As I discussed in part one of this blog post, the most challenging moment in our journey as a multilingual family was when our daughter did not want me to speak my native language to her in front of others due to embarrassment. As a lecturer in the field, I could easily theorise how this situation had arisen and could be prevented. However, in such situations I was not a lecturer but a mother with my own identity that also needed to be maintained. I insisted on speaking Danish because that is the language I speak with them. I felt too strongly about that to give it up. This could have led to conflicts, and sometimes did. We had clashing views on and feelings regarding our verbal communication in public. Such conflicts needed to be resolved, and even better, pre-empted, by having deliberate and open conversations about languages and their importance for who we are.
This brings me to one key aspect of our experiences as a multilingual family, the need for deliberate, focused and open conversation about our linguistic identities and learning journeys: We have frequent conversations about language, emphasising similarities and differences between different ways of counting, different vocabulary and letters, the history of words and the links between the languages. In other words, we focus on metalinguistic awareness.
This usually leads to important conversations about the cultures and cultural identities linked to each of the languages, experiences of growing up in different social and historical contexts. Our children find this fascinating, and it takes focus away from the feeling of being different and therefore a bit ‘strange’ to some interesting learning. When conversations are focused on the difficulties especially my eldest sometimes feels in relation to her different home language, I always make sure to explain that firstly it is an important part of me and my relationship to them as my children, and also an important part of who they are and the relationships they establish with their Danish family. I also often remind them that it is the only way they can learn Danish. This may lead to despair as they question the benefit of Danish as a language. They are right to question all of this, and I am in my right to insist. Such clashes become easier to deal with when conversations ABOUT different languages take place and do so frequently.
It takes time for children to develop metalinguistic awareness, knowing that what they speak is a particular language and that others may speak other languages. At first this can seem strange to children, and it is for that exact reason we need to start such conversations early on. As the example of my eldest daughter highlights, learning more than one language requires a lot of work on cultural identities to prevent feelings of embarrassment or shyness. This work may start in the home (not always) but must be extended and elaborated in educational settings. My daughter was two years of age when she felt her additional languages rejected and although she has not encountered such direct rejection since the feelings of those early moments clearly stayed with her. One educator’s hurtful words was enough…
The second important aspect to our experience as a multilingual family is time. Becoming confident and competent plurilingual learners takes time. Learning multiple languages is not easy, not even for young children. However, children are usually eager learners and spend a lot of energy and effort learning, so they progress quickly in language learning, for the most part. Children can learn to get by in a language very quickly but getting by is not enough, especially not if they need the language for academic purposes (i.e. to learn or think through a language). They need confidence and competence. Becoming multilingual is hard work for children and they need to feel acknowledged in the additional work they do to learn two, three or more languages at the same time – it takes mental energy, it takes effort switching between school language (Irish), the dominant language (English) and their home language (Danish). Sometimes that mental energy is not there to do so much switching in a day. If their hard work is not acknowledged or understood, empathised with, it can sometimes lead to behaviour that may deemed challenging in a particular context.
In school it may lead to being quiet, or simply a little slower to put one’s hand up or answer a question. This can be perceived as an unwillingness to participate in school or as a lack of understanding the school language. In ECE it may lead to wanting to stay on the periphery of play and relationships, or it may lead to frustration and physically lashing out or otherwise struggling in social relationships. In both scenarios we need to recognise the effort children need to put into learning multiple languages concurrently and give them time to develop these skills. In addition to supporting their language learning by combining a multitude of strategies (visual aids, peer/buddy system, dual language books amongst others), what is key here is that we have conversations with children to identify and address all the different thoughts and emotions that children at different ages have regarding speaking different languages. These conversations are essential to the plurilingual learner but are also an important aspect of any curriculum. We need to make and take time to talk… and we need to give children time to feel competent and confident in talking (in all their languages).
Supporting children to be and become multilingual means talking about languages and therefore nourishing their metalinguistic awareness. And it may take a long time for children to want to use one or more of their languages in particular situations and settings. Their feelings in such regard need to be identified and responded to in a supportive manner. Like my daughter’s teachers in school who were sorry not to initially know her third language and then worked on her confidence regarding that language. Obviously not speaking Danish they could not help her to learn the specifics of that language, however they could aid her learning by working on her confidence and thoughts regarding that language. This can be a slow process, but it is crucial. In this instance, the less public tool of an app (Seesaw) allowed direct engagement between the teacher and my daughter without her peers’ awareness helped this initial engagement around her third language before she was comfortable for it to be brought into the classroom.
