Category: Mother Tongues stories

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

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.

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“To have another language is to have another soul”

Languages are the key to a better understanding of Cultures or at least, that is how I see it. The language we speak shapes our ideas, and therefore learning another language provides us with a wider vision of the world. As Charlemagne said: “To have another language is to have another soul”, which I, as a language (Hindi, Irish and Welsh) learner, think is very true.

I am a 37-year-old daughter of a French mother and a Spanish father, but born in Colombia, so I have grown up in a bilingual environment. I have always felt it was enriching to have two cultures. As a teenager, I was in an International secondary school where I was rubbing shoulders with more than 70 nationalities (some of my school mates were children of Diplomats as the school was at the border with Switzerland, 10 minutes from Geneva).

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When I was 14 years old, my parents sent me to Galway, Ireland for a linguistic holiday. I fell in love with Ireland: its Culture, its people, its music… That experience has changed my whole life. The following year, I was in Gorey, County Wexford, and my love for this country deepened. That is when I promised myself to finish my studies and go and live in Ireland. And that is what I have done at 23, when I left everything behind to realize my Irish dream.

indiaAfter 2 years, I left to go volunteering in India, and after my project, I came back to France and found a job in Switzerland.
During these years, I have missed Ireland so much, there was not a single day I was not thinking about the Emerald Isle. In that period I joined an Irish dancing group (Set dancing) in Geneva (Switzerland), started Irish Tap Dancing classes in another school, and became a Committee member of the Geneva Irish Association. That was my own little way to cope with the need to be in Ireland…even though I was going there every single month.

At that time I have also decided to stop postponing a project I had: learning Irish. There was no class in France or Switzerland, so I have booked a course in a school in Donegal (Glencolmcille). To start with, I wanted to understand the place names, as I knew they were very descriptive, and had very often a wonderful meaning, as Gaeilge.

Immersed in the Gaeltacht, there could not have been a more Irish place for me! I was in heaven! The school was surrounded by beauty; we had classes for 4 hours in the morning and 3 in the afternoon, and at the breaks, we were all trying to say things we had learnt in our new language, being able to use the few words to practice immediately after the class with the locals. There is a book shop inside the school and the staff was speaking to us in Irish for our benefit. It makes Irish such a living language, whereas in Dublin we don’t hear it much spoken. At night, there were sessions of Irish dancing or Irish singing.

People were from all backgrounds, Irish people who started it, Irish people who had wanted to forget about that “school subject” for years and now wanted to get back to it or giving it another go; people who had Irish and who wanted to improve, or people who were fluent but just wanted to put their language to use. I remember that man, Declan, who lived in Singapour with his family and had come back for the class, in order not to lose his “heritage”.
I have loved this course so much that I went back the year after and the two following years, where I have seen again some people, all so welcoming. It was like a catch up between old friends, and that is what feels so good in Ireland.

One day I heard about Irish classes in Geneva. My colleague Cormac’s girlfriend had arrived from Inis Meáin to Geneva and was prepared to give free Gaeilge classes in the basement of an Irish pub, which of course I was the first to join!
Aoife was a brilliant teacher, she made some grammar rules look simple, we could practice Irish every week in the class (when you do not live in the country it is difficult to find someone to practice), and she was telling us about the life on Inis Meáin!

Now I am finally back to Ireland, I attended a class at Gael Linn last year, and even dragged my partner along.
He always said he was not good at languages but gave it a try. Verdict? He absolutely loved it. He is Welsh and enjoyed discovering the similarities and differences with the Welsh language.

When the classes finished, I have bought the program “Rosetta Stone-Irish” and now I try to practice a little every day. But between a really busy job and the fact that I am also learning other languages, it is sometimes difficult to find the time.
However, I try to keep in touch with the language because I still feel it is a wonderful one and by learning it I feel I am doing my part.
Let’s not forget Irish people were forbidden to speak their own language for 700 years. Now we have the right, let’s use it and be grateful for it!

As I said, my partner is Welsh and we had been on a road trip to Wales recently. As I love Celtic countries, I had obviously fallen for Welsh culture too.
My partner was teaching me a few words and I enjoyed reading the signs of place names (once again) and understanding the meaning.
I had joined the Welsh society and saw some Welsh classes advertised. My partner has a little bit of the language but is not fluent.

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So I thought it would be good to start classes together: for him to have stronger feeling of Welsh identity – because I feel the language is definitely a plus in order to feel part of a place – and for me, because I wanted to discover the language which is my mother-in-law’s mother tongue and my sisters-in-law are totally bilingual too.
That was something we could share, practice together. It felt like a totally new adventure and I enjoyed every second of it.

Sometimes I finish work, feel exhausted before going to a language class, but in the end, I always feel much better after the class… energized.
So I definitely think learning languages is good for your health!

Author: Laura Abecasis


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Communication and relationships

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We are a small family of three. I am a French mother living in Dublin since my teenage years, and with my Irish partner, we have a daughter. I see my ability to ensure she speaks French as a gift that I would be selfish to keep to myself.

mother_tonguesThe technical side of being bilingual is useful of course: being able to settle in various countries, being able to learn new languages with perhaps a little more ease, having more chances of finding a job. But for me, the most important lesson is to make my child aware that despite all having different tongues, we are all humans and we can all communicate.
I feel that children who grow up without hearing other languages are less likely to approach others in the playground and they are more reticent to communicate with foreign children and therefore are more reticent as adults.

