The Complexities of Multilingual Parenting

The Complexities of Multilingual Parenting

The path of raising multilingual children is far from straightforward. Beyond the charming image of children developing multiple languages, there’s a journey that involves more than just linguistic development. It’s about navigating the unique attitudes, personalities and personal circumstances of parents, which can sometimes present unexpected hurdles. Today, we embark on a deep dive into the realities of multilingual parenting through our Parents’ Feelings Matter series.


A Tri-Lingual Setting

Beatriz’s linguistic journey began in Portugal, where she was born and raised. Early exposure to English in school added a new layer to her language repertoire. Her journey expanded when she ventured to Italy for a year of study, mastering Italian through immersion. As fate would have it, she met an Italian partner, so that she enriched her linguistic mosaic further. Eventually settling in Dublin, Beatriz’s family communicated in a blend of English and Italian, reflecting their diverse linguistic backgrounds.

Navigating Languages in the Household

The complex dynamics within Beatriz’s household reflect her multilingual life path. Conversations with her partner primarily unfold in Italian, their shared language. Yet, as they became parents, the choice to introduce a third language, Portuguese, added a new layer of complexity. Despite the intention to raise a trilingual child, Beatriz’s reality presented unforeseen challenges. As her child’s primary caregiver, she found herself juggling the tasks of fostering her child’s language acquisition while handling the complexities of everyday life.

Obstacles on the Path

Beatriz’s routine wasn’t without obstacles. The compartmentalisation of languages represented an obstacle, with English emerging as the predominant language due to its prevalence in the environment.

Every time I speak Portuguese, my child is like ‘What? What did you say, mama? I don't speak that language.’ Even with Italian. He used to be comfortable with Italian, but now, he has shifted, he just says ‘I don't speak that language.

The effort required to maintain proficiency in three languages proved demanding, prompting a shift towards the convenience of English. This journey was particularly daunting as Beatriz sought to navigate the nuances of raising a child in a trilingual household.

I used to [speak my language] more frequently, but as I said, it's not a preference as much as a resource issue when you're tired.

Partner and Family Dynamics

Beatriz’s experience underlines the role of partners and extended family in the multilingual parenting journey. A partner who shares linguistic heritage can facilitate communication in a particular language. Yet, when languages differ between partners, the dynamics shift. Beatriz’s partner’s inability to speak Portuguese posed challenges in fostering the language, as her child responded more to the languages that both parents shared.

The Weight of Societal Influences

Societal biases loom large in the multilingual parenting journey, and Beatriz’s experience is no exception. The omnipresence of English, coupled with the challenges of multilingualism, prompted moments of self-doubt. The common myth that multilingualism inhibits language development surfaced, testing Beatriz’s decision to provide her child with the gift of being trilingual.

Moreover, Beatriz’s journey takes an unexpected turn in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic. Travel restrictions and reduced contact with extended family disrupted the exposure to home cultures and languages. 

Preserving the Melody of Multilingualism

In fostering parents’ native tongues, the importance of support and resources becomes essential. For parents seeking assistance in fostering home language development, Mother Tongues offers a wealth of tools. Our Learning Hub provides hundreds of valuable resources, articles and practical tips to empower parents in their multilingual journey. Additionally, our free creative workshops, Language Explorers, hosted in South Dublin, offer a communal space to exchange experiences, share challenges and create a special bond with your children through art-making. 

At Mother Tongues, we believe that the journey towards multilingualism is not only about languages but also about fostering connections, bridging cultures and enriching lives.

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