G is being brought up with three languages. Mamma speaks English with him and this is by far his strongest language so far, daddy speaks Italian with him, and he has Danish at the nursery which he attends five days a week (mostly). When we are with Danish friends I ask them to stick to speaking one language, Danish, with him. What a great start, not only from a communcation perspective but apparently also from the 'exercise' his brain gets when switching between the three … according to some experts.
Apparently one of the important aspects of language acquisition when children grow up in multilingual environments is that grown-ups stick to one language when they communicate with the child, and preferably their mother tongue. It has surprised me how difficult some adults find it to do just that. On several occasions I have had to ask carers and acquaintances to refrain from switching to English with Giulian if Danish is their mother tongue. I have thought a lot about why it is so challenging.
It seems that many just want to communicate with the little man immediately (because they like him), in other words, things should not take too long, and it should not be taxing for G. Part of the challenge here is that almost everybody in Copenhagen speaks English confidently and well – it is very, very easy for most Copenhageners to switch. If G’s first language was Croatian or Thai the same people would have a totally different mindset and be entirely focused on making themselves understood and on helping him to acquire Danish, which would be entirely to his benefit. I do not get the impression at all from G that he finds it challenging being at the nursery, so there is no reason it should be taxing being spoken to in Danish by others. The pedagogues report that he speaks in Danish there and he has a level that is very normal for children for whom Danish is a second language. I am trying to raise G to approach challenge pragmatically – there is always a way to solve things. In general, I think that some personalities, maybe even children in general, instinctively approach challenge very differently. Perhaps it is society that teaches us that challenges are problems.
Another issue which appears to confuse and complicate things is that even when we are in Danish speaking environments (e.g. the nursery, birthday parties etc.) I continue to communicate with G in English even though I speak Danish very well. Other strange things happen in those situations too such as people responding to me in English when I speak Danish to them! I may of course be entirely wrong, but it seems that people think I speak English to him because that is what he understands better, rather than because English is my mother tongue. At this point I must note that, if I may generalize, Danes tend to focus a great deal on foreigners learning Danish when they come here, whether they need it in their daily lives or not. I am not necessarily against this, however, I find it ironic that I, or rather, G is having challenges with getting Danes to speak Danish to him in Danish-speaking environments. The end result is that G has less exposure to Danish and therefore fewer opportunities to acquire and practise the language, which will be to his great disadvantage at school start.
I am quite language focused so there is no doubt that G will learn English grammar and all from me at home. The experts also say that it if multilingual children have a very solid foundation in one language, they will learn the other ones well, in good time. In a way then I should not be too concerned about what is happening right now. I made the decision that I just need to be quite persistent and insistent with people and it will be fine. I also have a few friends for whom neither English nor Danish are their mother tongue – there I am able to understand easier why they would switch between the two, yet I still try to gently encourage them to stick to one.
There seems to be so little awareness and understanding about bi- and multi-linguistic children’s language learning and language acquisition among parents of such children and, more surprisingly, among practitioners who are responsible for educating them. This is very worrying if one considers that we are in an age of migration and people are moving and mixing like never before. One of the concerns I have from my experiences in Denmark is that bi- and multi-ligualism is often treated like an illness rather than an asset. Perhaps because Denmark has been used to many of the bilingual children in schools in previous years coming from families with lower levels of education, the term ‘tosproget’ (which literally translates to ‘two-languaged’) has acquired negative connotations and is used to pejoratively define descendants from particular migrant groups … even when language is not the topic of conversation!
Denmark has taken great strides to attract highly educated foreign labour to its shores, and it is succeeding. However, family-related challenges, such as the care and schooling of children result in many of the migrants moving on to other traditional migrant-receiving countries which have an infra-structure that matches the needs of their mobile, multi-lingual families. This immigrant group has a choice about whether to stay here or not, and that differentiates them greatly from the previous waves of migrants. I hope for Denmark that its institutional structures and people who work within them will be able to adapt to the new ‘face’ of immigration, which shines very brightly indeed.
I went to academia when I was pregnant to find out more about multiple language acquisition, but here are a few links to resources (I have not read much of) if you waned to browse yourself:
This evening a Danish colleague has invited us over for soup dinner. She is married to a Dane and they have two kids. There will be a mix of nationalities present and our interest in India is what brings us together. The language of the evening will I suppose be English. So my recipe for today will be written up tomorrow, once I have tasted my soup and gotten permission from my host to share the method and ingredients with you.
Have a great day!
And so this is the reply that my friend sent me when I asked for the recipe – making this soup requires that you have some knowledge of the ingredients. I would suggest trying different combinations of measurements to find the taste and consistency that you prefer. The version I ate was absolutely delicious!
Fry onion in oil with curry leaves, garlic, ginger, cumin seeds, a little chili add some of the vegetables you have e.g. (carrot, beet root, tomato), add more vegetables after a while (e.g. squash, cauliflower, broccoli) as well as lentils (e.g. red lentils or mung dhal), add plenty of water, some vegetable bouillon, a pinch asofoatida (hing poweder) the yellow coloring stuff (tumeric I guess), salt pepper, cook for a long time. Blend it with a hand mixer add lemon and maybe soy yogurt…