drop a minority language? A few years ago I was working at a language summer camp for teenagers in Spain and one of the teachers’ son spoke no English at all. The boy, aged 15, was enrolled in my class as he struggled with English at school.
Yes, his mum was a native speaker and a great ESL teacher, everyone loved her activities. Yes, she had to pay for an expensive private camp just like the Spanish families. Yes, everyone around, included his friends at the camp, found it weird.
She regretted not speaking English to the boy as he had very superficial relationships with his family in UK. She was worried about his future; economic crisis in Spain forced many young people to seek work abroad. How would her son cope with no English skills?
And why all of that? Because the boy was a late talker and her family doctor as well as her husband’s Spanish family advised her to “stick to Spanish”. I think no more comments are needed here.
3) Speaking multiple languages will confuse a child
People who live in monolingual environments don’t realize that in many countries, like Kenia, Senegal or India, many children hear several languages from birth. There is a regional dialect (or a few of them!), an official language, at school children study in English or French…I have never heard about children from these countries suffering from confusion that affects their school performance and life skills in general. Have you?
If children hear languages in specific situations (ie. French with Dad, Spanish with mum, Dutch at school, English during special “English time”), they will not get confused. Young children may mix languages, but they will eventually learn that every language has a different system, and that knowledge will help them to study foreign languages later.
But if you already imagine your baby as a future UN translator, read carefully the next points.
4) All multilingual children succeed academically
As one of the mums from “Raising Bilingual/Multilingual Children” Facebook group points out, “people think that knowing a second language makes you smarter and better and get disappointed when the kid isn’t the next Einstein”.
Ellen Bialystok, a profesor of psychology from Canada who has been researching bilingual brains for decades admits that her work may be interpreted in a wrong may; bilinguals aren’t more inteligent than monolinguals, their brains differ in the use of executive function. It’s a system that helps the brain to access knowledge or memories when needed. Thus, bilingual kids can be better than monolingual kids at multitasking, decision-making and giving quick and accurate feedback, but it doesn’t mean that they will be better than their monolingual peers at reading, writing, drawing, maths and all the other areas.
My “favourite” comments at preschool go as following: “Andrés’s drawings are not very advanced; what a pity for him, with his three languages etc…””. “So, he speaks three languages and he only got to say a one-sentence role in the Nativity Play?” And, finally, the one: “When you grow up, you’ll be a translator or an interpreter like your mum, won’t you”?
5) All multilingual children are good at languages and in the future will become language teachers, translators and interpreters
When somebody asks my 5-year old if the’s going to be an interpreter, he makes it clear; no way, he’s going to be a train driver. As for my 3 year old, he’s going to be a train. Yes, you’ve read right. Not a translator, not a language teacher. A train, like Thomas or Chuggington characters.
First of all, not all bilingual children are equally good at languages. Yes, they learn foreign languages more easily, but it is not a rule. One of “Multilingual mums” from Facebook, raised in German and English had a very hard time learning Italian when she lived in Italy and she claims that hadn’t it been for her bilingualism, she would never have learnt a second language. Even between siblings there are differences when it comes to foreign language acquisition.
Then, being fluent in a few languages does not imply a career related with languages. Believe me, in the world there are many multilingual doctors, business owners, hair dressers and taxi drivers, who didn’t think for a while to become translators. Fluency in English is one thing, becoming an English teacher is a career choice that requires a few years of training.
But you can be sure that whatever your child’s career choice will be, bilingualism is always a competitive advantage. Whether you want to work abroad or work for a foreign company at your home town, languages will broaden your professional opportunities.
And, as my hubby says, our trilingual boys will be able to pick up so many foreign girls on holidays! In a men’s world this is definitely an advantage 🙂
6) To succeed, multilingual families must spend all their time on educational activities.
More than just the “Einstein” sterotype; some people tend to think that multilingual children go to private schools that offer instruction in a few languages and/or are raised by non-working mothers who spend all their time on reading and making crafts with the kids in respective languages. All the crafts of course aim to teach the kids about their heritage culture. After school the kids have to do homework in the minority language and at bedtime there’s a concert of multilingual lullabies…..And finally each toy, snack and book in the house has cultural/linguistic value and is worth a separate Instagram post. Such stereotypes make people think that parents who raise bilingual kids are overachieving, nerdy types, different from “the rest” of society.
