Friday, 3 August 2012

RAISING BILINGUAL CHILDREN: To push or not to push?


After my last post on pushy parenting, I realised that although I have been a pretty pushy mum with the French, that's not true of the Twi. The issue of when to push a child to keep talking the minority language seems to come up for a lot of people and there are very different ways to handle it. We had this problem with both of our minority languages (Twi & French), and my reaction to each was quite different!

Strolling along with my bilingual babes

It took us a while to decide to pass on languages to our children, probably because for both me & Papa the mother tongue is English and this is what we speak to each other. But as someone who has studied language, as Schmoo got older, I started to see that this was a golden opportunity to give my kids a special gift, and I just had to try!

French is non-native for me, although I have a good conversational level. I started speaking it to Schmoo from age 1 and it quickly became her dominant language, but it was always a great effort to speak only in French, on top of all the usual challenges of maintaining a minority language (hunting down French books, French speakers, etc), not to mention parenthood! So by the time we tried to introduce Twi when Schmoo was around 3, and only spoken to her by Papa, you can imagine it was very difficult. I found that I spent a lot of my time nagging Papa to talk Twi, as I really felt it would be so sad for the children not to have this language from her heritage culture. She has a lot of cousins in Ghana who only speak Twi, for example. I really tried to support the situation and hunted down a lot of Twi resources, but they were far more limited than French ones, and even the books I found turned out to be in a different dialect of Twi, so Papa found it hard to read them. Papa was getting fed up, and Schmoo was frustrated.

So I made a difficult choice... to stop nagging Papa about the Twi and just let him pass on as much of the language as he could manage without any input from me. Very shortly this meant the Twi input reduced to a few phrases here and there. They do hear the language at family gatherings, but these are infrequent and I have to accept that even their passive Twi knowledge is now extremely limited. So for Twi, I made the decision to stop pushing. 

Schmoo & Pan-Pan

With the French, it was comparatively easier, as it was only me and the children involved, I could be as strict or relaxed as I wished. I was so determined, and possibly having to let the Twi slide made me even more determined! Although everything went very smoothly with Schmoo, it was a totally different story with Pan-Pan. Even after a whole year at immersion school and with me talking French at home, he didn't want to speak the language. He is a very practical little boy and I think he'd just worked out that English was all he really needed to get by. A trip to France where he refused to speak French with his French-speaking monolingual friends convinced me I had to act! I decided to take the approach of having him repeat everything in French that he said to me. Luckily he does love to talk, as i had all the usual concerns about him refusing to speak altogether, or starting to hate French... and me! I was very gentle within my pushy approach, always very quick to supply him with the words he needed when I saw he was struggling, so that it became a bit of a dialogue, like this:

Pan-Pan [English]: I want a glass of milk
Me [French]: Please can you say that in French?
Pan-Pan [French]: I want a...
Me [French]: ...glass...
Pan-Pan [French]: I want a glass of milk!

Of course, it didn't always go that smoothly and sometimes there would be a lot of resistance, Pan-Pan would say that he couldn't speak French, or didn't want to. I would quickly give him the whole sentence he needed then, so he just had to repeat. Anyway, to cut a long story short, after 2 weeks of this insistence, he was talking French with me again, showing no signs of all the struggles for words either, it was as though he was suddenly fluent again! I was very happy and after another year he is now very much bilingual, so I feel that bridging that gap with a bit of pushy parenting was the right choice for us with the French.

As you can see from my two very different experiences, it depends on so many factors as to whether you do decide to push or not (ooh, it's like being pregnant all over again!). It seemed best not to be pushy when it involved Papa and a late-start language, but with the support of an immersion school, an early-start language and lots of resources readily available, I was able to manage it with the French... and one out of two ain't bad!

