Raising a Multilingual Family – Planting the seeds for multiculturalism and diversity

29 04 2014
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Donde esta la tijera? – my daughter asked one night as we were getting dinner ready. It was the first time I heard her use Spanish, which she had been studying since the beginning of the school year.   It was rather cool!

Upon becoming parents, my husband and I were pretty much on the same page regarding exposing our children to multiple languages and cultures. We both value multiculturalism, cherish our heritage, and have a keen awareness of what it feels like to be considered an ethnic minority in a country and province whose traditions and cultures are uniquely different from those practiced in our respective homes as we were growing up. Being raised by immigrant families in a province that has been fighting to preserve its own ethnicity throughout its history has instilled in us an openness and appreciation for all languages and customs.

  • How do you coach children on diversity?
  • What could we do to nurture and preserve the openness and acceptance that all children are born with?
  • How do you share your values with your children, without overriding their own innate values?

When the girls were born it was our choice to speak to them in Italian and expose them to the traditions we grew up with, by staying closely connected to our roots. As Canadians, we also wanted the girls to be able to communicate effectively in the official languages of their country of origin. As they reached school age, it was a unanimous decision to enroll them in a French school to enhance their abilities to read, write and speak effectively in French. Through pop culture, social media and living in a predominantly English neighborhood we knew that they would learn to communicate in English with ease as well.

Although the decision to introduce three languages to our children, in their formative years, an easy one to make, it was not so simple to implement. Suffice it to say that conversations around our dinner table over the years have been quite the mish-mash of accents and idioms. Despite our desire to expose our children to multiple languages, we were also very sensitive to our lack of eloquence and proficiency in the communication structures we used in any of the languages we spoke. Until the girls started school, I struggled with the dilemma of speaking to them in the simple dialect that I grew up with, a less than perfect Italian that was jarringly different from what I heard on RAI TV or the Italian radio channel. Was I making a mistake? How often would they use Italian anyway? Would the kids in the neighborhood make fun of them because they sounded funny? Would they fall behind when they started school and have a hard time adjusting because they only spoke Italian?

Once they started elementary school, we began the switch from Italian to French. We made every effort to support their learning to the best of our limited abilities. Again I wrestled. How effective were we in helping them academically when neither my husband nor I were mother tongue francophone?  Would the girls be able to maintain what they were learning, when outside of school they rarely spoke French? Were they doomed to inherit strange Anglicism’s when they spoke, like many of the other young people we knew who were studying French in a predominantly Anglophone environment? It was a tad disconcerting when the girls brought home grammar exercises, that seemed to serve as learning material for me as much as them! And I was considered the stronger linguist in the family? Yikes!!

And what about creating a strong foundation to read, write and speak in the language of Shakespeare? Being within the French school system, we questioned whether our children would develop a solid English grammar and vocabulary with limited studies that would commence only as of grade 4. Would watching TV and reading Harry Potter be enough to instil proper grammar? If the girls decide to continue their university studies in English would they be at a disadvantage given their formative years were spent studying in French?

Although some of our doubts have been laid to rest, many of our questions still remain to be answered.

Based on our observations so far, I feel good about keeping up with our multi-lingual efforts as imperfect as they may be. Once upon a time the girls resisted going to Italian school on Saturday mornings and now they are taking part in the student council, special events and pushing for another trip to Italy. When Spanish lessons were being offered after school this year, both girls asked to participate and are now keen to practice their new skills and have a renewed appetite for the Spanish children books I used to read to them when they were much younger. And even though the girls were not born francophone, they demonstrate an obvious pride in being a part of a very unique community that had to fight hard to maintain its French rights and culture.

My goal for my family is to continue to experience the beauty in diversity, and joy of communicating with anyone and everyone across cultural and linguistic boundaries, as we all continue to broaden our linguistic skills.

As we finally emerge from a long winter and begin poking our heads out and about my awareness is drawn to the plethora of languages I hear spoken around me. From Congolese to Mandarin, Portuguese to Russian we are a world united through the humanity of our experiences, WE ARE ONE. È vero, no?

 

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