I grew up speaking four different languages and I understood atleast six languages in India. Everybody in my country is pretty much multilingual. You learn English in school, Hindi is our national language spoken quite widely by people, Marathi is our state language again spoken by the people of the state and taught in school very extensively and then if you happen to have a different mother tongue which I did, Bengali, you would learn that from errmm your mother!
So you see why it is so important for me that my child is atleast bilingual. I failed at it with Reuben and Irene. That is because they were proficient in Korean and I was not. I was trying to teach them English when they came to England because that was a priority at the time. And by the time I realised that it would be nice if they could speak my language, they were quite a bit older and I was relatively younger and unprepared for the challenge.
With baby Ro, I had nine whole months to decide and prepare myself for the challenge ahead. You see in India it is easy to pick up languages because you hear all these languages around you all the time but here English is so widely spoken and you yourself are so used to speaking in English that when you have to speak to somebody who is not capable of reciprocating in the same language as you, it is difficult to even talk in your own language, let alone speak with the intention of teaching it to somebody else.
However, I have chosen to teach my baby my mother tongue, and I have no idea whether he will eventually learn my language or not, that fear will live with me until he can speak properly in both English and my mother tongue, Bengali.
At present, Roshan understands a lot of what I say and sometimes will respond more to words spoken in Bengali than in English but at 14 months whatever he says is nothing more than babbles and sometimes plain gibberish. He calls his father “baba” and then refers to our dog Rustle as “Bubba”. Now we can differentiate what he means because we put his gibberish into context but how much of it is language is a mystery.
I have read no books and have no friends in a similar situation as mine who could inspire me. I am doing everything by instinct and trial and error. It is definitely a challenge but we are plodding along slowly. Here are some of the ways in which I try to teach my baby to be bilingual:
One Parent, One language
I try and speak to Roshan in Bengali. The idea is that one parent speaks to the baby in one language exclusively. Slowly the child associate that parent with the language and starts engaging in the language he associates that parent with.
For me , exclusivity is difficult because of my other two children. When there is nobody home, I speak to Roshan in Bengali but when the kids or Ed is home, I am speaking in English majority of the time and end up communicating with Roshan in English.
One thing I have started doing though is, as soon as I speak to Roshan in English, I then very quickly translate it into bengali in the hope that he picks up the language.
This one is my favourite and quite difficult. Ideally, I’d buy books in bengali for Roshan but it is very difficult to get hold of in the UK. So I try to translate any book that we have into bengali for him.
I sing a lot to Roshan. And eventhough I don’t know a lot of bengali songs myself, I sometimes make up songs in my language. We have a bathtime song, poo-time song and even nappy change song. Words keep changing because, well I make it as I go along.
I skype my mother, practically everyday. My mother lives in a joint family and everybody tries to come and speak to Roshan. Everybody speaks to him in Bengali. I try to create a sense of community for my baby in those 20 minutes of skype time.
Watching films and listening to music
We don’t watch a lot of tv but every now and again I try and put on music videos that are in bengali. Roshan enjoys hindi songs more though.
I also try and put on bengali songs for him whilst we are playing, eating or just lounging. Again, Roshan prefers his dad’s hip hop more!
Roshan is too young for this. But the idea is when he can start talking, I am going to insist that he speaks to me in bengali if he wants to get a response. Initially I will translate his request into bengali and ask him to repeat it just how we teach our children to say “please’ and “thank you”. In time, he will develop an association and understand that if he wants mummy’s attention he needs to speak in bengali.
I think this one might seem a bit brutal but is essential because baby will try to avoid speaking in the language he finds hard to come up with words in. In order to encourage him this method will come handy.
Translate and repeat
As mentioned above, as a parent you might have to translate and make them repeat. Children are going to find it very hard to learn a language that they are not listening to around them. It will be especially difficult to find certain words and they’d be tempted to use the words in a language that they are used to listening to more. In order to help them find words more easily this method will be helpful.
I already do it with Roshan. I ask him to repeat words and phrases after me and eventhough he can’t quite speak the words he has mastered the art of mimicking the tone of the words or phrases, which I think is a step forward already.
Patience & Persevere
Please be patient. I have no experience but I think as a parent if I persevere, baby Ro will activate his subconscious and learn the language eventually.
There might be a phase where baby Ro might only reciprocate in English and that might be an excuse for me to stop speaking to him in Bengali. But if I persevere and carry on speaking to him in Bengali he might get over his phase and start speaking to me in my language.
I have seen some children do that. Some children speak in English in public out of embarrassment to their parents whilst the parents still carry o Hunn speaking in some native language. Same children, go home and speak very eloquently in their mother tongue.
Have you raised a bilingual child? Do you have any tips for me?