Tag Archives: First language

Bilingual teens and young adults (#IMLD 2015)


We can find many suggestions about how to support our children to become bilinguals* when they are toddlers, in preschool or primary school. But what happens when they are teenagers and young adults? Can we still support them with their family languages or other languages they’re learning along the way?

If culture was a house,

then language was the key to the front door,

to all the rooms inside

(Khaled Housseini)

Being bilingual and a teenager can be challenging, for both parents and children. Adolescence is a very intense period of physical and mental change, and all seems to revolve around finding an identity and fitting in with a group of friends.

How do teenagers juggle speaking two (or more) languages and belonging to two nationalities or cultures?

In my personal experience, talking two or more languages is not a problem per se during those years. Discovering literature in all the other languages I learned during my childhood and being able to really immerse into the cultures and the mindset of these cultures during holidays was (and still is!) very fascinating and enriching.

If we want our teenagers to stay  bilingual,

they need to know about the cultures


What I found more challenging was the expectation locals would have. People would expect me to know what peers in that other culture and country would rave about.

My parents made sure that we would visit Germany once or twice per year for an extended period. They wanted to make sure that we could meet peers. Even if only for a few days we had the great opportunity to get to know the culture through peers’ eyes.

I recall that despite very easy beginnings – after all, we all spoke the same language! – we would soon discover that we have different expectations. Locals would expect us to understand their slang, jokes and to know what they were talking about (TV shows, what is “in” etc.).

I quickly realised that I didn’t share the same taste in food, music, literature. I wouldn’t know about the latest movies, spots, sport idols. I wouldn’t know the newest gossips and soon feel alienated and “different”. Knowing that I didn’t have to stay for a long time, made me yet enjoy those moments and appreciate the short but intense friendships.

Nowadays, thanks to internet etc., being in touch with cultures around the world is much easier. – We can all access informations in no time and get a virtual impression of the “other” culture.

Today, I encourage my children to watch news from the different countries we want them to be more familiar with. They know about the idols, they understand the (most of the) jokes and, up to now, do not feel alienated when they spend some days with peers in Germany or Switzerland twice per year. Even if my children are not teenagers yet, I know that peer pressure is very high and being the one who talks German (and Italian) to them, who explains the other culture to them is not going to suffice.



Some tips for parents who want to support their teens bilingualism and biculturalism:

  • bear in mind that teenagers rate peers higher than parents!
  • foster social networking: chatting via webcams is a great way to keep the other language alive. It is a great alternative to Saturday schools or parents teaching these languages at home!
  • be open minded when it comes to slang (and swearwords!). While growing up abroad, bilinguals will use the language in an “artificial context”. Allowing your child to use the slang their monolingual peers use, will help them fit in easier once you visit the country.
  • help them find resources to have access to the local slang.
  • make sure they know about the habits and values of peers in the other culture.
  • travel as often as you can to different places of your family languages and offer them opportunities to meet peers (by enrolling them in some local activities they like).
  • if you can’t travel that often and provide full language immersion, look out to other families that speak the same language where you live.
  • find panpals for your children – using social media may also be an option, but if you would like your children to improve their written skills in the other language(s), writing in the “old fashioned way” is advisable.

I wrote this post for our International Mother Language Day Campain on Facebook (cfr. #IMLD), where we published links about several topics related to raising the awareness of “mother (and father) languages” since January the 21rst.


(* I use the term of bilingual also for multilinguals.)


Bilingualism and homework (part 1)

I recently discussed this topic with linguists and parents who are raising their children bilingually and I noticed that people generally tend to jump onto general conclusions way too quickly.

Parents who send their children to an international school where lessons are held in another language often struggle when it comes to doing homeworks.

The question I often hear from parents and that induces me to write this post is: “Do I need to do homework with my child in his/her mothertongue or is it enough if she/he does the homework in the school language?”

There is not an overall answer, because there are differenct appraisal factors to consider.

First of all, if using the mother language helps to understand the topic of the homework, it would surely be important to switch to it.

Especially with literacy homework it is very helpful to discuss the topic of a text or book in the first language so that the child really gets the meaning of the text in the school language.

Parents often assume that their children fully understand a text because they are able to “perfectly” read it phonetically. We can’t be ” perfectly bilingual” after 2 weeks or a few months at school.

Fact is that children first of all learn the phonetics. They simply repeat the soundchains. So, for example, they would be able to say “Good morning”, “Thank you”, “May I have… please” very quickly. But only when they use a broader spectrum of sentences with similar words they will be able to understand that for example, “good” can be combined with “morning” , “evening”, “job”, “girl”, “boy” etc. Very slowly they will divide those sound chains into actual words and morphemes.

It takes children from 5 to 9/10 years to catch up on monolingual peers language-wise.

Therefore, when we send our children to a school where they’ll be immersed into another language the whole day, we’ll need to support them process what they’ve learned at home by using our family languages.

