I was talking with a mum a little while ago and she was telling me about some of the challenges she was facing with her bilingual children at the moment, issues that I know only too well: the children (school-age) don’t want to speak their parents’ language, they hate going to Saturday language school, they are not responding to their parents’ efforts to get them to use their language, they have formed a negative opinion of their minority language and just want to be the same as all their friends… in short, they are right on the brink of language rejection. This is a really tricky place to come back from once you’re there and, to be honest, this is the cross-roads where lots of bilingual families decide “you know what, this is all just too hard” and they fall off the bilingual bandwagon. The kids grow up with English only and once they’re adults they look back and say “Mum, Dad, why didn’t you give me your language when I was little? It’s so much harder now!”
This mum is in exactly the kind of situation where I CAN REALLY HELP. This is exactly what Little Bilinguals is all about, I try and catch those families that fall through the cracks because they just don’t get the kind of support, understanding and just plain advice they need to continue on with the bilingual goals they began with. So I was telling this mum about what I do and suggested she come in to see me for a consultation, like urgently. And she just did not see what I could do to help her. She was really stuck on the idea of her kids just needing more language classes, maybe some more homework, a better tutor, extra reading and writing tasks, etc etc etc. And I felt really helpless. She just couldn’t see the value in working with a bilingualism consultant to resolve the language issues she had in front of her. It’s been bothering me ever since because I just know that if she does go ahead with simply increasing the intensity of the academic load on her children in their minority language, she will actually be driving them towards hating her language, and then the game is lost. And it’s soooooooo saveable!!!
Another misconception I come across a lot is that Little Bilinguals is like language classes or tuition for bilingual children. It isn’t. I know this can be confusing (especially seeing as I am actually a French teacher as well, when I’m wearing that hat), but bilingualism consultations with me are not language classes. I will not be helping your child with their grammar or giving them vocabulary-building exercises or testing their language prowess in any way. So what will I be doing in a consultation???
Okay, let’s break it down.
Think of me as a personal trainer for bilingual families. You know how you set yourself a fitness goal and you’re really motivated but getting yourself up at 6am each morning to go for a run is just really hard work? And then you pull a hamstring and don’t know whether you should push through it or rest or see a physio or… So you hire a personal trainer. They come and assess your current fitness level, identify things you’re misinformed about at the moment, help you work out fitness goals that are appropriate to you, tailor-design a fitness plan that takes into account your schedule, your strengths and weaknesses, your other commitments and your existing support network, and then they hold your hand along the way until you know you can keep going on your own. Oh, and they also answer your call months later when you’ve fallen off the wagon and give you the motivation and inspiration to get back on track. Well that’s me. That’s what I do, only I don’t care about your fitness (I mean I do, you should keep fit, it’s good for you), I care about your languages and, more specifically, I care about your children’s languages.
So let’s apply that same scenario to a language situation:
A family decides they want to raise their children bilingually; they want their child to be able to communicate with their family and appreciate their culture and they know being bilingual is good for your brain and gives you an academic advantage over monolinguals. Great. They make a strong start, speaking to the kids in their minority language from birth, even though it feels a bit weird at first, they push through it and soon they’re having a lovely bond in their own language with their child. It’s amazing! Then family, friends, child carers, school teachers, random people in the supermarket start to criticise: “why are you speaking to Junior in Dutch? We live in Australia! He doesn’t need Dutch, it won’t be useful to him, you’ll just confuse him, you’ll affect his ability to learn English properly, maybe let him learn English first and then teach him Dutch later if he wants to learn it, you’re not going to be able to teach him to read Dutch all by yourself are you so why are you bothering?” The parents start to second guess themselves. “Is that true? Are they right? Am I doing the wrong thing by my child?” They keep going because they still believe it’s the right thing, but now they have doubts. Then Junior doesn’t start speaking when the other kids at playgroup do. The parents worry a bit more. “Is something wrong? Are we doing the wrong thing?” They keep going, but maybe they’re a little bit quieter when they speak to their child in Dutch. They’re a little less proud of their bilingual parenting strategy. Then Junior does start to speak, a handful of words from each language, some English, some Dutch. Amazing! People start to comment: “what’s that he’s saying? I don’t understand him. Do you think he knows what he’s saying?” The parents don’t know. Junior moves confidently ahead into sentences, he mixes all his new-found vocabulary from both his languages together. His parents understand him, but no one else does. The critics get louder. “He’s confused, he’s mixing his languages, he doesn’t speak either language properly”. The parents start to have serious doubts now. And what if Junior also develops a lisp? Or a stutter? It must be because he’s bilingual! The parents are seriously rattled now and soon Junior begins to answer only in English, even when his parents speak to him in Dutch. As he heads further out into the world, starting at kindergarten and then primary school, he begins to form a solid opinion about speaking Dutch with his parents. He doesn’t want to. He doesn’t feel as comfortable or confident in Dutch as he does in English, his vocabulary’s not as strong, he’s not sure of his pronunciation, it feels a bit weird, his friends look at him strangely when his parents speak in Dutch to him and make awkward comments. He decides he wants to be just like all the other kids. He refuses to speak Dutch. The parents try everything they can think of to get Junior to speak Dutch with them again but he only becomes more defensive. Then his teacher pulls the parents aside and says their child’s bilingualism is affecting his learning how to read and write in English, he’s confusing his vowel sounds, it would be better if they left off with the Dutch for the time being and just let him find his feet in English first. The parents, sadly, abandon their bilingual goals for their son and find that they just can’t get back to it later. It’s too hard. Junior grows up just like any other Australian child. He doesn’t even feel Dutch. Everyone regrets the result in the long term, but really, what could we have done differently?
Insert me. At any one of these stages I could have helped this family. All of these problems are completely normal for multilingual families, common in fact, and all of them can be resolved. Like in so many other areas of life, so often it is simply lack of understanding or support (and any amount of criticism helps too) that leads us to abandon worthy goals, which we later regret. So I want to stop this happening.
I know it’s a little out of the box for many people, we’ve never heard of a bilingualism consultant before, it’s a bit of a new idea. But it’s a familiar concept, just in a new context. When I was having trouble breastfeeding my daughter, I saw a lactation consultant. When I need to get my diet and nutrition back on track, I look up a nutritionist. And I suppose if I find myself one day in a deep hole with my life and career and relationships, I would consider consulting a life coach. Hope I never get there! Similarly, when my mum’s parrot kept biting her she found an animal behaviourist and when our dog developed separation anxiety we called a dog trainer. This is simply called consulting an expert in any area where you lack expertise yourself. I am a linguist with a special interest in bilingualism and language acquisition, and am currently raising my own children bilingually. I am also a translator and language teacher (but that’s separate from Little Bilinguals). I am the person you can pick up the phone to and talk the whole thing over with when you don’t know how to best deal with what’s going on with your family’s bilingualism.
So, that in a nutshell is what I am all about!
So if you’re that bilingual mum from my story, PLEASE pick up the phone and make an appointment to see me. I PROMISE I can help you! PROMISE!!!
What do you think? Can you relate to any of these multilingual issues? Would you consider seeing a bilingualism consultant? Or what would stop you?
As always, jump in the comments below and let me know what you think!