I'd love to know your thoughts on pushy parenting... can it be a positive thing? are you one? how have you handled your child refusing to do something that was important to you?!
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12 comments:

  1. Really interesting tale, I am certainly going to push more with our minority language English. I have spoken it to DD since birth but she responds and talks to me in first language Dutch. I sometimes make her repeat but seeing that it does work I am going to push even more :)

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  2. The community language takes some beating! Good luck with your 'pushy' parenting and let me know how it goes :-)

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  3. I've starting being pushier with Aleksander and German. Mostly it's my own slacking off that gets us into trouble. Then he doesn't want to start up again. But I find if I just keep going, he gets back on track. (Of course, he's only 2.5! We'll see how this works as he gets older!) I am starting to demand a bit more of German, too. For example, I won't give him what he asks for unless he asks in German (with a polite "bitte" of course!). The more we get into a groove, the easier it is for both of us. And now, he's even asking for more German! :)

    About a year ago, Tamara at Non-Native Bilingualism was feeling guilty about "insisting" on German from her then 2.5-year-old. I asked if it would help to change her word to "persisting" instead. Sometimes a slight change in words can change how you feel! It seemed to help, and a year later, she & her daughter are doing great. I try to keep that in mind if I start feeling a little like a language ogre :)

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  4. Yes, it's a lot about how we perceive things, isn't it?! That was a great idea, to see it as 'persisting' rather than 'insisting'.

    Another thing that helps me is remembering how strict the teachers were about talking Welsh at my primary (immersion) school. Because although they were rigid about it, for me aged around 7 it was just another funny rule that the adults had, and certainly didn't put me off Welsh or languages, in fact probably the opposite as it's turned out!

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  5. These posts you've written on pushiness have come at just the right time for me! I was just moaning to my husband about whether I should just give up entirely on non-native bilingualism in German, since my older son (5 years old) wants nothing to do with it. Despite my conversing with him in German since birth and two years in an immersion school (he stopped about a year ago), he claims to understand zero German, and what's so frustrating to me is that I fear it's true! He doesn't seem to understand anything I say to him in German, and it's bumming me out. I'm not as consistent a German speaker to him and his brother as you are with French, so I'd started wondering if it's hopeless.

    But…encouragement. I like the idea of "persisting," as your commenter put it, and your tale of a breakthrough once you'd persisted enough! Also, I have some hopes still for his little brother…

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    1. Hi Lauren,
      It seems to be a really common issue, despite our best efforts! Parenting has plenty of challenges all by itself and then we go and add another language into the mix! But it is so rewarding when they pick up some of the minority language, even if it is a passive knowledge for now.

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  6. My husband and I speak English, because that's the only language he knows. I am a native speaker of Chinese. While living in the States, we tried to adopt the "One Parent One Language" model, but sadly it never worked. Maybe I never pushed hard enough. But believe me, I did everything I could, bribing, reprimanding ... you name it. But it always went back to the majority language: English.
    Living in China sort of changes that a bit. There is more Chinese in our conversation than before without pushing. The crazy thing is whenever their cousins visit, my kids automatically switch to the minority language, as the cousins only speak Chinese. It's magical to see the transformation - they don't use the minority language to me as there is no need.
    Sorry this sounds discouraging, but that's our experience.

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    1. There's nothing like other minority language kids to get your own kids talking! It's great that you get to see how good your children's Chinese really is when the cousins come over, and that they have this huge incentive to practice it and see that it can be important. We found the same thing when we took our two to France, their friends understood English but didn't speak it so much, so they all ended up playing in French, which was exactly what my son needed!

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  7. Love your comments. We are trying to go down the bilingual track in a monolingual family so our kids have the opportunities we didn't. After two and a half years in an immersion school she is now understanding lots although mostly responding in English she has good vocab and knows lots of songs in her other language. She is really keen and it is so cool watching her understand what people are saying when I have no idea what the conversation is about. I'm so proud of her :-). I'm sure she will thank me one day too.

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    1. Congrats on all your progress so far, it sounds as though it is going really well! Our immersion school has been the best thing for my kids' language skills, so it's great that you can take advantage of one too!

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  8. Yeah, some people probably think we are pushy parents and don't understand why we are doing it when we don't have any family connection to the language/country they are learning - but what a wonderful skill to have and how many opportunities it might open up in their lives - to explore more of our world and its people. It is a shame there aren't more bilingual schools around as they are very hard to come by around here. The research seems to say that learning another language helps them with their own language and so many other areas of learning so I really don't see any disadvantage. I hope our younger children take to it in the same way as our first has....

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    1. It's great that your eldest child is enjoying it! Things were a little tougher with my second, which seems quite common, but we are getting there :-) I think a lot of people are confused why I'm doing this, but when I explain about all the advantages, it makes sense!

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