A friend of mine who’s expecting a Polish/German baby felt scared when she first took a look on resources for bilngual children on the Web. “I’m not a crafty person and I don’t like books, does it mean that my kids will not become bilingual? Do I need to stop watching The Big Bang Theory and start with Polish classical literature? ”
My kids go to a local, state preschool within 5 minutes walking distance from my house. We both work full time. Andrés and Michał are noisy, energetic boys who definitely prefer running around and shouting to making miniature Big Ben statues. Their favourite characters are Thomas (the train) and Lightning Mc Queen, not characters from traditional Polish or Venezuelan fairy legends.
Yes, we like baking and reading stories, but not all the time. We’re up to the same mundane things as other families with young children, the only difference is that we do all those things in three languages. And the truth is that every bilingual family is different; those who love books and those who love movies, those who love being outside and “couch potatoes”; not everyone has to follow the same pattern. The Internet is full of crafts, stories and songs for bilingual children, but it doesn’t mean that all bilingual families use all those resources.
7) Multilingual children are bullied at school for being “different”.
Michał, my bilingual 3 year old likes to play with blocks and little race cars with his friends. He loves chocolate cereals, ice cream and fart jokes and weatrs t-shirts with Lightning Mc Queen.
What is “different” about him? And why would anybody bully him just because at home he speaks Spanish with his Dad and sometimes he speaks English with his Mum?
Bililngual and multilingual children like to play and laugh just like their monolingual peers. My older son’s best friends in Spain were a Romanian kid, a Colombian/Venezuelan kids, a Brazilian kid and a few Spanish kids from a traditional Andalucian family. All those kids spoke Spanish together, played together by the pool and on the beach, watched cartoons in Spanish together and didn’t differentiate in any way between the Spanish and the foreigners.
All kids are somehow different from one another; some of them have ginger hair, other have a darker colour of skin, yet other wear glasses, and nobody has said that all of them will be bullied at school. Andres’s friends and teachers find it cool when he says Spanish words for colours or numbers in the class…..and I’m afraid to think of his teenage years, when he will impress girls with “te quiero” … 🙂
8) A parent who doesn’t speak the other language feels left out
A conversation on the way to preschool normally goes like that:
Michał (in Polish, pointing to a car) – Mommy, a blue car! There’s a car!
Me: Yes, a blue car.
Hubby: Si, un coche (Yes, a car).
Andres: Yesterday Karol brought his cars to preschool and we played with them! That was cool!
Hubby: Jugaste con coches en el cole (Did you play with cars at preschool)?
Andres: Si papi, me gustan mucho! (Yes, I like them very much).
Do you think that he felt terribly left out and their relationship father-son suffered because he didn’t get the word “blue” ? Or because he didn’t understand that the little cars belonged to Andres’s friend Karol? Not really. As Rita Rosenback points out in her article, parents of young kids often learn alongside their kids and the other parent, who speaks both languages, translates. As kids grow up, translation is less and less needed since older children have enough skills to communicate in both languages. Bilingual kids often translate for their parents.
Moreover, who said that a parent-child relationship is just about a language? It’s also about spending time together, cuddles, giggling, playing….and that language of parental love is universal!
9) Monolingual parents can’t succesfully raise a bilingual child
I’ll present you two kids: Chris and Lucía.
Chris lives in London, his parents are both English. However, Chris’s mum has a degree in Spanish, has lived in Spain for a few years and would love to pass on Spanish to her son. Both parents aggree: Dad will speak with Chris in English and Mum exclusively in Spanish. Chris’s mum is very fluent in Spanish and she feels comfortable speaking that language to her son. The family will also reinforce Spanish with books, TV and playgroups.
How about if Chris’s mum doesn’t feel comfortable enough to speak ONLY Spanish and give up English? Then she can dedicate specific days, weeks or time of the day for Spanish.
Maria Babin, author of the blog “Trilingual mama” changes a language she speaks with her kids every two weeks. You can read how she has adapted her family language plan to choose what suits best her children.
