I have a question about raising bilingual kids: how far should I take the whole consistency thing? I try to always speak Norwegian to my kids and my husband speaks English to them. Yesterday, my daughter brought over an English book that she wanted me to read to her. I wondered if I could just read it or if I should translate as I went along, and “read” it to her in Norwegian. She loves that particular book, you see. 🙂 I’m trying to be consistent but not overthink this either. Any advice?
Mom of 2 in England
Dear Mom of 2,
It sounds like you have done your homework and put in a lot of thought about how to raise bilingual children! As you know, implementing the one parent/one language approach to language learning requires intentional planning and a great level of consistency. It certainly sounds like you are doing both!
Most parents discover from the start that parenting is rarely a simple process. As parents we must constantly juggle multiple roles and seemingly conflicting goals as we interact with our children on a daily basis. At times it may be a struggle to determine the best course of action in a given situation when there is no manual or simple answer to guide the decision making process.
You are your children’s primary language instructor and as such, consistency in language use is key. As you regularly respond and interact with your children in Norwegian, they will associate Norwegian with you. Their vocabulary will grow and develop as you read Norwegian books aloud to them and offer additional opportunities for them to engage in Norwegian language learning.
However, your role goes beyond being their language instructor and you will discover that there may be times when that role may take a back seat to other goals and priorities.
In order for children to learn to read, they need to recognize consistency of print. As they hear books repeatedly read aloud, children learn to understand that every time a book is read, the words and stories stay the same. Therefore, your choices within the context of reading aloud are to:
retain consistency between the parent and a particular language
retain consistency between books and the language in which they are written
The trick is to find the balance that works for you in your particular situation and to maintain Norwegian as your primary form of communication with your children without excluding English altogether. Go ahead – read the book in English as it is written without feeling guilty or worrying that you are compromising your children’s Norwegian learning. After reading the book, you can have a conversation about the book in Norwegian. Or, if you do not feel comfortable enough with your level of English, talk about the illustrations and encourage your children to tell you the story in Norwegian without pretending that the book has “magically” changed to another language. Children have an amazing capacity for learning multiple languages and sorting those languages into appropriate “compartments” within their brains.
Modeling bilingual social norms
As your children grow older you may find yourself in many situations when sticking to one consistent language choice may not make sense. In addition to your role as your children’s Norwegian instructor you are also modeling behaviors and norms that will govern their bilingual interactions and guide them in socially appropriate interaction and seamless transitions between their languages in various settings. For example, if your child has a friend visiting who does not speak Norwegian, you can show your child that speaking a common language is the way to be considerate and polite in social situations even when you do not usually speak that language to each other.
Placing value on each language
It is important for both parents to honor and respect each language that is part of their children’s identity. Families can and should encourage their children to sing songs, play games, read books, watch TV and interact socially in both languages while recognizing that it will be impossible to keep them perfectly even or balanced. Some days might seem heavy in English interactions while others will be decidedly Norwegian. Since you are bilingual, it is appropriate and necessary for your child to hear you speaking both languages in different contexts and situations.
But when you are alone with your children, make an effort to keep your language of communication consistent as you have conversations and make connections between what you see, hear, think, feel and do throughout your days together as well as reviewing what happened when you were apart.
There are no hard and fast rules when it comes to parenting or language acquisition. Responsive interaction and consistency are crucial, and yet it is also important to remain flexible. When it comes to raising children, there is rarely one clear-cut, easy prescription for success. As parents, we are constantly faced with decisions that require us to weigh the pros and cons of a situation and maintain flexibility within the parameters of our goals, values, routines and convictions.
Hang in there and enjoy the ride!
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