Raising a Child on Many Languages

Amie: “Cold! Coooold.”Mama: “What does Baba say when it’s cold?”

Amie: “… Thanda!”

Mama: “Yes! And what does Mama say?”

Amie: “… Koud.”

Multilingual family

We are raising Amie on no less than three languages.  Her Baba (dad) speaks Bengali, her Mama Dutch, and since Baba and Mama don’t speak one another’s language very well, they communicate to one another in English. She also hears English at daycare, on playdates, in the street and through music.

One language per parent in theory

Our first intention was to keep the languages separate: I would speak Dutch, Baba Bengali, and she’ll pick up English when we interact with the rest of the world. The “one language per parent” approach to raising a child multilingually appealed to our academic sense of order and organisation. We felt it makes sense, in theory. But in practice , it soon turned out,  it’s not that easy.

Switching languages in practice

It is difficult for me to turn to Amie and say something in Dutch just after speaking in English with her Baba. Not speaking much Dutch except to her and occasionally on the phone with family and friends in Belgium, I’m just not that fluent at the switch. Also, whereas doing that is supposed to keep the child’s languages separate in her mind, I think it would just confuse her.

Who are you talking to?

I’ve also observed that, very often, I would say something to her that was really meant for her Baba . This happened especially when she was still an infant, and we were trying to expose her to as much language as we could without expecting a reply. For instance:

“Hey sweetie, don’t you think it’s your Baba’s turn to change your diaper?”

{Come to think of it, this is still a frequently used sentence in our household.}

Natural languages

The issue of Amie’s growing language skills is a fascinating one: she picks them up so effortlessly, so naturally. I have much to report, especially these days, now that she has just turned 20 months and is chatting up a storm, adding new words and grammatical skills to her repertoire every day. Based on my experience with her and the books I’ve been reading, I hope to write some articles on the topic soon.

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