Lucía lives in Torrevieja, a little town in Spain. Her parents would love to raise her bilingually in Spanish and English,but their English is not very fluent and they can’t afford to enroll their daughter in a private international school.
How does Lucía learn English? Three times a week she spends some time with a British exchange student who lives nearby. They play, they sing songs, they read stories together. Lucía watches cartoons on YouTube and plays computer games in English. She’s often accompanied by her mum; this way they can learn a new language together.
10) There’s only one right way to raise bilingual kids
There are a few approaches to raise bilingual and multilingual kids.
One of them, OPOL (one parent, one language): each parent always speaks to the child in his or her own language
Minority Language at Home: minority language is spoken at home, while majority language is acquired from the community, at school, etc.
Time and Place: another language is used in specific situations and, thus, children associate a change of language with the context rather than with a person.
There are strong advocates of each of this method who claim that their way is the only right way to raise bilingual kids. Not at all.
Imagine an OPOL couple: a Dutch mother and a Spanish father living in the Netherlands. Their children hear Dutch from their mother, extended family, at school, at the playground….while they hear Spanish only from their father, who works full time and only spends evenings with the kids. Shouldn’t there be more focus on Spanish? If the mother speaks Spanish, maybe the minority language could become a family language?
Every family has to choose the method that suits them best and adapt it to their own needs. Do you feel comfortable changing languages you speak to your kids every week or every two weeks? Go for it! Do you want to dedicate just some time for another language, like bedtime stories or activities during the weekend for one language? It’s your choice. Be flexible, and if something’s not working try another approach.
A language is not a mathematical calculation that has to be done in exactly the same wa to get the right score; it’s all the contrary. The way we pass a language to our children is linked to our cultures, heritage, personalities and lots of different factors. Let’s embrace it and enjoy our multilingual journey.
So, here we are back home after a 2 weeks holiday in London. The boys have had the time of their lives: there was plenty of stuff with Thomas the Tank Engine, they visited lots of cool places and – surprise of the year- fell in love in British food!
No one would guess that they were born in Spain, the Mediterranean food paradise and that they are both picky eaters. Fish& chips became their new favourite dish, they drank lots of disgusting tea with milk and they preferred cheap street food to lovely home meals cooked by my friends.
And they spoke lots of English.
As the video was recorded on a very noisy King’s Cross Square (we wanted to have red buses in the background) you can’t hear very well Andres’s answers; this is why I repeat his words. Sorry if that sounds annoying 😉
I’m very glad as they both got a grasp of the language quickly. As you can see in the Easter video , in April my older son only knew colours and numbers in English. After a few months of lessons at home and a 2 weeks stay in UK he can ask simple questions (what’s your name/how old are you), describe objects from his everyday life (food, toys) and – what makes me a very proud mum – ask for things in stores and play simple games with English speaking kids.
Even Michał, who’s not 3 yet has learnt to answer his age, say “please”, “thank you” and “bye bye”.
Would you like to help your kids to speak English abroad without spending a fortune on language summer camps?Read on and, if you like my ideas, use them on your next family trip!
These activities are based in London, but I’m sure you can do similar things in many UK cities. Good luck!
Tip 1: Activities for kids in English: events, museums, play groups.
Good news: they’re free!
British kids who spend the summer in the city can’t be bored. There are lots of cool workshops and activities organized in museums, events for families in parks or play centres.
Isn’t a storytelling session at a Transport Museum, among red buses and other cool vehicles funnier than “story time ” in the classroom at a language camp?
A good website to start is http://www.netmums.com/ , an English site where you can find activities, playgroups and events for kids in your town. You only have to register and tag the area where you’re going to stay in UK.
Another nice site is TimeOut.
Here you can find a list of free child-friendly museums, outdoor play centres and other fun places.
We have joined the following activities:
– V&A Museum of Childhood: home to a great collection of kids’ toys, games and costumes. They run activities from 10.30 to 16.00 from Monday to Friday, including storytelling, have-a-go sessions and arts and crafts activities. The entrance to this museum is free for kids and adults.
The boys loved a story about animals and as the language was very simple, they didn’t find it hard to join in the activity.