When our children come home with a book to read aloud, our task is to question them about the text. Asking them to paraphrase the text is a great way to understand whether they understand the plot or not.

We can ask them to find other words, synonyms for words that may be more difficult. – Obviously, in order to do this we should have a great proficiency in the school language too! – But what if this is not the case?

Many parents struggle with this and I know that some take extra language lessons in order to be able to help their children at school.

But if one doesn’t have the time to do so, or finds it really hard to catch up with the language, my advice is to try to find other words in the family language and if the child asks for more synonyms in the school language, don’t hesitate to use the dictionary. I know many parents who improved their languages by learning alongside their children.

What seems very logical and relatively easy for literacy, becomes more complex for other disciplines. (see part 2 soon)


Mothertongue, first language, native language or dominant language?

In the strictest sense, we all have a mothertongue as we all have only one (biological) mother. – But does this mean that the language our mother did talk to us is automatically our mother tongue? What about this friend I had in school, who was adopted when she was 2 and grew up in a Dutch family: would her mother tongue be Swahili because her mum was talking Swahili to her or would it be Dutch, because this was the language the mother who adopted her did talk to her?

Usually, mothertongue (or fathertongue!) defines the first language we were exposed to, our L1, the first language we speak, the one we grew up with or that our parents (or caregivers) did speak with us. And usually people tend to speak this language for a long time.

If we want to define the first language we speak, learn and feel comfortable with, the term first language may seem more appropriate. This first language doesn’t have to be one. In multilingual families it can be two or three: the important aspect to define a language as first language is, that the child uses it on a regular basis, preferably every day – linguists suggest that an exposure of at least 20% of the daily time would be optimal for a child to become (almost) equally proficient in the family languages. If there are more than one first languages in a family, we can also use the term of family languages: these would be for example the language a child talks with the mother, another one with the father, a third one with a caregiver (i.e. at daycare, school etc.), maybe a next one with extended family or locals, a fourth one with friends…

My parents only spoke German with me and my sister, but we were exposed to Italian since day one. We didn’t “learn” it in the conventional, academical way, so Italian counts as our second-mother-tongue or one of our first languages. – Usually, when people ask me which is my mother tongue (or mother language) I answer German and Italian. Both languages are still equally dominant and valuable for me.

If I analize the different phases in my life, there were phases where Italian or French or German were dominant languages in my life. I’ve spent about 4 years talking mainly Italian and French (and did study Old-French and Old-Provençal, which felt like “living” in this time and period!). During that period I really had difficulties communicating in German. I struggled every time.

Only when this linguistical situation changed and I did focus more on German and Italian, my German became more dominant. English was the fourth language I’ve learned and I didn’t use it very often from age 20 to 34. I did re-activate and improve it when we moved to the Netherlands, along with Dutch that I learned with my son.

In the last 8 years, English and Dutch became the most dominant languages, with German being our family language.

Therefore, my first languages are now German, English and Dutch, with occasionally Italian (the language that still feels like the closest to my heart!), French and Swissgerman.

Using a term like family language would also be an option, but then it would mean that the whole family (maybe even the extended family?) shares these languages or gives them the same value. But this, in a family of five (even three would be enough!) is not very realistic. Also, using first language instead of family language, I would inply that the dominance of the languages within a family can change throughout time. Situations change, we move abroad, we immerse into other cultures and languages and within a multilingual family this can be a reason for prefering one language to another – even if only for a certain period of time.

Which are my children’s first languages?

From a chronological point of view, this would be Italian and Swissgerman for all of my children, but only for their first years.

This changed when they started attending the Dutch crèche and then an English school.

Today – I should better say “at the moment”! – they consider German and English as their first languages and of course Dutch. They don’t feel that confident in Swissgerman or Italian (at the moment). But I know, by my own experience, that this can change if the linguistic situation changes again or if they just decide to talk them more often.

For multilingual children whom’s linguistic situation within the family and social context changes in their early years, the concept of first language changes too.

The first language or mother tongue plays an important role in sociolinguistics, as it is the basis for people’s sociolinguistic identity. Terms like native language or mother tongue refer to an ethnic group rather than to the first language.

Native speakers are considered to be “authority on their given language due to their natural acquisition process regarding the language, versus having learned the language later in life”. In this case, my native languages would be German, Italian, Swissgerman and Dutch because I did acquire them naturally, without studying them. I did not “learn” them at school, I did imitate speakers and copy sentences. The fact that someone is a “native” speaker because he or she did learn this language in an early stage, doesn’t really make sense to me. We are perfectly able to learn a language in a “natural” way also in a later stage of our life. In the same way, the mother tongue can be no longer the dominant one later in life (cfr. language attrition).

