One of the many common challenges bilingual families face is moving. Not just moving house, but very often moving countries, moving cultures, and moving languages. Bedrock points of reference such as family and friends shift massively in transitions such as these and the aftershocks can be felt for years to come. Our children’s perception of how their world is structured can take a major hit and that impact can be felt in their relationships at home and at school, in their academic performance, and of course in their language usage.
So what can bilingual families do to help their children surf the waves of change and come out the other side more resilient, more confident and even stronger in their bilingualism?
This topic is one very close to the surface for my family at the moment. We have only very recently uprooted ourselves and come to live in the lovely Dandenong Ranges in Victoria. We were living in South-East Queensland and knew the time had come when the evolving pressures of our children’s requirements meant that it was time to move on. Our daughter was turning 6 and due to start Prep this year and our son was 4 and attending kindergarten. We knew the most important element in our children’s next stage of development would be their school, their corresponding circle of friends and the community attached to that. We began an Australia-wide search for a school we felt would be right for our children and decided upon a lovely little school here in the Hills. It was time to make the move!
We knew we had made the right decision but the logistics of moving a whole family interstate are complicated and meant that the move would be made in several stages. My partner and I have moved countries together many times in the past, but that was before we had the children. I left our home with the kids just after Christmas- just me, two kids and a whole car full of stuff, supposed to tide us over for one month (worst case scenario). My partner would stay behind, finish his work commitments, get our house ready for tenants and tie up all our loose ends in Queensland. He would join us before the end of January (worst case scenario). We knew no one in Melbourne, we had no house to go to, no family to stay with, no accommodation booked. All we knew was the kids were enrolled in school/kindergarten and were due to start on the last day of January. We were winging it.
We spent all of January house-hunting out of our car. It was long, it was stressful, I was on my own, money was very tight and real estate agents really don’t care. We were new to the area, my partner and I are both self-employed, we are home owners and so don’t have any rental history and we have a dog. I put in no less than 22 rental applications before we were finally awarded a house. It felt like we had won the lottery. We moved in on the 29th of January, the very day before school started. We lived in our completely empty house sleeping on a mattress on the floor until our things were delivered from Queensland, two weeks later. And there was still no sign of the children’s father being able to join us. His work situation kept blowing out and blowing out, every new deadline was exceeded and pushed back again. My birthday at the beginning of March came and went. He finally joined us at the end of March, two weeks before the end of Term 1. My nerves were completely shot.
In many ways we were quite fortunate during this period; I discovered a cousin of mine living in Melbourne and she very generously let us stay in her student share house several times, my mother flew down from the Northern Territory to help us and was invaluable support whilst juggling children, house inspections and constantly relocating to new temporary accommodation, we met a lovely local family near Cockatoo who wrote us a personal reference to help with our house-hunting, and once school started we quickly met other parents who were very friendly and welcoming, which made a big difference. There were many challenges too, not the least of which being that my car broke down early on in the proceedings and was in the shop for over 6 weeks getting fixed!
I missed my partner, the stress of parenting on my own was building and the obvious effects on my children weighed very heavily on me. We had made this change for our children, for their benefit, and it was very hard to see them suffering some negative consequences. Both children manifested their experience of this stressful period in different ways.
My daughter began suffering separation anxiety at school drop-off each morning, she told me she had no friends, that she didn’t like her lessons, she wanted to stay home with me. Her teacher regularly pulled me aside to tell me she wasn’t settling in to class, she wasn’t learning as expected, she wasn’t engaging with her peers. I knew my daughter to be a very confident, exceptionally bright and very social little girl. This didn’t sound like her at all.