– London Transport Museum : one of their favourite places in London! Can you imagine two little boys obsessed with vehicles of all kinds at a cool place where you can get on all the buses? And if it wasn’t enough, there is a lovely play area with a wooden train track to play and more buses to “drive”!
This museum is free for kids. Adults have to pay 15 pounds, but it’s an annual ticket – they don’t sell one day tickets – I absolutely recommend it if you’re staying longer in London as your kids will definitely want to come back to the museum. We have been 3 times and the boys never wanted to leave! Good news for the parents: there’s Wi-Fi in the museum and it’s located in Covent Garden, so after your trip to the museum you can explore this great area, go to the theatre or for a meal in one of numerous lovely restaurants.
We joined storytelling and arts&crafts sessions in this museum, both dedicated to Pigeons that delivered letters during the 2nd World War.
Although the topic is quite advanced for young kids, they enjoyed drawing and cutting their pigeons and participating in a very animated storytelling session, where they even got to throw small plastic balls at each other to represent the fight!
We also loved Coram’s Fields, a huge playground with a park and summer activities for kids. This centre offers different summer activities, like football, music, dancing or simply playtime for under fives. Andres and Michal enjoyed playing with new toys, chatting with lovely monitors and getting to know other kids.
A funny thing happened to us at Coram’s Fields; a little girl thought that the boys are her brothers as they were wearing same strapped t-shirts as hers and followed them all around the place!
Tip 2: Organize play dates with English-speaking families
Do you have a profile on Couchsurfing.com ? It’s a fantastic site that connects travellers with locals who offer to host them. Couchsurfing has local forums in different cities all around the world, and there are also dedicated forums for families. You can meet wonderful, open-minded people on Couchsurfing who love to travel and meet new friends.
You can also try a forum on NetMums.com “meet a Mum” to connect with mums from the area where you’re going to stay.
Benefits? Kids will make new friends and so will you, moreover locals can find you cool places in the area!
I met a wonderful, very friendly, like-minded multilingual family on CouchSurfing who met us in London: Sachiko, a Japanese translator who moved to London a few months ago with her partner and her son Christopher.
Chris was 5 years old and spoke four languages. The funny thing is one of his languages was Spanish; as soon as the boys discovered that, not a single English word was said on that playdate.
But still, the three of them had a great time!
Tip 3: Motivating learning resources
Kids love picture books and colorful magazines about their favourite TV characters, like Thomas the Engine, Peppa Pig or Disney Cars. In UK you can get a lot of cheap picture books in charity shops and “one pound” stores. Go shopping with your kids and let them choose the material they like best. Watch TV in English with your kids; we became fans of a programming block on Channel 5 Milkshake! that features popular shows and music videos for children. The boys were delighted to see that Thomas the Tank Engine, Tree Fu Tom and other characters they loved “could speak English, like us, mummy”.
Tip 4: Yes, DO talk with strangers!
I taught the boys to say “hello” and “bye bye” every time we got on the train, bus, we entered a shop or a playground, not to forget “excuse me”, “please” and “thank you”. The British were delighted with their efforts and our idea of a “learning holiday” and often followed up the conversation asking about the boys’ name, age, favourite food and colours.
I’m aware that it may be a difficult exercise for introvert kids; you can start with a “hello” on the playground or at a store you visit everyday. Sometimes kids who don’t like speaking English in the classroom change their actitude completely in a “real life” situation, especially if they see positive reactions of foreigners.
A lovely lady on the train gave Andres an Angry Birds stickers book for his “excellent English skills”; another gentleman praised him with a pound.
The latter one had a dubious pleasure of meeting my son in the middle of a tantrum; Andres got hysterical at a restaurant because apparently Michal’s roast looked nicer than the one on his own plate, so I took him out for a moment. As I was waiting for him to calm down so that I could seriously talk with him about behaviour in public places, an elderly gentleman approached Andres, asked him his name and gave him “a coin for chocolate, your English is very good, boy”.
Andres immediately stopped crying, said “thank you, I love chocolate” and ran back to the restaurant to share the good news with his brother.
He thought that the coin had actually some chocolate inside.
