Challenges in Multilingualism – Navigating Language Dynamics in Multilingual Families

 

Being or becoming multilingual has numerous advantages, but it also comes with its fair share of challenges.

Understanding and addressing these challenges is essential for successful language development and maintenance in multilingual families.

Let's look at some common challenges that arise in multilingual families and discuss strategies to overcome them.

 

Language Dominance

When one language becomes stronger or more dominant than the other(s), we have to do with language dominance. One (or more) language(s) become more dominant when language exposure, schooling, or societal influences are supporting the target language(s) more than the others.

To address this, parents can provide a more balanced language input, i.e. make sure that there is enough exposure to the target languages in terms of qualitative high verbal interactions. Furthermore, they can encourage language use in various contexts, and seek support from language professionals if needed.

 

Code-Mixing and Code-Switching

Code-mixing and code-switching, where individuals switch between languages within a sentence of within a conversation, is very normal among multilinguals and usually nothing to worry about. But while this is a natural phenomenon, it can be a challenge when we struggle with having conversations in one language only. In fact, when we notice that our children can not hold a conversation in the target, i.e. the expected language in contexts where a monolingual language use is necessary, we may want to reinforce some language separation strategies, such as setting language rules for specific contexts. These strategies have proven to be very effective not only with children but also for multilingual adults!

 

Language Loss and Attrition

Language loss or attrition can occur when a language is not actively used or maintained. This language shift usually occurs gradually. It can become a concern when multilingual children are not exposed to the target languages consistently over a longer period of time.
To prevent language attrition and language loss, it is important to create and maintain (!) opportunities for language practice. Engaging with as many people as possible in the target language, fostering a great variety of language input – from speakers with a various interests and language use (formal, informal etc.) and of course also keeping the contact with extended family members who speak the language can help keep children motivated to use the language. If where we live we don't have enough speakers of the target languages, we can use all kind of audio and video resources to keep the language as varied and interesting as possible!

In our Toolbox for Multilingual Families we share activities and games that foster understanding, speaking, reading and writing.

 

Limited Language Resources

As mentioned above, access to resources in all languages spoken within the family can be limited, especially for less commonly spoken languages or languages that are not transmitted in written form (like dialects for example). However, leveraging online resources, local community networks, language exchange programs, and cultural organizations can help overcome this challenge and provide opportunities for language exposure and learning. – Make sure to join my facebook group Multilingual Families where you might find the "multilingual village" you need!

 

Maintaining Language Motivation

As children grow older, they may question the relevance or importance of maintaining multiple languages. Especially those they don't need with their peers or to function in social settings on a daily basis. It is crucial to foster a positive attitude towards multilingualism in general, and to highlight the advantages of having language skills in multiple languages.
In my online course for parents of 10-15+ year old children* I focus on fostering this awareness in our preteens and teens with regards to communication, cognitive development, cultural understanding, and future opportunities.

Celebrating cultural heritage and promoting meaningful language use can enhance the motivation of our chidren (and us!) to keep using the language**.

 

Social and Peer Pressure

As soon as children attend daycare or school, and participate in society, they are more prone to face social pressure or ridicule for speaking multiple languages or just "other" languages. Depending on where they grow up, the community will be more or less accepting towards other languages and cultures. In more monolingual settings, using other languages and coming from a more diverse cultural background can cause all kind of reactions.
As parents and caregivers, we can help our children cope with those situations by building their confidence and resilience of being "not only... but also...". educating others about the benefits of multilingualism, and fostering a supportive social network can help counteract this challenge.

 

Balancing Language and Academic Demands

Although more and more schools support multilingual children, i.e. their use of multiple languages, there are still some challenges our children can face. These challenges have to do with balancing language learning with academic demands. Especially when the language and overall academic expectations are not met, or not met at the expected moment, teachers and parents tend to blame the multiple languages. It has been proven that in the majority of cases academic struggles have nothing to do with the number of languages a child is exposed to. It is usually an imbalance in support for the target languages and the skills related to language learning and subject learning that cause a problem.
Whenever we observe an imbalance that lasts longer than a few months, and exceed the usual transition period (when our children changed school and maybe even school language etc.), we should work closely with educators to create a supportive environment that values and integrates multilingualism into the academic curriculum. In my over 30 years of experience with working in international settings I observed that the problem usually stems from the environment the child is exposed to, not the child. Therefore I always invite parents to find ways to create an environment where their children's needs are met and where they can develop in the most healthy way.

 

Conclusion

I am a defender of multilingualism as I know about the advantages about knowing multiple languages. I have acquired and learned more than 10 languages and dialects, and 5 of them to a high level of proficiency (in understanding, speaking, reading and writing). But like everything else in life, knowing multiple languages also comes with challenges. But these challenges can be overcome with awareness, proactive strategies, and support.
Embracing linguistic diversity, providing a balanced and hight quality of language exposure, fostering a positive language environment, and seeking professional guidance when needed, are essential for successful language development and maintenance in multilingual families and I'd say "across the lifespan".

By acknowledging and addressing these challenges, we can create a nurturing environment that allows multilingual individuals to thrive and embrace the richness of multiple languages and cultures.

 

If you are multilingual and raising multilinguals, please let me know in the comments what kind of challenges you faced or are currently facing with regards to using or fostering and learning multiple languages.

 

*The online course for parents of 10-15+ year old multilinguals will be available in fall 2024. If you want me to keep you informed for when the course will be ready, please leave a comment here below. No strings attached.
** I am preparing a course about Motivation for multilingual families. If you want me to keep you informed for when the course will be ready, please leave a comment here below. No strings attached.

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