Multilingual Baby

Effective communication is one of life’s most important skills. Problems, conflicts, hurt feelings, mistakes, missed opportunities often arise from a failure to convey a message. A poor choice of words, a key detail omitted, or discord between aural and physical message can and often does cause real problems in relationships, in business, in life. 


The expat experience, where communication problems are compounded by the requirement that one navigate in a language and culture not one’s own, demands even grater attention to communication. One must learn to communicate accurately and with cultural sensitivity. It is, therefore, an over arching goal in my parenting that Stella learn to communicate easily, effectively and with sensitivity in multiple languages. 


I have an professional interest in language and language acquisition, having learned (badly) a second language and having worked on a number of different projects in the field of Second Language Acquisition (SLA). I’m sure that I’m not revealing any hidden truth when I say that language is at the heart of culture, and so speaking a language is vital to understanding the mindset and worldview of a particular cultural tradition. So strong is the influence of language that it can even shape one’s personality. When I speak in Canadian English, I’m all deference, politeness, diplomacy. When I’m speaking in French, words, my body language, my whole demeanor is much more assertive, more opinionated.


We are raising a multilingual Third Culture Kid. Mr. Chef is multilingual Native Swiss-German speaker. I am a Native English speaker who has a handful of words in a few different languages and can “get by” in French. Stella is a native baby babble speaker. I speak English to Stella; her Papi speaks to her 95 percent of the time in Swiss German, and she attends daycare in Japanese. I encourage Japanese friends to speak to Stella in Japanese, even though I don’t understand what they are saying to her.


We are raising a multilingual Third Culture Kid not because I want a badge of awesomeness - hey! look at my genius multilingual child can say poop in three languages! - but because I want Stella to appreciate and understand and know the cultures that shape her. Stella’s Swiss grandparents speak English at a very high level of proficiency. Yet, I still feel strongly that to truly understand their point of view, she needs to speak to them in Swiss German. The same for the countries in which we find ourselves; I hope and expect that Stella will make friends with local children, and therefore she’ll need to have a basic working knowledge of the language, whatever that may be.


We are raising a multi-lingual Third Culture Kid, and now I’m realizing that I actually have no idea how to go about doing this. Thinking about multi-lingual parenting brings up so many questions: how does her little brain process all this input? Will she be behind in linguistic milestones? How do I engender a love of and respect of language? How do I avoid the common situation “I understand by I don’t speak”? What if she has learning disabilities? (I mean she’s a scooter not a crawler, is my progeny, and therefore probably doomed to be dyslexic) What happens then?


A lot of questions. A lot to learn about. And so, I’m going to start reading, and writing occasionally on issues related to multilingualism in children. Exciting! I know! (Try to to cry your eyes out in boredom.)