My friends back in the restaurant decided they should all take turns to cry on the street; it could result more profitable than their London jobs.
Tip 5: You can get it if you really want…and ask for it in English
Ice cream? Orange juice? A packet of crisps? A toy car or fluffy animal in a “One Pound” store? Yes, you can….but you must ask for it in English.
Andres was used to ask for things in small stores as I often encouraged him to do that back in Poland. He knew some basic food vocabulary; that was all he needed.
And is there better motivation for a five year old than a lovely ice cream on a hot, sightseeing day?
He asked for his first “English ice cream” at Coram’s Field, on the third day of our trip. He used very simple sentences “ice cream, please” and colours instead of flavours “pink and yellow, please”, but the lady behind the counter understood him.
Some shop assistants were very helpful, asking him simple questions in English to make him speak more ( a big or a small smoothie? Pink or orange?) He was praised, encouraged to speak and he gained confidence, which was even better than sweets.
Michał reduced his store conversations to “hello”, “bye bye” and “thank you”, but he definitely understood much more; once,when Andres asked for an ice cream, he immediately shouted “two”!
How to make this exercise easier for your kids? Role play “a store” at home. It is especially motivating if you “sell” sweets 😉 With older kids, you can use plastic coins as “real money” and introduce the expression “how much is it”.
Tip 6: English is all around you
Look at billboards on the road. Read aloud signs at the museums. If you go to a zoo or a city farm, read the information about the animals to your kids and ask them if they know what the animal is called in their own language. Encourage your kids to read the signs and try to understand their meaning.
However, remember that visiting a foreign country may be an overwhelming experience for your child. Take it easy; if your kids are tired and unwilling to speak English, let them have a rest. Learning English on holiday needs to be a fun experience, not an obligation.
I always encourage families with small kids to take it easy on holidays. It is better to visit fewer museums or attractions, choose carefully those that are the most attractive for kids, and spend the rest of the day playing in the park or at the playground.
I had been to London for a few times before I had kids and I was delighted to discover the city from my boys’ perspective: beautiful parks, interactive displays for kids at museums. fun at workshops. My boys would be bored to death in British Museum, but they talk everyday about the fun we had in the “pirate place” (Diana’s Memorial Playground), play area in the Disney store or on a trip to Purley countryside, where they were running and shouting on the hills.
And, even more, I was happy to see how quickly they were learning English and, unlike many kids and adults I saw abroad, how inhibited they were to communicate with others despite a very basic grasp of vocabulary.
Have you tried to help your kids to speak a foreign language abroad? How was your experience? Do you think that bilingual children learn foreign languages more easily? Share your stories with me!
A few years ago people felt sorry for my older son; he was 3 years old and he barely could speak! While other kids were already talking a lot, he was only able to say a few words.
They thought that the “fault” was his bilingualism; he was born in Spain, so the majority language was obviously Spanish, and since he was born I only spoke Polish with him. At home we only spoke Spanish as my husband doesn’t speak Polish at all.
“Poor boy, he’s struggling so much, you’re just messing up in his head”! , some neighbours were saying. Others said he wouldn’t do well at school because of his delayed speech. Still others said there’s no even point in speaking Polish with him if the only person who spoke the language in our little town was me. “If you really have to speak other language with him, it should be English, at least it will be useful for him in the future”.
Seriously? I didn’t worry a bit. I knew from our family doctor that bilingual kids may have some speech delay and that my son was quite childish for his age, which also affected his speech development. I spoke with other parents of bilingual kids and I read many papers about the topic. So I just kept calm and so did my hubby.
And then, gradually, Andres began to speak. He spoke mostly Spanish, though; while he was able to understand every single word in Polish, he always answered in Spanish. I listened to him and I answered back in Polish. And so on, and so on.
He went to a Polish weekend school, he watched movies and we read stories in Polish.
And then we moved to Poland.
At first he kept on answering all the questions in Spanish; he thought that if mummy gets it, everybody else will, too. The preschool teachers freaked out as they didn’t understand a word from his long monologues, but he did well in the classroom as he understood all the instructions.
