Adapting your family bilingual plan is often necessary, especially if what you're doing isn't working or if you decide you want to go from two languages to three or more. Being observant of your family's changing needs and identifying the right changes is critical to raising happy bilingual or trilingual kids. And this is exactly what Olena of Bilingual Kids Rock has done.
There are many different ways to teach children language. Not every household is going to use the same system! Recognizing that your system isn’t working — and changing it — can be one of the biggest challenges in bilingual child rearing. My family went through this challenge. It’s been a slow and rocky process at times, but I’m grateful that we were able to recognize our needs and start changing our system! Here is our family’s journey in switching our language methods, which I hope you find useful in your own family’s choices.
Conventional vs. convential methods for multilingualism
The conventional wisdom in bilingualism is that in early childhood one parent or care giver should speak only one language to a child and not to mix in a different language or it will confuse the child. And this set up often works very well, which is why it is very popular. There are different variations to this arrangement:
- Both parents speak one minority language to a child
- One parent speaks minority language and another one majority language
- One parent speaks minority language #1 and another one speaks minority language #2
But all of these variations expect only one language coming from one parent (or caregiver). And you can find a lot of advice for these particular situations.
But what if one parent is bilingual herself and is the only person around the child who can pass both of the languages? That is when it gets little bit complicated and conventional wisdom often does not work. I did not want to just drop one language and because there was no one else around who would regularly speak third language to my children, I had to figure out other options.
I grew up bilingual from birth: I was raised in a household (and a country) where both Russian and Ukrainian were spoken regularly. My husband, on the other hand, speaks only English. Our first child was born in Ukraine and we lived there until his third birthday. So he was in the same environment I grew up – surrounded by two languages from birth. The result: he understood Ukrainian and Russian and by the age of three he communicated in both languages. But when we moved to USA I became the only person who could provide the input for both languages on the daily basis. So I started a system wherein we spoke Russian during the week and Ukrainian on the weekends, with a big pancake breakfast on Saturdays to mark the transition each week.
Identifying changing needs
The five days Russian/two days Ukrainian system proved hard to sustain. The language wasn’t really the problem — it was the schedule! As my children grew older, their schedules started to fill, and it became harder and harder to set Saturday and Sunday firmly aside for Ukrainian-language interactions. Additionally, around the time my son was three, I had my second child, a daughter. I still followed the conventional wisdom that till 3-4 years I should speak only one language to my daughter so she won’t confused the languages. I choose Russian because I could find some community support verses there were none in Ukrainian. Speaking English with my husband, Ukrainian with my son, and Russian with my daughter two days a week quickly got out of hand. The system wasn’t working.
Making the switch to a new system
It’s hard to walk away from a language learning system you’ve set up. Not only does it feel like you’ve failed, you’re also worried about the impact on your children: will this affect their language learning? Will changing the system again confuse them? Fortunately, I happened to interview Maria of recently. Her unusual household system and her openness about experimenting with unconventional language systems encouraged me to try something different for my own kids.
My household now uses a system similar to Maria’s: I speak Russian for two weeks, and then Ukrainian for two weeks, and so on. (My husband, of course, continues to speak English the whole time!) That gives my children much more Ukrainian immersion, and means that a few busy days won’t completely disrupt their learning. It also gives me a longer stretch of time to get used to the switch, so that using Ukrainian can become more reflexive for me.
Has it been entirely problem-free? No. We’ve definitely encountered a few snags:
- It’s a new system. I’ve forgotten about the switch a couple of times and lapsed back into Russian. My kids have even been the ones to remind me at times!
- After so long only using Ukrainian for special occasions or a few days at a time, it doesn’t come to me automatically. I have to consciously remember to use it.
- My children know much more Russian than Ukrainian, and they’re used to me responding to Russian. When they don’t know the Ukrainian for something, they often use their Russian. That often triggers me to respond in Russian as well, since I’m so used to that being our interaction.
- My youngest child (two years old) gets frustrated when her Mommy uses “the wrong word” for something. She knows the Russian words for many things now, and will “correct” me if I use the Ukrainian word.
So it hasn’t all been smooth sailing! But I’m taking steps of my own to make the new system work better:
- During our Ukrainian weeks, I have a daily reminder pop up on my phone. I also sing Ukrainian songs to myself and try to watch Ukrainian-language media to keep myself more immersed.
- I tease and joke with my two year old until she can giggle about Mommy using the “wrong words” rather than being frustrated by them. The repetition also helps her learn the new word!
- I stick with the system even when it hits bumps. Transitions are never smooth, and I know that stopping halfway or giving up altogether would be worse for my children’s language development than a few mistakes along the way.
It’s a bit of a tough time for the household right now. We’re breaking old habits and establishing new ones, and everyone knows how hard that can be — whether it’s related to language usage or not!
In the long run, the benefits will be worth it. I really do think it’s important to have my children learn both their heritage languages, not just the more widely used one. A system that gives equal time to both languages serves my goals and their futures much better than our previous arrangement. I’m grateful to Maria for the chance to meet and interview. It gave me the courage to challenge the conventional wisdom, and switch to a system that will eventually raise trilingual children rather than bilingual!
Okay, I just have one thing to say. Doesn’t Olena have the most gorgeous family? They are all so beautiful! Thank you Olena for a wonderfully inspirational story about recognizing your multilingual family’s changing needs and adapting appropriately. I wish you all the best and can’t wait to hear more! And for all our friends reading today, make sure visit Olena’s website Bilingual Kids Rock for practical advice on how to raise bilingual children.
*All photos used with permission from Olena Centeno.