In his lecutre “English and Welsh” in 1955, J.R.R. Tolkien distinguishes the “native tongue” from the “cradle tongue”. The cradle tongue being the language we learn during early childhood and the native tongue “may be different, possibly determined by an inherited linguistic taste, and may later in life be discovered by a strong emotional affinity to a specific dialect (Tolkien confessed to such an affinity to the Middle English of the West Midlands in particular)” (cfr. pdf of “English and Welsh” by J.R.R. Tolkien)

We each have our own personal linguistic potential: we each have a native language. But that is not the language that we speak, our cradle-tongue, the first-learned. Linguistically we all wear ready-made clothes, and our native language comes seldom to expression, save perhaps by pulling at the ready-made till it sits a little easier. But though it may be buried, it is never wholly extinguished, and contact with other languages may stir it deeply.

My chief point here is to emphasize the difference between the first-learned language, the language of custom, and an individual’s native language, his inherent linguistic predilections: not to deny that he will share many of these with others of his community. He will share them, no doubt, in proportion as he shares other elements in his make-up. (cfr. “English and Welsh” by J.R.R. Tolkien, p.18)

The predilection of a language is, in my opinion, more important than the chronological place it has in our language acquisition history. For me, personally, the language I prefer speaking and that is closest to my heart and I’m more spontaneous in, is not the language my parents talked to me during the first period of my life.

lingua madre

lingua madre (Photo credit: Gianfranco Goria)

About the origin of the term mother tongue

“The origin of the term mother tongue harks back to the notion that linguistic skills of a child are honed by the mother and therefore the language spoken by the mother would be the primary language that the child would learn.” However, this type of culture-specific notion is a misnomer. The term was used by Catholic monks to designate a particular language they used, instead of Latin, when they are “speaking from the pulpit”.That is, the “holy mother of the Church” introduced this term and colonies inherited it from the Christianity as a part of their colonial legacy, thanks to the effort made by foreign missionaries in the transitional period of switching over from 18th-century Mercantile Capitalism to 19th-century Industrial Capitalism in India.” (cfr. wikipedia)

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When you end up talking another language with your kids…

When you are multilingual and start having kids, you have to choose which language you’ll talk to your children. Linguists always recommend to talk your “mothertongue” to you children. But which is the mothertongue if you are perfectly bilingual? In my case: should I talk Italian or German to my kids?

When our son was born, we lived in Italy and as Italian is one of my mother tongues, it was very natural for me to talk Italian to him from the beginning. Our home languages were Italian (me and my son), Swissgerman (my husband and my son) and German (my husband and me) and we were convinced that he would pick up German automatically too.

When we moved to the Netherlands our son was 2.5 years old and he went to a dutch daycare twice a week since almost immediately. After two months he started to talk less and less Italian to me. My husband was still talking Swissgerman to him and I noticed that my son prefered to answer me in Swissgerman or even Dutch too. Supposing that this was just a phase, I kept on talking Italian knowing that he would at least gain a passive competence in this language.

Unfortunately in this period we didn’t find families with children of his age with whom he could talk and play. He also realized that I did understand and talk all the other languages he was exposed to, including Dutch. So, why should he bother talking Italian only with me?

Then our twindaughters were born. I still kept talking Italian to my kids. I hoped that when my girls would start talking Italian my son would follow them. In fact, they all three did for almost four months when my daughters were 11-15 months old. But then my twindaughters started to communicate in an autonomous language that had nothing in common (neither phonetically, nor morphologically) with the languages they were exposed to.

This secret language became a problem in our family because nobody could understand what they were saying. Against all warings from linguists, my husband and I decided to narrow down the languages in our family and started to talk German altogether. I did study bilingualism and was perfectly aware of all the negative impact this change could have on our childrens’ linguistic developement.

Fortunately, all our children did respond very well to this change: our girls stopped talking the secret language and now, six years later, they all talk English, Dutch and German almost every day and they even talk a bit Italian with our Italian talking members of the family and Swissgerman with the Swissgerman ones when we visit.

When you’re a multilingual parent it is very difficult to teach children simultaneously more than one language. It requires a real commitment and means a lot of work. Some families have fix situations or days where they talk one or the other language. We do have fix times when we talk English or Dutch at home, but I didn’t try this (yet) with Swissgerman and Italian (that would be 5 languages within our family on a regular basis…), but I’m convinced that giving my children even only passive input of Italian and Swissgerman helped them to understand the languages and to even talk when they’re exposed to it for a longer period.

Our initial attempt to raise perfectly bilingual children in Swissgerman and Italian may seem to have failed, but we have now children who talk perfectly English, German and Dutch instead, who have a basic competence in Swissgerman and Italian. Sometimes multilingual parents have to make choices that may not be the ones they wanted in the beginning, but that are vital for their children to survive in the jungle of languages.

If the situation with my daughters wouldn’t have happened, I wouldn’t be teaching my kids to write and read German (our schools’ curriculum doesn’t provide German lessons at an early stage). I would like to teach them Italian too, but my son recently told me that he would like to learn Spanish and French first… Alors, on parlera Français or hablaremos Español instead.

This post is for this month’s Raising Multilingual Children Blogging Carnival hosted by Headoftheheard. This month’s theme is “Hidden Opportunities”.