Then he started to use single words in Polish. And maybe after 3 weeks, when we were in a supermarket, he made his first full sentence; “Mum, we’ve already bought the cheese”. With perfect pronunciation and grammar.
Since that day, he spoke Polish better and better everyday; while he still made slight mistakes in the beginning, after a few months nobody would notice that he had been born abroad. He didn’t mix the languages anymore. He continued to speak Spanish with his Dad at home and we read a lot to expand his vocabulary in both languages.
Funny though, his younger brother, Michal, aged 2 when we moved to Poland started to speak both languages immediately, with similar fluency and no signs of speech delay.
It was then I decided to give it a start with English. If the kids already speak two languages, differentiate them clearly, can actually translate from one language to another at family meetings, then why not? Bilingual children are considered to learn foreign languages easily; so, let’s start!
I used to teach English to kids in the past, so I have lots of resources at home. We took it easy; a “class” took half an hour a day, 3 days a week. A few games, a song, simple vocabulary.
I only spoke English to the boys during the class and they were able to understand most of the instructions. We also watched excellent Super Simple Songs on YouTube, we played computer games and read simple stories in English.
At that time Andres and Michal became obsessed with a popular British show for kids “Thomas the Tank Engine”. I decided to take them for a trip to UK in the summer so that they could meet their idol in Thomas Land.
So…I told them that they have to learn English every day so that they could play with English-speaking kids on holiday, make new friends and ask for soft drinks and ice cream.
This video was recorded in April, during Easter, when the boys had been learning English for about 2 months.
This is funny how Andres confuses “morado” (purple) with “enamorado” (in love) in Spanish and then, when has to name the same colour in Polish, he translates “enamorado” to “kochany” (in love, lovely). And I have no idea why in the end they call me cucaracha (cockroach), using the Spanish word in all the Spanish versions.
Now he knows more vocabulary, he understands simple questions (what’s your name, is it big or small, how are you, can you jump/swim), etc. Both him and Michał can understand much more that they can speak.
People around are amazed by the boys’ bilingual skills; at preschool events or birthday parties Andres and Michal receive a lot of compliments, what boosts their self-confidence. But what I find more important is that despite their young age they are aware of the world they live in and very open-minded. If Andres hears a foreign language on TV, he will ask immediately what language it is and if I could show him the country on the map. When the boys see a price in the supermarket, they will happily shout it in all the three languages. The ability to understand and learn from the context also helps them at preschool; they understand non-verbal communicates very well and they are responsive to gestures and face expressions.
Tomorrow we’re leaving for London. I have organized the trip carefully; the boys are going to participate in workshops at museums, join local play groups, we’ve also arranged to meet some English-speaking families. We’re going to stay in UK for two weeks.
I’m very curious of the outcome of the boys’ first English immersion. Will they actually start to speak the language? I know that the “Polish miracle of 3 weeks” will not happen here; you can’t compare a native language (always spoken by Mummy) with a foreign language they only have learnt for a few months.
When we get back, we’ll take another video to see my boy’s progress.
Tell me about your experience with children and languages. Do you agree that bilingual children learn foreign languages easily? What problems do you encounter? If you have moved abroad, have the kids learned fast the local language? How about foreign languages at school? I’m looking forward to hearing your stories!
Many parents decide to move abroad so that they could improve their family lifestyle and give their children better opportunities. However, when you think of life overseas with a young child million of question come to your mind. How will I organize child care and schooling? Is it a safe place for kids? How about the language barrier? Will they miss a lot their friends and grandparents?
We all know how hard it can be to reconcile work and family life even in our own town, where we have relatives to help and we know how things work. What is more, young children thrive on routines; if a toddler bursts into tears just because he can’t eat his dessert with his favourite Pocoyo spoon or play with Jaimito in the park today, how will he cope in a Pocoyo-free and Jaimito-free world?
So, I’m glad to tell you: you can make it. Yes, you and your kids can happily live ever after in a foreign country. Yes, it’s a rewarding experience for the whole family. Yes, your kids will benefit from learning a new language early. And yes, I know that because I moved from the very South to the very North of Europe with a 2 year old Michał and a 4 year old Andres.
In my case it was much easier as we moved from Spain, where we had lived for six years to Poznań, my hometown in Poland, where I had lived all my life.
