Her name is Celeste Buckingham. Besides being young, beautiful and extremely talented young lady and a successful singer and actress, she comes from a multilingual family. Her mom has Iranian-russian origin and dad US-Irish. She was born in Switzerland. On top of all of that she lived in Slovakia for the most part of her life until recent, when she moved to the USA with her family.

Getting dizzy? Yeah, and that is not all.  Celeste has a Slovak citizenship and a US passport as well as a Swiss citizenship. So how did she find herself in Slovakia?

Her dad is a doctor and after her parents moved from the USA to Switzerland where they lived for 2 years and she was born there, he was offered a job in Slovakia. They loved it there so much that they stayed. Even though she has no Slovak relatives or a family, she considers Slovakia as one of her homes.

Celeste speaks fluent Slovak (she lived here most of her life so naturally learned the language through daily communication) and English (Her dad is American, so English is the language of choice in the Buckingham household) . Celeste’s mum admits she used to talk to Celeste in Persian, as she has Iranian roots. When in LA they speak German with each other, as many people in LA do understand Persian.

Now imagine a family where mom is Caucasian and dad African-american with kids or vice versa. We bet it’s nothing out of the ordinary and you wouldn’t even give it a second thought. People move, change jobs or travel, so naturally get to know new people while at it. So it happens, that by getting to know new people, many even find a lifelong partner. Children naturally become part of such relationships.

Kids are therefore growing up in a dual world. World of two different cultures, habits, ways of life and of course languages.

Two worlds

Generally speaking, when two people from two different cultures fall in love, they are naturally interested in learning about each other’s cultures as much and as fast as possible. That of course includes the languages. Often this being the number one issue.

Which language will be “the primary one”? But what if there are kids involved, which there often are? Mostly both parents naturally want their children to be able to speak both, mom’s and dad’s mother tongue. This is where things get complicated.

The first issue such parents face is a fear, that if each of them speaks to kids in their natural language, they will get really confused. That however is not an issue. According to the Linguistic Society of America kids are able to easily differentiate between different ways people are talking to them. Besides that, kids even know the difference between when a women and a man is talking to them or when someone is talking politely and impolitely.

So if you are worried about the bilingual issue, don’t be. Kids are taking it as just another way of parents talking to them.  If we put this into some numbers, this is how it would go:

  • U. S Census Bureau released some vital stats in 2015 on languages spoken at home other than English according to which for example in the New York metro area at least 192 different languages are spoken at home.
  • 38% of this metro area population from the age of 5 and higher speak a language other than English at home.
  • Let’s compare it with for example LA metropolitan area: at least 185 languages are spoken at home and 54% aged 5 or more speak another language besides English in their homes.

To teach or not to teach (and how) 

Parents are teaching their kids everything. Walking, talking, smiling and of course they are keen to teach them the language of their “youth”. But where to start? How? What with? How much time should they devote to such activity per day or week? These and many other questions are many multilingual parents faced with.

Most of the time, one of the two languages you want them to learn will be the “more important, dominant” one. The real fun is in the ability to provide enough opportunities for them to use the “less important” one in a way that doesn’t feel forced or artificial. The best way is to put kids on purpose into many situations where only the “less important” language is used. This will prevent them not to be tempted to mix the two languages or simply go back to the one they consider “more important”.

Teachers and language experts are advising multilingual families the “one-parent-one-language” method. The idea is that mom always speaks her mother tongue with kids and dad his mother tongue with them. This is a very good start, but nowhere near the end of the story.

It’s all about the balance

As with everything in life, balance is incredibly important when it comes to the issue of dual language families. Kids need to be constantly exposed to both parents languages in many different situations. That doesn’t mean being exposed to the already mentioned more and less important languages just at home but also outside in the “real world” such as school, playground, extra curricular activities or kindergarten or at the grandparents place.

Especially to the less important, as there will always be a dominance of one language. Videos or TV shows in the “less important” language can help a great deal too.

Parents need to remember couple of very important factors:

  • One is keeping it natural and never EVER force their kids. If they feel even slightly forced, they will naturally resist it and develop a negative emotion towards the language. Once that happens, it is nearly impossible to fix.
  • The other one is exclusion. This can be a problem if each of the parents are only speaking their own language and neither of them speaks the others ones mother tongue. Kids can therefore naturally feel scared to say something in a particular language in fear that the other parent will not be able to understand them. Therefore both parents should be making every effort possible to try to learn each other’s language so that nobody in the family will be missing out on a conversation.

The world we all live in today is more diverse than it’s ever been. What we can do is be as inclusive as we can possible be and do our bit to help kids from multilingual families as well as their parents to get accepted with in the society they live in and fast become a vital part of the community around them.

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