My son, on the other hand, happily skipped off to kindergarten every day without looking back and had a jolly old time there by all accounts. But at home his behaviour changed drastically. He had up until then had a nascent fear of the dark, something my daughter never had. We had been addressing it within the family, talking about it, reading stories on the subject, providing him with night-light toys, etc etc and we thought we had it pretty much under control. But after the move this fear ballooned out and began encompassing not just the dark, but any kind of shadow, even in broad daylight, suddenly ‘monsters’ were everywhere. He began to be afraid of being alone, then of being in the next room from me, then of being more than a few metres from me, and culminated in him not being able to be out of physical contact with me. All of this had been very troubling to me, but I sort of thought I could fix it. My son spoke incessantly about when Daddy was coming and I realised that his sense of insecurity was rooted in his father’s absence. He didn’t feel safe. One morning he was sitting on the floor at my feet playing with blocks and one fell and rolled to an arm’s-length away from him. He went to reach out for it and stopped. He was too frightened to even reach out with his arm. I reached for the phone and made an appointment to see a child psychologist. I couldn’t believe it; my happy, confident, easy-going little boy was suffering intense fear and anxiety.
Thankfully, my partner (and the family dog) finally arrived two weeks after this incident and, as if a fairy had waved some kind of magical wand, this anxiety evaporated almost instantaneously like a mist. My son’s world was back the way it was supposed to be and he could go back to being happy and carefree. My daughter’s separation anxiety resolved as well and by the beginning of Term 2 she was relaxed and ready to head back to school.
During this time my children’s bilingualism also faced its challenges. In some ways it was a privileged time; away from my partner (who speaks to the children primarily in English), we were able to keep an exclusively French-speaking environment at home. But then when my mother came to help us and whilst staying at all the various forms of temporary accommodation, we were thrown into English-speaking situations where our language was not understood at all. I was also a lot more stressed than usual and the normal amount of quality time I would spend with my children exchanging productively in French was greatly replaced by harried conversations, frantic car trips and extended stints in front of English-language television. And then once school started, there was a great barrage of dominant-language reality to deal with… but that’s a whole new post!
This is the story of my family’s move from inland rural Queensland to the sunny (read, rainy) climes of The Dandenongs, Victoria. It is tiny and straight-forward compared to the story of families who have emigrated from another country to come and live in our lucky country, who have left their homes and families, their neighbours and friends, their culture and their language to begin their new life here. Yet the challenges we face are the same, even if the magnitude is quite different. My children missed (and still miss) their grandparents, their aunties and uncles, their friends, their familiar surroundings. And when they were experiencing the tumult of the initial adjustment period, they greatly missed the support and familiarity these faces and places gave them. They were greatly destabilised by such a complete change in their environment, the separation of their family unit and the introduction of such an enormous undertaking as beginning school. It was massive.
We cannot underestimate the enormity of this change for our families, and when this challenge has us in its grip, let us remember:
Be kind – this is very hard, we cannot be at our best right now, things are not perfect for the time being, but soon we will put everything to rights, this is a temporary situation.
Be flexible – we are often told, in parenting and especially in bilingual parenting; consistency consistency consistency! Don’t mix your languages! Don’t lapse! Don’t give up! But what we sometimes forget is that it is very often flexibility which wins the day when stormy winds blow.
Quality not quantity – in the midst of all the stresses of a major relocation, we as parents are necessarily not as available to our children as we are in calmer times, and this is when we need to harness the powers of quality. That one precious moment, just three minutes, when you sing a goodnight lullaby to your child, in your language, as they fall asleep after a long harassed day, is worth a thousand abbreviated answers between phone calls in English.
Prepare for setbacks – do not expect things to remain the same with your child’s language usage, or with their behaviour; everything else has changed for them and their inner world will reflect this. Allow them the space to readjust, reset and start again with the right foot forward when they are ready. You will be there to hold their hand and speak to them reassuringly in your language.
Reach out – as tempting as it can sometimes be to close ranks and shut the outside world out in times of stress, particularly when that world speaks a different language from you, try to resist this temptation. Throw your net out wide, the people who catch it will be a support not only for you but for your children, and with any luck you will make some brand new friends who speak your language and can help you with the ever-rewarding task of raising your children bilingually.
What is your family’s experience? I would love to hear your stories!
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