Actually we were coming back to my hometown, where I had family and friends, but it was still challenging. We were moving with two small kids from a small town by the beach to a big city with cold weather. My kids, who used to spend all days outside playing by the pool with just their swimmers on, would have to wear warm jackets, scarves and woolen hats. And as we hadn’t travelled to Poland for a while, they didn’t remember anything about the place.
I had left my city, Poznan, as a young student; I knew everything about the best parties in the town, but I had no obviously no idea about childcare, schools, playgrounds and other kid-related stuff. Many people think Costa del Sol is a paradise for kids; it’s a wonderful area with beach, mountains and many green areas. Plus, most housing estates have their own pool. “Your kids are going to hate you for taking them away”! my friends were saying. “They’ll be freezing and they’ll be sick all the time, they’re not used to the cold!”
However, we have decided to move to Poland and we have carefully planned it so that it would be a rewarding experience for the whole family.
Let me share my tips with you and your little expats-to-be!
Please notice that this is only some general advice; I’ll soon publish more posts about expat life for families in different countries with useful links.
1) Learn together about the new place
A 3 year old from France has no idea that a place called Ireland even exists. Talk to your children about “the new country”, tell them things about the place they may appeal to them. If you’re moving to Italy, you can talk about “the place with the best pizza and ice cream in the world”. Try to familiarize your child with the language and culture of the new place: you can watch together your kid’s favorite shows on YouTube in the “new” language, pictures of the town and fun places for children. If it’s possible, go on a short family trip to that country first. Read together illustrated books about the place and answer your kids’ questions. It’s also a good idea for a family activity and spending some quality time together!
Before we moved “from the South to the North”, I spent ages talking with kids about cool things to do in Poznań. We watched pictures from my own childhood, talked about the parks, playgrounds and the zoo. I explained to the kids that kids in Poland don’t play at the beach, but in winter they play in the snow, they can make snowmen and sled. They wear nice scarfs and hats with their favorite Disney characters.
Kids can become obsessed easily; after a few days Andres was asking all the time “when are we going to play in the snow, mummy? Why not today”?
And of course when we came to Poland in sunny September, all he wanted to do was to sled. Everyday he asked when it’s going to snow.
The funny thing is that this year we had only one weekend of snow. What is very rare in Poland. Maybe we have brought warmer weather from Spain.
2) Get the kids excited
Every mum and dad knows how much a kid can get excited about his/her birthday party that’s due in 8 months. Or a holiday trip. Or Christmas. They never get tired of talking about the details, the party guests, their dream present or cake.
Plan a special event as soon as you get to the new place; it can be a party, a trip to a local beautiful beach or arranging together a new room for your kid. Talk a lot, plan a lot, enjoy a lot. Let it be a new, wonderful thing that they have never been able to do at home!
Talk about the journey. If it’s the first time your kids are going to travel by plane, you can take them for for a trip to the airport first and explain what you’re going to do. They will definitely like the idea!
3) The importance of routines
Small children thrive on routines. They won’t have their dinner without their favourite Sponge Bob and they won’t sleep tight if mummy doesn’t read them a story first.
(My son has recently developed a habit of putting all his stuff animals in pairs, giving each one a kiss and “a spoon of milk” from a small plastic pot. He won’t go to sleep if even one resident of his little Noah’s Ark is missing ).
Before you go abroad, think what are the most important routines for your family. Is it a bath and the story before you go to sleep? Or maybe Friday nights with Disney movies and pizza? Pay extra attention to the routines and stick to them at a new place; that will give the kids the sense of belonging and security.
If you start working immediately once you get to your new destination, it’s helpful if your partner can spend some time at home in the beginning and pay attention to the children.
4) When packing together is half the fun
Most kids love to pack their backpacks even for a day trip; they find it important to choose which toys they will they to the park or beach. Involve kids in packing your bags and enjoy that experience! Let them organize their toys and clothes and help as much as they can. They can put different labels on cardboard boxes (ie. “toys”/”summer clothes”/books”).
My boys had a lot of fun hiding in our never ending boxes and organizing their stuff. They became experts in climbing the pile of boxes in the living room.
