What is it like to grow up bilingual?

Learning languages: this is how bilingual education works

What should parents pay attention to when raising their child bilingually? An interview with the doctor of education and bilingualism Anja Leist-Villis.

How sensible is a bilingual upbringing if the second language is taught neither by the environment nor by the parents, but by an external person, e.g. an au pair. Does that even help?
It is always important that the language has a meaning for the child. This meaning arises, for example, when the language is spoken by many people or very often around the child. If there are only individual people, it is important that there is a close relationship with them and that they speak the language as consistently as possible. With an au pair, too, it depends on the intensity of the bond.

In any case, the child's early contact with a language can arouse his or her interest in languages, and this can generally support the later acquisition of languages. In principle, I see early contact with people who speak other languages ​​as something enriching for the language development of a child, provided that the child is not put under "learning pressure".

In principle, are all children suitable for a bilingual upbringing? Are there any cases where you advise against it?
There are certainly isolated cases in which a child is so restricted in his language acquisition process that the question arises as to whether a bilingual upbringing is the right thing for the child. But you also have to look at the parents' side: How well do they speak which language? A mother who tries to communicate with her child in a language that is foreign to her may firstly give a wrong linguistic role model and, secondly, become dissatisfied, restricted and insecure in her conversation with the child. That can never be "better" for a child than a mother who speaks to him in her own mother tongue.

One often hears that learning two languages ​​at the same time means that neither language is really learned perfectly. Truth or prejudice?

Clearly a prejudice. The opposite is the case. Children have the potential to acquire more than one language from birth through play. And what does "perfect" mean? Of course they will make "mistakes" just like monolingual children.

But we usually don't look so critically at them. Bilingualism is by no means excessive; on the contrary, it can even have a positive effect on the entire development! The child is only overwhelmed if the bilingual upbringing takes place under unfavorable circumstances, for example because the environment is negative, the child suffers from the situation or the parents themselves are dissatisfied with their linguistic situation.

Do children who grow up bilingual have advantages in learning foreign languages ​​later on?
Children who grow up bilingual have diverse experiences with languages ​​from an early age. You notice early on that languages ​​sound different, that the same things have different names, that gestures and facial expressions are also different. As a result, they deal with language more intensively than monolingual children do. As a result, bilingual children develop a greater awareness of languages, and this will also support the acquisition of other languages.

What are the basic rules for a bilingual upbringing?

At the beginning mother and father have to ask themselves: which language can and which language do I want to speak with my child? In which language do I feel most comfortable with my child? Most parents have a deep need to speak their own mother tongue with their child, and that is the most natural thing in the world. Language teaching should never be more important than the actual parent-child relationship.

A key factor in bilingual education is of course the consequence. For example, the more often a Greek mother in Germany speaks Greek or German with her child, the more likely the child will ask: Why should I actually speak Greek? Everyone else speaks German ... Children are very economical with their languages. On the other hand, there will always be situations in everyday life in which parents deviate from their original language choice. But these exceptions should be handled very consciously ("Do I find it impolite to speak to my child in the presence of others in a language that these people do not understand?") And addressed to the child ("When Aunt Frieda is there, do we speak German, otherwise she doesn't understand anything! "). Ultimately, it is important to weigh up between a consistent language education on the one hand, and the lively, natural and everyday use of languages ​​on the other.

Can trilingual education also work, or what should you pay particular attention to in this case?
There's no reason why this shouldn't work in principle. The brain is not limited to two languages. Everything that applies to bilingual education must be observed. In practice, the trilingual situation certainly requires all those involved to be even more persistent and particularly aware of the use of languages.

Annette Rübesamen conducted the interview

Book tip

Anja Leist-Villis, Parent's Guide to Bilingualism, Stauffenberg Verlag, 2008, 17.80 euros

Related Links

www.sprachfoerderung.info(by Dr. Anja Leist-Villis)

www.verband-binationaler.de (Association of binational families and partnerships)

www.fmks-online.de (Association for multilingualism in day-care centers and schools e.V.)