When my bilingual toddler yells “Die papa!” I give him what he wants: Challenges with multi-lingual children.

Raising a multilingual child has often been given a bad rap.  We have had people ask us if we are stunting their development.  This came up as our second child didn’t start speaking until he was almost two, and only then with very intentional coaching by me (I will post on that later).  We also had some relatives expressed concern that they won’t be able to understand our kids.  To be fair, raising a multilingual child means there are often times where we are the only ones in the room who actually understand them, at least at the early phases.

We have known a number of families who have had the same situation that prompted the title.  In Russian, “die” is the imperative (command form) of “give.”  So when an English-speaking child toddles around yelling “mine!” or “gimme!” a Russian-speaking one yells “die!”  Some friends of ours were back in the US after a few years abroad, and went to visit some relatives.  One family member was watching their toddler while they were in the other room, when suddenly they heard, “Something is wrong with your kid!”

They came in and the little boy was crying on the floor, staring at the relative, pointing at some crackers and yelling “Die! Die! Die! Die!” 

We had the challenge with our youngest that he would mix English and Russian together.  Some words he learned in Russian before he learned them in English, so those were the “right” words to describe an object.  Juice was always “sok,” dogs were always “sabaka,” and want was always “hochu.”  So if he wanted juice, he would always say “I want hachu sok!”  This is known as code switching, and is normal, not only among multi-lingual children, but even among adults.

I found after living immersed in a Russian speaking environment for several years, that I would say things like “I will be having the soup,” instead of “I will have the soup,” or I would forget to use the articles “a/an” or “the” because they don’t exist in Russian.  After a few months back in an English speaking environment, these issues pretty much disappeared, but part of my brain was wired to think in  accordance with Russian rules and took time to sort things out.

As for our youngest son, there was a period until he was nearly three when it was difficult for monolingual English or Russian speakers to understand him, but he did eventually sort out when to use which language.  The key to this was consistency.

You see, we had been regularly switching between languages in our home.  He was in an environment where it was normal to mix Russian and English, and everyone understood him.  There were two things that helped him start sorting this out.  One was we started limiting our languages by location.  We spoke English inside our home, and Russian when we were outside.  Also, he started having more interaction with monolingual speakers of both languages (Russian speaking friends and neighbors, and a few other American families living near us with kids the same age as ours).

Back to the subject of developmental delay:  We ourselves became concerned at how our second-born seemed to be lagging behind his older sister in speaking in any language.  We went so far as to have him evaluated by a speech pathologist through our local school district.  We were reassured that even though he was speaking a little slower, he was still within the range of normal for his age, and that this was extremely common in multi-lingual families.  We were told that in his younger years, it may take him a little more time to sort things out, but within just a couple more years, we should expect to see him back on track with the rest of his peers.

As time has gone on, we’ve seen that these “challenges” of slower development and mixing the languages really haven’t been serious issues.  They are things that can be dealt with through consistency and patience.  Perhaps the biggest challenge has come from dealing with relatives who do not value their language learning.

When a child approaches someone they value and accidentally uses the wrong language with them, one of the most crushing things that can happen is for that person to ridicule them.  Responses like “This is America, speak English!” can be very confusing and disheartening.  It took us quite a while to explain to our oldest daughter that it wasn’t wrong for her to speak Russian.  We explained to her that people tend to be afraid of what they don’t understand, so when she used the wrong language for the situation and they didn’t understand, they got afraid.

This, however is also a good lesson for your children.  Languages are not free from connotations.  Just try speaking Arabic on an airplane these days!  Different languages are esteemed differently by different people, and the reality of the world is that there is a time and a place to use some languages, and a time and a place to refrain.  For example, when traveling abroad, we tend to not speak in English.  As a safety precaution, we use Spanish or Russian, depending on where we are.

We strive to make the best out of these challenges and use them as springboards into learning instead of obstacles to progress.  In all of this, nothing will go further towards helping your family thrive (both your children and unsupportive relatives) than a healthy dose of love and patience.  There is an ancient proverb that says “A gentle answer turns away wrath.”  The whole point of the language journey is to open doors for relationships, not shut them down.

About the Author: David

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