As our children are getting older, they are becoming more self-conscious about their ability to speak and become more afraid to make mistakes. Let’s face it, a 4-year-old boy doesn’t really care whether the grammar is correct whereas a 9-year-old girl might really care about this! It is hugely important that an atmosphere of safe learning through trial-and-error is encouraged and that mistakes are seen as rich opportunities for learning, and for laughter. As a parent, I model for them that it is normal to make ‘mistakes’ and that in language learning this should not be embarrassing and can be highly amusing. I have started translanguaging much more than I used to, in other words mixing languages. My sentences are always Danish in the main but with English terms, words and phrases thrown in. Sometimes it sounds hilarious and at other times I get myself muddled up. Sometimes I end up speaking the wrong language to the wrong child.
We are a household that always welcomes friends and neighbours, so we normally have 2-3 children in addition to our own (child-adult ratios completely out the door!) The more a child spends time with us the more likely I am to accidentally speak to them in Danish. Initially this would have really embarrassed our eldest in particular but now they all find it hilarious. It’s okay to get muddled up in one’s languages even as a confident speaker. Now, when they make mistakes in switching languages or indeed within the same language they all now take the same approach. We have quite the craic when someone is attempting a sentence in Danish and it comes out in Irish or vice versa. I deliberately try to read some of their Irish homework books so they can see that struggling with pronunciation is normal and okay. In such situations they become the confident language teachers, me the student engaged in trial-and-error. Their dad does the same in Danish except the poor man has now been banned from reading Danish. Harry Potter read in Danish by a Kerry man is apparently not to my children’s liking (I don’t really blame them!).
Cultural identity and language
In this journey as a busy multilingual household, perhaps the most important learning has been the centrality of supporting their identities as plurilingual learners. This can be difficult when they rarely meet anyone else with the same linguistic and cultural background. Of course, they meet many children in school, at sports and in the community who are plurilingual, however our children felt that Danish is in the great big world a tiny and pretty useless language, or so they thought at least. Danish is not cool like maybe Chinese, Spanish or French might be simply because they are better known and spoken by more people. To address this, we started a Danish playgroup for other young children in the greater Dublin area who are Danish-English speakers. We come together to play, sing Danish songs and rhymes, celebrate Danish cultural events (Danes do Christmas and midsummer like no one else!). The children can see and hear that it is common for other children and families to converse in multiple languages and share the struggles of learning both and see that Danish is a useful and fun language to learn. These playgroups are always helped along by lots of Danish treats and food being made and the children being allowed their beloved sugar rush as long as they speak in Danish… the difficult language suddenly has benefits! What is so important about such a group is not so much the language learning itself, as this often takes backstage, but rather the sense of belonging, celebration and community that it brings – for both parents and children. Most importantly they have learned that many other children also have Danish as another language and that this is nothing to feel embarrassed about.
On our journey as a multilingual household, we have encountered many versions of especially two phases of language learning – silence and rejection. Our three eldest have each gone through different phases of rejecting Danish, or Irish. Around the age of two they all insisted on hearing Wheels on the Bus in English and not Danish despite having been introduced to the song in Danish from infancy. We switched to English for a while and every so often I would pretend to forget and sing it in Danish. Sometimes they gave out to me, other times they accepted it and eventually the rejection stopped. Once in primary school they have gone through phases of finding it too difficult to switch from Irish in school to English with their minder and then again to Danish with me. This has happened primarily in the earliest years of primary school when they were still getting the hang of Irish. As the middle two also had Irish in preschool, this rejection has happened much earlier and has passed by the time they reach school. Sometimes the rejection is giving out about having to learn or speak Danish.
At such times I insist on my own identity as a Danish speaker but ease off on my expectations of them speaking Danish to me. I try to find positive ways to encourage the return to Danish. Our children’s love of books has made this relatively easy. And yes, I ‘bribe’ them. As they go through phases of not wanting to speak Danish, I suggest we can buy books that they really want but in Danish so we have to practise the language to be able to read the books, or they have to practise for an upcoming trip to Denmark. The literary experiences and relationships, culture and family that happen only through Danish are enough to lure them back to the language. And thus, those connections – the identity and belonging – become so crucial to a child’s language learning journey. Those connections can only happen by taking time to talk about language, culture, identities and allowing time for emotions, thoughts, abilities, confidence and competence to slowly develop in whatever course they need to take. In our family the journey has looked slightly different for each child but that’s for another day’s Time to Talk.
Dr. Maja Haals Brosnan is a senior lecturer in early childhood education in Marino Institute of Education. She has a PhD in social anthropology, with a focus on childhood and has worked primarily with research on policy and evidence informed practice in the field of children, young people and families, and in recent years specifically on early childhood education. She lectures in ECEC policy and practice, inclusion, diversity and intercultural education as well as research methods. Her most recent research projects include parental involvement in children’s education, children’s voice in education and the impact of Covid-19 on ECEC practice and on third level students’ experiences of professional practice.