Language Translations for Real Life: How to Raise Multilingual Kids


In my last segment I discussed how being multilingual makes one a better multi-tasker, a great problem solver, very creative, emotionally controlled, able to fight the effects of aging, and more… The benefits of being multilingual are compelling enough to make parents consider the notion of trying to foster an environment of “multilingualism” for their offspring…

One might find it odd that I refer to children as “offspring”, but in the whole scheme of things, we humans are driven – like all creatures that have the capability to reason – to nurture an environment that allows every possible opportunity for the successful advancement of our own offspring – survival of the fittest…

  • Male lions kill the offspring of competitive males in the pride.
  • Humans pay for a spot on the waiting list of the best of best preschools for their toddlers.
  • Mother pigs only feed the piglets who are strong enough to get to the breasts first, showering her resources on the more stronger aggressive piglets, allowing the remaining to starve.
  • Humans enroll their children in Healthy Start programs, and send their kids to Harvard.

So naturally, many modern parents want to foster their offspring’s abilities to be bilingual or multilingual. How do you raise multilingual kids? I’ll share some tips, but before I go there, make sure that’s what you really want, because it is not always a walk in the park having multilingual kids… there are some perils:

Peril #1: If I had a dollar for every time my kids corrected my communications… I’d be a gazillionaire! You have to get used to your 6 year old and your 4 year old correcting your pronunciation, vocabulary and grammar. Spanish is not my language; I’ve only learned it recently. While I can get by, I am far from fluent Spanish radio stations.

This summer, I created my son’s birthday party invitations. My 6 year old daughter read the invitations and made 3 comments:

  1. Instead of saying “traje de bano” change it to “banador”… she reminded me the difference between South American Spanish and Castilian Spanish
  2. You don’t have to use the formal “usted” verb tense when talking to kids, use the informal “tu” verb tense
  3. Next time, ask me to proofread your invitations!

Peril #2: When your kid swears in another language, find out the meaning. One day, I noticed my kids saying “ho-pay“, when they were expressing discontent. I didn’t think much of it until one day, I was in my own Spanish lessons, and I heard a guy running down the hall shouting what sounded like “ho-dar“, now I didn’t know what that meant, but it sounded close to what my kids say so I didn’t think much of it.

So I asked my Spanish friend, who told me the real meaning. I was shocked! My kids are saying what? Well it turns out that “ho-pay” is actually not bad, they say it on Dora the Explorer, “Oh Man“. The Spanish equivalent for the kid’s expression of “darn it” or “Oh Man” is “ho-pay“. But what I heard that guy saying down the hall was really an adult swear word… I dread the day that an innocent kids’ expression transforms into the other expression.

Peril 3#: It doesn’t take long, but when it happens, at first you’ll be sad, then you will laugh. My older child is embarrassed when I sing songs in Spanish. Many American songs played on the radio are translated in Spanish. I like it when I hear an American tune on the radio, sung in Spanish. I like it even more when I understand the lyrics, so I sing it, in Spanish… “si fuera un chico… ” and my girl says:

  1. I’m pronouncing it wrong,
  2. I don’t sound cool,
  3. Stop it!

So what do I do? I sing it louder, so her friends can hear!

Now that you know some risks, you still want to raise multilingual kids?Here are 6 tips to help foster an environment for bilingual or multilingual kids.

1. Move to a multilingual country. Luxembourg, Israel, Switzerland, Canada, the Philippines… Maybe not so easy, but if you have the opportunity, why not have a real multicultural experience for the entire family? Guaranteed to have a multilingual kid.

2. Send your child to a school that teaches in another language. If you live in the US, why not send your child to a French or Chinese school. They will surely learn the language; the curriculum will follow the same general academic material, just in another language. It is a great way to immerse the child in another language for 6-8 hours a day. Believe me, the child will still learn the local language, because all the kids will speak the local language on the playground and outside of the school.

3. Speak in tongues. If you or your spouse speaks another language, then go ahead and speak in your native language to your child. The child will learn fast. In our home, the kids speak English with me and French with their father. It has been like that since the day they were born.

4. Get Help. Hire an au pair from another country or a nanny from abroad. This is a fabulous way to expose your family to another language and culture on a daily basis. If the au pair speaks in his or her native tongue to the child, the child will pick up the language. The concept of one adult one language will work in this case because the child will be accustomed to only communicating with the au pair in the foreign language. As parents, you may want to speak English or the local language with the au pair, to help inspire the culture exchange spirit of the au pair program, but the child and the au pair can stick to the foreign language.

5. Study Abroad. If your child is adventurous, why not let him or her have a summer or semester or year abroad? There are many academic and cultural exchange programs that allow the opportunity for kids of all ages to experience international life. When I was growing up, we often had foreign exchange students at our school. My friend’s child is involved in a Summer Space Camp, sponsored by the European NASA equivalent where kids age 8 and above go to another country for a few weeks and learn all about science… how cool is that?

6. Summers with Aunt Sophie or Grandma Sue. If you have a relative or friend living in another country, why not let your child spend some quality time abroad? I know a family here in Spain, who exchanges their kids for a few weeks every summer with another family in France. Each family has two kids, one takes one of each, so that each kid has a playmate and a cultural experience. It’s a great opportunity to live abroad and be in an international environment with a relative or someone you trust. Godmother Judy, here we come!

I am continually impressed with children. They are like little sponges, there is really no limit on what they can absorb and learn. When my children were younger, people said that my kids may be “confused” and have verbal impediments or would be slower to speak. I was often told that it was actually “wrong” to confuse them with too many languages – back then my girl was exposed to 4 languages daily, true she was a little shy and less verbal to strangers.

But we stuck with our instincts, and today at age 6, she speaks three languages fluently and understands a fourth one. Living in a multilingual and multicultural environment, I asked her, how does she decide which language to speak with others. She responded, “Well, it depends on which language the person first speaks to me.” Pretty clever for a kid!

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