Who has never come across a mixed family, wondering how it is like being a multilingual household? Living in an increasingly interconnected world, multilingual households are becoming more and more common. Let’s see the pros and cons of multilingual living in a multilingual setting.
Multilingualism has been shown beneficial to individuals in many respects. From promoting brain health and lowering the risk of dementia, to be advantageous in education and in the workplace. Experts have highlighted a wealth of benefits of the multilingual upbringing of children. But experts still overlook how this process actually works for families, as well as which challenges they have to face on the way.
The challenges of a multilingual environment
As a matter of fact, living in a multilingual household isn’t easy, and raising a multilingual child can be really tough! Taking myself as an example, I am a native Italian speaker, my partner is Taiwanese, and English is our family language – our daughter is raised trilingual. I experience challenges both on a personal level and on a parenting level.
Cultural differences and language attrition occur in families where each parent speaks their own language, and a third language is used to communicate. Cultural differences come in the form of different values and traditions, whereas we can define language attrition as a decline in native language proficiency, as Speech Language Pathologist Susanne Obenaus defines it). I have experienced language attrition after moving to the UK, and then to Taiwan. Not having other Italian speakers around me, and using English and Chinese to communicate on a daily basis, often led my brain to forget some Italian words, which I would then replace with either their English or Chinese correspondent. At the same time, my English (not to mention Chinese!) proficiency, although fluent, did not allow me to communicate as smoothly as a native speaker either. Sometimes I’d feel afraid to pass to my daughter the wrong language usages or an oversimplified version of the language.
The OPOL method
From a parenting point of view, many experts recommend the “one-parent-one-language” (OPOL) method for a multilingual home. That is, everyone speaks their native language to the child. Other methods, like speaking different languages every day, may feel too unnatural and confusing for the child. But the OPOL method also has its problems. For example, when moving to one of the parents’ native countries, the child will perceive the language spoken in the surrounding as “more important”. As a consequence, the child will be more likely to learn it faster than the other parent’s language. Therefore, maintaining a balance could be challenging. Another problem is the exclusion of one parent who doesn’t understand the other parent’s language from the conversation between parent and child. To avoid this situation, it is ideal that both parents understand all languages spoken in the family.
To sum up, multilingualism is great, but living and raising children in a multilingual environment is far from easy! Families have to overcome several challenges that monolingual families do not have. However, the juice is worth the squeeze! The long-term benefits of multilingualism to both parents and children are worth the tremendous efforts, sacrifices, and sometimes frustration that this unique linguistic environment presents.
Obenaus, S. (2018) ‘It feels right for us’ – experiences of a multilingual family. Available at: http://www.bilingualism-matters.ppls.ed.ac.uk/it-feels-right-for-us-experiences-of-a-multilingual-family/.