Deciding which language to speak to your pre-school child remains a big concern for many parents who speak more than one language. Being anxious for results and worrying about how the child can cope with more than one language are not going to help either.
When we grew up, we probably did not care how much time, space and money our parents had spent in order for us to get the best education they could afford. The biggest problem for us now in this ever changing world is that we are bombarded with so much information coming through the internet, television, radio and other forms of broadcasting media, our world has become so small we can hardly hear ourselves think.
For our children, the world is still a big place because they have not reached the norms of our society. So the good news is, learning is a lifelong journey. In other words, our children will have the rest of their lives to learn as many languages as they desire.
Hold on, so you don’t buy that crap? “Our children will have the rest of their lives to learn as many languages as they desire.” Of course you don’t. What you are ready and prepared to do is to invest time and money in their education while you are still alive and well. You also hope to enjoy the fruits of your labour before your time ends on this earth. The noble cycle of parenthood constrain us from thinking life is long and that we have a lot of time in our hands. I do relate to this line of thinking because I was thinking the same way, but only once. As soon as my daughter turned 2 years of age, I learned very quickly not to let my own worries get in the way of our lifetime learning journey together. When you have to think and decide, what language to speak to your child, you are demonstrating doubt about yourself and the world your child is about to explore.
If you speak 4 languages, go with the 4 languages fearlessly. Yes, fearlessly, as my daughter would say.
Let me tell you about what happened to her and how this ‘fearless’ child came to speak her mind. Up until Primary 3, she was unable to perform well in Mathematics. Then in Primary 4 in 2011, she showed good form and was promoted to a better class. Her grades for Mandarin fell by 20% . I couldn’t be happier. Yes, I was not unhappy. I was actually satisfied. Why? She is already a confident speaker of 3 languages. But she was never happy with her performance in Mathematics. Whenever the subject on Mathematics is raised, I can see her eyes twitch. Her heart must be sinking so deep inside that she could hardly concentrate on anything but watch television. I made a conscious decision to leave helping her Mandarin language last year. I needed her to be happy about going to school regardless of what subject she has to study. My faith and dedication paid off in the end. Not only did her confidence in handling Mathematics go up, the fact that she was already a confident bilingual student makes her even more enthusiastic to improve her overall performance this year. She said to me after her Mathematics examination paper, “I did my problem sums fearlessly.” She smiled and literally put a smile back on my face that day.
It is important to understand that we can’t expect more from our children than what we could ask from ourselves. The school syllabi now are different from our school syllabi. The people our children meet now are different from the kind of people we interact with when we were kids. With our kids, we also need to anticipate challenges which will help our children to reflect on their own potentials and further polish their skills.
I have spent the last 10 years trying to understand the fact that no matter how many languages my child can speak, she will only be at peace with speaking the languages her parents understands the most. It brings me back to the home where I grew up. My parents do not speak English, so we only speak Malay to them because we know they understand this language and therefore will understand us.
So what language should you speak to your child if you are a bilingual, trilingual or multilingual parent? Here are some tips:
Speak all the languages fearlessly. Work towards achieving his fluency for the languages that you are comfortable with, while creating opportunities for the child to explore his potential. You still have to go about your life as a normal person. So if you have to be conscious about what your child should be hearing, you are indeed making your world smaller.