What have I learned over 5 years of raising a bilingual child in Ireland?

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What have I learned over 5 years of raising a bilingual child in Ireland?

My bilingual daughter turned 5 this year. I spoke Polish to her since she was born, then when she was 2 she started attending English speaking creche for a few hours per week, then at the age of 3-4 she was attending 3 to 4 full-time days and this September started her big school. When I think of what I have learned as her mum over those 5 years… definitely A LOT!  
When it comes to her bilingualism and maintaining the Polish language, I think I learned 3 main things (and I am still learning, of course!):
1. positive attitude is a key,
2. starting speaking Polish to her early and making it a habit helped a lot,
3. encouraging her to use Polish with as many people/places/activities as possible gives her more chances and fun while developing her skills in Polish.

Positive Attitude

I have learned that a positive attitude is a key and by saying that I mean me maintaining my positive attitude in this process of raising her with two languages as well as supporting my daughter in building her positive reflection on her own bilingualism and her ability to speak Polish and English.
The older she is, the more we speak about languages around us and the languages that we use every day. We started discussing such topics when she was about 3.5 as at this point she became curious about languages that she would hear people speak on the streets and her bilingual friends speak with their parents. That was the time when she learned to distinguish Polish and English and name those 2 languages. Thanks to that ability it became easier for her to not mix them that often (she still does, that’s normal!), but rather ask me “How do we say… in Polish / How do we say… in English?” when she would lack vocabulary.
Now that she is aware people speak many different languages outside, at home and with their families, she is also proud of being able to speak Polish and attending a Polish Saturday school – only started last month, so keep your fingers crossed she will keep up with this positive thinking about it! 😉 I have always tried to be positive about Polish language, culture and Poland when speaking to her. She was only in Poland once, last year, but she loves it, because as she said: “Everybody speaks Polish there!” 🙂
I keep telling her that this is great she can speak Polish, that she can count in Polish or that she knows letters. I keep saying she is doing great even if she makes mistakes or I correct her a little bit. And you have to know, she makes plenty of funny mistakes and creates forms that don’t even exist in Polish but it’s okay in my opinion, as long as she is happy to keep using it, she will learn eventually. And those funny words/sentences I always write down to have a good laugh in the future 🙂
I am always trying to make her proud of being a bilingual child and make her aware that I am proud of her speaking both languages, no matter her mistakes as I am making mistakes too, and everybody does and it’s alright. What is crucial here, is that I teach her that bilingualism is a great thing no matter what your two languages are. I really avoid comparing languages or saying one is better to have than another. Both are important and great to know and we like both and it is nice for everyone to speak their languages – that is what we say, so I am trying to teach her respect for all cultures and languages not only for our heritage language.

Making it a habit

In my opinion, speaking Polish to her since she was born helped a lot. She was surrendered by Polish at home since day 1 and it has always been natural to her to speak Polish to me or my Polish parents who also live in Ireland. Of course, she would mix languages sometimes or use an English word in a Polish sentence when she doesn’t know how to say it in Polish or sometimes she would want to play in English with me or her grandparents and we do, it’s okay. The most important thing for me is that she knows we speak Polish at home or at my parents’ home and she is even surprised when I would say something to her in English, asking me “Mama, why do you speak English to me?”.
I use English to her sometimes though, especially when we have English speaking friends visiting or when we are talking/playing with someone in English. But for example, when we are in the same room with non-Polish speakers but they do not engage in any conversation/activities with us and I would just say something to Alice only, I would still use Polish and maybe translate to them what I have just said and explained that we speak Polish with each other and I want her to have as much Polish as possible. All our friends and neighbours know already and are fans of our bilingual life, none of them ever told me they would feel uncomfortable with that.

Different activities, people and places to learn from

For very young children it is okay to use their heritage language at home only, with both or one parent. As a parent but also a researcher and a teacher, I have been conscious for a long time that at the age of 4 or 5 my daughter will need more than that. It is amazing to speak Polish at home with parents, but to develop her skills in Polish properly, she needs more than that.
What do I mean by more?
I mean allowing her to use Polish with as many people as possible, in as many different settings as possible, while doing as many different activities as possible. From my observations, her language got better very quickly once she started playing with Polish-speaking children more often. I am lucky to have Polish friends here, so while mummies have a cup of coffee, children play in Polish 🙂 Calling friends and family online helps a lot too! A few months ago she wasn’t very talkative in online meetings but now she is able to take my phone and talk to her family members in Poland about her day, showing her toys etc. She enjoys it a lot!
Another thing is using Polish for different activities to make it fun, so we watch, read, listen to music in Polish, dance to Polish music etc. Of course, we do watch, read and listen to music in English too, but I try to make Polish attractive for her and she always asks me if we have this cartoon or song in Polish, as this is a habit that mostly whatever we do at home is in Polish.
And finally, learning the language – as she is already 5, I have decided to enrol her to Polish Saturday School where I teach Polish to older children. She is attending class “0” which is an equivalent to Junior Infants in mainstream schools. This is for her to learn the language and also make friends with other children of similar Polish background. So far she absolutely LOVES it!
I think that Saturday schools and online classes are very helpful for school-age children to develop their skills as speaking at home might not be enough at this age. At the moment she is going through letters and sounds in both schools and she is able to compare them and distinguish them. I hope she will be able to learn how to read and write in Polish in the future as reading ability is, in my opinion, the best tool to have in heritage language learning as children can learn vocabulary, grammar while reading and having fun – and as you know, there is many more benefits of reading books, so why not read them in both languages? Also, if your child likes their heritage language teacher (doesn’t matter if that is a Saturday school or an online class), they have one more positive association to the language and as I said above, a positive attitude is a key.
That is pretty much it at the moment. Hope this will help somebody!
Parents, please do not give up, ever! It is never perfect or easy to raise children with two languages, there are always good days and bad days, but as long as we care about it and stay positive (and patient), I am sure we are all able to make it fun and suitable for our family life. It takes time, actually, it takes a lifetime to be a parent of a bilingual child, but I am sure they will appreciate that we gave them such a precious gift as our mother tongue.
Thank you,
Aga Pędrak 

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