Adele Brunner talks to multicultural families about raising bilingual children.
The Bruwers: Sylvette Bruwer is French, her husband Frank is German. They have two girls, Zoe, 12, who was born in Malaysia, and Joana, 9, born in Hong Kong.
I am French, my husband is German and we both are fluent in English. My girls speak both “mother” and “father” tongues as well as English and some Mandarin. Frank can speak French and, although I don’t speak German, I understand a little bit. When Zoe was only four, she acted as a translator for me when we were on holiday in Germany – it was surreal! The girls are happy to speak French and German and find it perfectly natural to swap from one language to another because it has always been like this for them. There is, of course, the occasional mix-up of three languages in one sentence, which can be really funny.
It was natural for us to speak to the girls in both languages from birth. Why would we speak a language other than our mother tongues, the language that is part of our personalities, heritage and culture? We didn’t speak to them in English because we didn’t want to confuse them. We realised after some time that they naturally categorised each person based on their language: for example, if German Grandma asked them a question in English, they would get confused.
Neither of my children experienced any delay in language abilities as toddlers even though they were trying to absorb more than one language.
However, Zoe and Joana are most fluent in English. It is what we speak as a family, the language they communicate in together and it has always been the language used with friends and outside home: at school and in art classes, tennis lessons and sailing courses. They can read and write in French and German, but not fluently and make mistakes in grammar and spelling. Their vocabulary isn’t as wide as it is in English.
When Zoe started school, we decided not to choose a French or German school system because we live in an international community and don’t have any plans to move back to France or Germany in the near future. She went to ESF Abacus Kindergarten and Clearwater Bay School, as did Joana, who still attends the latter. Their English was very poor when they started kindergarten but the teachers were supportive and they picked up the language incredibly quickly. Zoe has now started secondary school at the French International School in the international stream because the school offered the right language options to suit us. The plan is for Joana to follow the same path.
We’ve found it pretty easy to raise our children speaking more than one language because so many families in Hong Kong do the same and we are not the odd ones out. We are lucky to be able to go back to France and Germany once or twice a year, and each time this immersion helps the girls to improve their language abilities and their confidence. Visits from relatives help a lot too. The Internet also offers some great resources: the girls can watch cartoons and movies in French or German.
My advice is to speak to your kids in your own mother tongue from birth, regardless of the environment, and stick to it.