By Corey Heller
Photo credit: Spirit-Fire
We have all done it. We have said things to our children that we later regretted. Maybe we yelled at them. Maybe we threatened. Maybe we bribed. Yes, we may have even grovelled a little bit (or a lot).
Being a parent means that we make mistakes, many mistakes. We aren’t perfect. Our children aren’t perfect. All we can do is to try our best to learn from our mistakes and to savor our successes.
Finding the balance between authority figure and partner in crime with our children can be very difficult, especially the older our children become. Should we be strict in a given situation? Or should we give in and let our child do what he or she wants?
When it comes to multilingualism, what is most important is that we try to make multilingualism in our lives as comfortable and normal as possible. We need to keep an eye on the long-term goals in the hopes that our strategies will help us to achieve them, rather than sabotage them.
Note that it isn’t always just the words we say that have an impact on our children. It can be that look in our eye, the tone we use or that special way that we let our children know that we are/aren’t happy with what they are doing. Be careful with how you use these things when it comes to your children’s bilingualism.
Here is a list of top 10 things to avoid saying to our bilingual children (or to someone else in front of them!), even if we don’t use the actual words below:
1. “You aren’t even trying to say that correctly!” Young children almost always strive to please their parents, even if they don’t show it. Rarely do they purposely pronounce letters or words incorrectly on purpose, so getting frustrated with our child for making a linguistic mistake won’t get the results that we are looking for. In fact, it just might make our child never want to speak our language again. Instead, we should use encouraging words (even if we think our little one is just being lazy). We should find ways to help our child hear and mimic our sounds and words as much as possible. As always: if we suspect a speech or language disorder, we should contact a specialist!
2. “How many times have I told you… !?” Contrary to what many people say, children are not necessarily sponges when it comes to language. Sometimes children pick up words and phrases quickly, other times it is more laborious. Not surprisingly, children who are are given opportunities to be fully engaged with the language over a long period of time learn languages more quickly. If your child doesn’t seem to be picking up your language as quickly as you would like, then find ways to offer more natural language exposure in comfortable environments. Each of our children is a unique individual and will pick up language as quickly or slowly as is right for him/her.
3. “Show your aunt/friend/teacher how well you can speak (language x)!” Showing off our children’s language skills is a big no-no. It is one thing to reassure someone that our child can, in fact, speak a language (e.g. for school) but showing off to a family member, friend or stranger is never, ever a good idea. First of all, it makes our children feel like their language is something unnatural and an oddity. Secondly, it teaches our children that showing off is acceptable and encouraged. Asking our child if he or she would like to teach someone else how to say something in a second language is different. It is fun to share skills with one another!
4. “I am going to get angry with you if you don’t speak (language x).” Punishing a child for not speaking our language in any way, shape or form may have short-term results but it almost always backfires in the long run. Punishment is different than reminding your child about family rules that have been agreed upon. If we punish our children for not speaking to us in our language, we will be building resentment in our children. Our child might do what we want right now but only out of fear, not out of a sense of familial involvement. The most important element is to keep lines of communication and discussion open. The more our children resists speaking our language, the more understanding, empathetic and honest we need to be with ourselves and our children.
5. “You have to work very, very hard if you want to be a bilingual/multilingual.” Family bilingualism should feel as natural as possible for our young children. No one said that our children need to jump up every morning excited to speak our language. But making it feel like horrible drudgery is also not the answer. We should help our children feel that bilingualism is simply a part of our lives, just as are many things that our families do on a daily basis. Definitely feel free to pull out some workbooks with your older bilingual children but try to keep it as fun and enjoyable as possible.
6. “You are better/smarter than others because you are bilingual/multilingual.” Helping a child feel empowered by bilingualism is good. Encouraging a child to feel superior because of it is not. This is true for our children’s biculturalism as well! We can help our children feel good about bilingualism by using positive examples and supportive discussion topics. Saying things like, “Isn’t it wonderful that you can speak Russian with your father and me?” is positive. Telling our children that they are smarter because they know Russian may actually cause them to feel extra pressure and start to think, “If I don’t get the highest marks in class, does that mean that I am letting my family down and am no longer truly bilingual?” No child should grow up feeling this kind of pressure (or sense of superiority) because of bilingualism or biculturalism!
7. “You hurt me when you don’t speak (language x).” Our children should not be made to feel guilty because of our feelings about their bilingualism. It is fine to let our children know how we feel about them speaking our language but we need to take full ownership of our feelings. Before we say anything to our children, we need to work through our hurt feelings. It can be helpful to start by sitting down with our spouse to share our feelings and brainstorming ideas. Once that has been done, coming together as a family is almost always beneficial. Discussing feelings, expectations and disappointments with our children is highly encouraged, as long as everyone gets the chance to have their say (children included) and everyone uses “I statements” when talking about how they feel.
8. “Look how well your brother/friend/other student speaks (language x).” Comparing one child to another is never a good idea. It can create rifts between children which otherwise may never have come about and creates an unhealthy atmosphere for growth and development. Being that every child is different and unique in his and her own way, another child’s language competence or eagerness really has nothing to do with our child. Comparing and contrasting this way will only lead to a general sense of anxiety and resentment, especially down the road. Be careful that you don’t talk with others about your child’s language skills when he/she is in earshot!
9. “I am disappointed in you when you don’t speak (language x).” This is something we often say less with words and more with the way we act toward out children when they don’t speak our language. Our children should be able to know that without a doubt their worth in our eyes is not tied to their bilingualism. They should also know that their own self-worth as a human being has nothing to do with whether they are bilingual or not. If our children ever feel that they are only loved because they speak our language, then language will ultimately become a pivotal point of contention down the road. When our children test us by not using our language, they are doing so to see how we will react. Often it comes from a need to see whether they will still receive love or not, even if they don’t do what we want. We need to make sure that our children know that we love them fully and completely, even if we are upset about their language use.
10. “I will reward you if you speak (language x).” Even though rewards seem to work in the short-term, they often lose their appeal down the road. Ultimately, the only way to keep a child interested in rewards is to make the reward continually bigger and bigger. Children who only speak our language because they will receive a reward are being taught that using our language is actually just a means to getting a prize; the language itself is actually not important at all, the reward at the end is all that matters. It relegates our language to taking out the trash for the weekly allowance. Instead of offering rewards, we should find ways to make our language useful, interesting and meaningful. Playing games in the language, connecting with family or friends via Skype, and reading captivating books are great ways to get children interested in our language.
Even though many of us can identify with an item or two in this list that we have done over the years, it is never too late to change our ways! The thing to remember is that family always comes first. Bilingualism is important but only if it isn’t causing deep-rooted bitterness in our family. Our children need to know that language is something that they own and which is a part of them on their own terms. If our language feels like a set of heavy shackles, weighing our children down, then it will be no surprise when our children rebel.
The best is when we can make bilingualism in our homes more like a rose garden or a theme park or a swim on a hot summer’s day!
What things would you add to this top 10 list? What are things that you said to your children that you later regretted? Have you ever used rewards or punishments with your children when they didn’t speak your language?
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