5) Friends will be friends. Love (and Facebook) knows no distance.
Reassure your children that they will be able to stay in touch with their family and preschool friends. Before you move abroad, show your kids how to talk on Skype, explain that photos and voice messages can be sent via applications like WhatsApp or Line. Kids are very tech-savvy; my 4 year old knows very well that the blue icon on my phone (Skype) is used for talking with granny and the white and red one (YouTube) for watching his Thomas&Friends videos. He often asks “please, take a picture of my new train and send it to Daddy so that he could see it”.
Before we left Malaga, I befriended a few preschool/nursery mums on Facebook. My boys can sit with me in front of a computer, and watch pictures of their friends. Some of the mums are very active on FB; every few days we can see new pictures from family trips, birthday parties, etc. They also comment on my boys’ pictures; Andres is always happy when I read to him different comments about his new bike or our trip to the ZOO.
If you’re not very keen on social media sites, stick to Skype and programs for free messaging like WhatsApp or Line. Your kids will be thrilled to hear a voice note from their cousins on their birthday and answer with their own message. And it will be so much fun to plan online their visit to their home country for Christmas!
6) Help your kids with the language
“How can I help my children to learn the local language? Won’t it be too hard for them? “No matter if I speak with a graduate or a senior-level professional, this question will always come up.
Good news: small kids learn languages quickly and easily. I know many expat kids who are their parents’ personal interpreters; after a few years spent abroad, while the parents struggle with the language, kids attain fluency and even a native-like accent.
My hubby, who’s still struggling with Polish, finds Andres a perfect interpreter; he’s not only bilingual, he also loves running around the house and translating everything that’s said. So if, for example, my mum asks in the kitchen if his daddy would like some tea, the little interpreter is more than happy to run to the bedroom and shout the question in Spanish. And then run again to the kitchen with an answer in Polish. And so on.
How to encourage kids to learn a new language? Before you go abroad, search for their favourite shows on YouTube (Dora the Explorer, Sponge Bob and Disney shows are available in all world languages). You can meet people from your “new” country who live nearby and organize language exchange or classes. But remember, take it easy! Kids learn new languages best through fun activities. They don’t like pressure.
When you get to your destination, try to immerse the kids in the local language as much as you can; nursery, school, extra-curricular activities will definitely help. Go outside, let your kids make friends in the park. You will be surprised to see how quickly they can learn!
7) Search for new buddies
Kids are happy when they can play with their peers and make new friends. Visit local forums for parents (like Netmums in UK or SerPadres in Spain) to meet new people. You can also check forums for expats (like the Expat Forum) to meet families from your own country. Your little ones will be delighted to have new friends, go to the park or playground together.
8) Sincerity is the key
Recently, after one year of living in Poland my son had a conversation with a friend of mine. “So, Andres, why did you leave Spain? It’s such a beautiful, sunny place”! My boy answered seriously: “You know, in Spain there’s crisis, people don’t have money and can’t buy toys and sweets. We came here because Mum has a better job, she can pick us up from preschool everyday and play with us at home. We have more toys and we go on holidays. And we have our granny here, and uncles, and friends…”
Voila. Kids are able to understand more than we think. If your family is struggling with money, when you’re unhappy with your job, negative emotions can affect even the smallest ones who don’t know what it’s going on. Talk to your children sincerely and explain how a move overseas can improve family life. If you are moving abroad to reach a professional goal, explain it to the kids in an easy and approachable way. They’ll get it.
Of course it may not be easy in the beginning. Kids may cry, miss their family and friends home; sometimes the changes affect their behaviour, apetite or sleep patterns. Dedicate your kids time and patience. Every child has their own pace; some little children may get used to life in a new country immediately, others will need a few months before they feel happy and secure in a new place.
Life abroad benefits children not only with foreign language skills, but also teaches them to be more open-minded, flexible and tolerant. It also makes them more aware of their identity. They get to understand that the world does not end at the playground, that there are more countries and each of them has a different language and culture. And in every country they can play, learn and make friends.
Do you have your own tips? How did you cope when moving abroad with small kids? Let me know! I’m looking very, very forward to your comments!