As an expat family, we have to tackle the issue of bilingualism with our kids. The family language is Italian, while the community language is Finnish. Our daughter R. is now four and a half, and speaks both languages at the same level. Our son E. – adopted from India six months ago and two years of age – has quickly picked up Italian and is just starting making first contact with the Finnish language. I know this is the easy part of growing bilingual kids. Now they spend all of their free time with us and we have full power of choice on the activities they engage in and their social circles. They just wish to spend time with us parents, to chat and play with us, thus allowing us to introduce them to different contexts and build up their vocabulary. I expect this to dramatically change when R. will start school, which will come soon – too soon.
I was lucky to find a great read to get prepared on the issue. I didn’t need to know all about multilingualism, I just wanted some practical advice on how to teach them well, what common issues to expect or prevent, and resources. Annika Bourgogne’s book “Be bilingual – Practical advice for multilingual families” gave me exactly that. I was also very pleased to read that at the time of writing, Annika – already mother to two bilingual daughters – was in the process of international adoption. She was sensitive to the matter and included a very useful section on preserving your international adopted child’s language.
Annika has a very interesting profile. She’s worked as a language researcher and wrote her thesis on raising bilingual children. At the same time, she’s herself mother of bilingual children speaking French and Finnish. While reading the book I felt her background contributed to creating a reliable source supported by real-life experience.
The book starts with an overview of current theories about multilingualism and its impact on the child’s brain. I liked that, even though it’s a short summary of years of research, the author doesn’t presents only results she supports, but keeps it honest and introduces also different beliefs on the same topic. She beautifully compressed tons of research in a handful of sections, replying to the most common questions, such as, can a child be trilingual and what’s the impact on her development, how does the brain develop with several languages spoken around, is it best to introduce both languages at the same time or in a sequence, and so on. I felt she tackled any question I ever had! Annika organised the book in a clear structure, separating scientific results from practical advice.
I especially loved the sections talking about cultural identity and language. I feel the topic very close to my family, both as an expat and as an adoptive mother. Bilingualism was a worrying issue while we were waiting for our adoption match. I feared it could be too much for a child with special needs. In our case it was not much of a choice: Italian is the family language and the outside world speaks Finnish. While reading this book, I thought that if we would have been in a monolingual situation, I definitely would have considered preserving my son’s native language, in addition to the community language.
The author ends the book with some chapters full of practical ideas for kids of all ages. One core concept is that children hardly learn an additional language in class, but through meaningful interactions. This can mean playing with parents or peers, as well as engaging in an interesting activity – reading a magazine, playing a videogame, and so on. The hardest challenge is to evolve your way of stimulating your child, according to her age or preferences. Annika offers tons of suggestions – I mean, even a long bullet list at the end of the book – and I treasured them all.
To conclude, this is a book I warmly recommend to any multicultural family and even to any family who would consider teaching an additional language to their kids from a young age. Let me know what you think about it in the comments section.