I live in a town in America in which probably 90 percent of inhabitants primarily speak English. If you were to ask any random passersby if they can speak another language, they will probably say no, almost ruefully with a shake of the head. Perhaps they might mention that they took Spanish or French in high school but can no longer speak it. A few of them might say that their family speaks another language to them, but they answer back in English. This scenario is pretty common in America. In fact, in most places, English is the dominant language that people use for work, school, and play.
So, with that in mind, how can you learn to speak a second language when you don’t really have the opportunity to practice it with people? And how can you manage to stay in touch with your family’s culture, heritage, and language when there is a shrinking window of opportunity to do so? And for that matter, how can you raise multilingual children to stay multilingual in a society that is determinedly monolingual?
Even though I was born and raised in America, I grew up speaking English and Korean. To clarify, I spoke Korean with my mom, and English with my dad, in school, and of course, in the wider society. In fact, my first words were English and Korean. But then, due to my father being military, he got sent back to South Korea and I spent the first part of my formative years (age 1 to age 5) in Korea where I basically grew up as a Korean toddler, even going to a Korean pre-school. I didn’t see my dad as much because of the military.
But then when I was five, my dad retired from the military and we returned to the states. I started Kindergarten. I know that my mom expressed worry that I would soon forget my Korean culture and language. I remember her telling me to always speak Korean with her so that I wouldn’t forget. As the obedient child that I was, I agreed, not fully understanding at the time why she was so worried. But in retrospect, I understand her concern. Many children who come from multicultural and multilingual homes eventually stop speaking their family’s language. It is only natural as they become more immersed in the American culture and society. After all, the only time that I ever had an opportunity to speak Korean was with my mom at home, on the phone with my Korean relatives, and at the local Korean stores.
When my mom passed when I was eighteen, I immediately lost that fragile connecting link to my Korean heritage. I didn’t speak Korean for years simply because I had no one to speak it with and all of my Korean relatives were so faraway. But then after my first child was born, I managed to rekindle these small little nuggets of Korean words and found that I hadn’t entirely lost the language. And I decided I wanted to speak Korean with her with the intent to not only teach her, but to improve my own skills, as well as give her the same upbringing I had growing up so that little bit of Korean culture is still with us.
In the beginning, I would say that my daughter was mostly fluent in Korean and didn’t really speak much English. Now that she has one year of preschool under her belt, I would say that she is fluent in both English and Korean. As further evidence of the fact that she knows both languages equally, she dreams and thinks in both languages, depending on the situation. But as she continues school, I am worried that eventually she will forget her Korean and even the little bit of German that she knows in a society that is mostly monolingual. In order to combat that, these are some things that I will try to do to continue to make sure that she stays multilingual in a decisively monolingual society.
How to Raise Multilingual Children in a Monolingual Society
Encourage the use of the non-societal language in the home
First, if you want to raise your children to be and stay multilingual, then you need to encourage them to use the non-societal language in the home almost exclusively. Language, as with most things that you learn, is a skill that needs to be used regularly, otherwise you grow risk of letting it get stale and stagnant. And the best way to continue to hone those skills is to continue to use the language in the home. I would even say that you should speak to your children in the non-societal language both in the home and even outside the home. This way, they won’t associate the language as being private or even embarrassing, but will have the confidence to use it in any setting.
Even if it can sometimes feel embarrassing to speak to your children in another language outside the home, you should not let them feel embarrassed. If they feel embarrassed then how will they have the confidence to speak it? If they expect to get teased simply because of the fact that they can speak another language, then they will be even more likely to not want to speak it. Always tell them that it is important to learn and keep up the language. Never make them feel ashamed for knowing how to speak it despite what society may think. Knowing any second or third language on a native basis is a skill that not everyone has and should be protected at all costs by a fortitude of strength, positivity, and love.
See also: How I Taught My Child a Second Language
Invest in movies and music in the non-societal language
Undoubtedly, the best way to learn and improve your language skills is by simply using it. But it can also help to continually develop those skills by investing in movies, music, and other forms of media in the non-societal language. As someone who grew up speaking Korean with basically one person, I found that my own skills were rather limited. While I was able to communicate back and forth with my mother and her family with relative ease, I found that when placed in a real world setting, I struggled to communicate with strangers, as well as understand the language as presented in movies. So, to avoid limiting the language skills, you should expand it. After all, with the societal language, you are exposed to a wealth of people and experiences everywhere you turn, so you should do the same with the non-societal language.
Some ways that you can seek to diversify the usage of the non-societal language is by watching movies, listening to music, listening to audio books, and watching YouTube videos. And then, to facilitate maximum understanding, you should have a discussion about the form of media. Ask your children questions about what they think about the movie or song and how it makes them feel. And most importantly, have these discussions exclusively in the non-societal language. By doing this, you will help to expand your children’s language skills so that they can ultimately use that language is nearly any setting, as well as build them up to continually improve.
Take classes to improve reading and writing in the non-societal language
Depending on the age of the child, it is also important that you teach your children how to read and write in the non-societal language. Even though I grew up speaking Korean, I did not learn how to read and write in the language until I was much older. Thankfully because the Korean alphabet is pretty simple, it didn’t take me too long to learn the alphabet. Once you learn the alphabet, it is easy to sound out the characters and read the words. But for the longest time, I could not read and write in Korean and because of this I always felt as if I wasn’t fluent enough, or was simply lacking, or was uneducated.
Reading and writing are two very important components to learning a language. As children, as soon as we begin speaking and listening, we learn the alphabet and how to write the simple words and eventually learn how to read. When you don’t know how to read and write in a language well, even though you can speak it, it does affect your confidence. It again puts a limit on your skill in the language as well as your ability to communicate effectively. Even though I understand why my mother didn’t really focus on teaching me how to read and write in it since she wanted me to focus on my English, I still wish that she had taught it to me so that I could have learned both concurrently.
Have fun and relax
And finally, when working to keep your children to stay multilingual, it is important that you have fun and relax. Don’t teach your children the language in a stiff and strict way. Otherwise, they won’t have any fun and will associate the language as boring and tiresome. Just speak to them in the non-societal language. Play games with them in that language. Dance and sing songs to music in that language. If you have fun and relax then they will too. And ultimately will treasure their knowledge of the non-societal language as a true blessing.
Speaking as someone who grew up multilingual and is also the parent of someone who is multilingual, I call tell you first hand that it is hard to stay multilingual in a society that is strictly monolingual. In America, the understood official language is English. In most places across this big, diverse country, most transactions are done in English. There are of course pockets of communities in which other languages are spoken. But unless you live in a place in which both English and your family’s language is used equally, it can be hard to keep up with it. But by persistently using the non-societal language in the home setting, looking for other forms of media to incorporate the language, encouraging critical thinking skills in the language, and most importantly, having fun in the language, it is possible to make sure that the children will stay multilingual. After all, I managed to stay multilingual after all of these years, so it is definitely possible.