My favourite moment was witnessing my daughter play when she was a toddler (and only speaking French) with a handful of bilingual and trilingual children. None of them spoke the same language, yet they had no problem at all to communicate and have fun with each other. I feel that Dublin is the best setting for this, as it is swarming with the wealth of a myriad of first-generation immigrants.

In a paradoxical way, I think bilingualism transcends the need for language as it encourages people to communicate rather than speak. 

Author: Emilie Akoka


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My family’s adventures in bilingualism


We are a French family
. A mum, a dad and three girls. All born in France, we settled in Dublin nearly two years ago when our daughters were 3 months, 3 years and 6 years.
We decided to go on this adventure in order to learn English and broaden our horizons. We have always thought of bilingualism as a gift, a way to open our minds and a tool for new discoveries.

We all found our spot in this new world at our own pace. We have discovered that beyond the positive aspects of learning the language, bilingualism has provided us with a new window out of which we can observe our children and both our languages English and French have become a fundamental part of our family.
Language is often part of our daily conversations. We reflect on the meaning of phrases and metaphors, we think about how we choose words and we discuss pronunciation. We encourage and help each other.

Now that we live in Ireland our challenge is to keep a strong link with the French language while learning the language of our host country, in which our children live their lives every day. The new country, its language and its culture have become part of the children’s lives and of their identity.

We think it is important to maintain their spoken as well as their written French. Orally it is done through us, parents, the rest of the family, our circle of francophone friends, through songs, stories and films. We keep up their writing skills using books.
When it comes to English, we trust our environment, the school, their friends and mostly, we trust our girls.

Author: Charlotte Petit


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The gift of language

Raising multilingual children has always been a mission to me, I have gone too deep to give up.

After my second child was born, I gave up my job to give the gift of language to my children, posh Mandarin Chinese that is spoken in Taiwan. Despite challenges, with the great support of my “quiet” partner, my children are not only talking to me still, but we can discuss news in Mandarin.

mt_stories_evan_furlongAlthough bilingualism may come easily when children are young, as soon as they start to attend the mainstream schools, English, the lingua franca dominates their heritage languages.  It is imperative, however, to maintain the reflex of using mother tongue with your children regardless of what language they respond back.
At least, the listening skill is contained and there is a slight chance of passing the mother tongue to the third generation.
My children and I have this mutual reflex that we must force our brains to speak English to each other when we had to, and it didn’t feel natural.

Everyone is aware of the benefits of multilingualism.  The young generation’s second or third languages in European countries are far better than their peers herein Ireland where they spent the same amount of time studying a language. It is not only a lack of motivation, but also lack of environment.  There are significantly more learning prospects in English than other languages in the media.  Parents need to create opportunities.

A few tips for parents based on my own experience.
I meet up with friends who speak Mandarin to their children regularly.  I read stories to them in Mandarin up to they were ten.  I encourage them to read and study the same.  I listen to Chinese songs with them.  I volunteer in their school to promote Chinese culture and language annually.  I spent time watching silly cartoons or movies in Mandarin with my teens.  I take every car journey as an opportunity to discuss current affairs.  I do not care if I embarrass them in front of their peers.  I text them in Chinese words and pinyin too sometimes.  I take them home to Taiwan as much as I can afford.  I felt that I have invested in too deep that there is no turning back.

To finish I have a few words from my husband on his perspective.

“It is fantastic that my children converse with ease and fluency in Mandarin with their mother.  It is the only language they speak with her.  Even now with them in their teens, there is no resistance to conversing in Mandarin, it’s just a completely natural thing for them to do, having always done so.  For the most part, it does mean I don’t know what they are talking about, but that can be a good thing sometimes as well”.

Author:  Evan Furlong


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The time I questioned my own bilingual parenting skills

Before my first child was born I decided that I would speak Italian to him. I thought that speaking Italian to my baby would be the most natural thing to do, as I had always spoken Italian to every one of my family members.
I knew that being the only Italian speaker in our new home in England would mean that I needed to make an effort to expose my child to Italian, but I was prepared to do it. I got together with other Italian families and we met every weekend for years, I travelled as much as possible to Italy, I always chose to read books and watch cartoons in Italian. My son’s language development was fine, and I had no reason to worry. I could see he could understand everything we said both in English and in Italian, even though he mostly used English words at the beginning.

mother tongues storiesOne day when my son was 20 months old we went to our local parent and toddler group and the speaker that day was a speech and language therapist. She asked me a few questions about my son and commented on the fact that he seemed quiet and reserved, and did not seem to want to play with the other children.
I didn’t see anything strange in that, as I knew that whenever we visited the group he immediately reached out for his favourite toys and books. The speech and language therapist continued asking me questions about his language and finally asked me how many words he could say. I wasn’t too sure, but I estimated that he could say about 20 words, some of which were animal sounds (like calling the sheep “baa-baa”). I told her that these 20 words included a mix of Italian and English words, too. She was not too impressed and suggested to put his name down on the waiting list for speech and language therapy. This was based on my answer on the number of words he could say and on the fact that he was playing with a book quietly in a corner of a very busy room.
Lots of questions crossed my mind: should I trust a professional and put his name on the list, just for peace of mind? should I keep an eye on him and work more on his vocabulary?
I had written notes on my son’s early sounds and words in a small diary, and I didn’t think that there was anything wrong with his language development. However, that morning I did question my own judgement. I felt guilty thinking that I may have been too confident and not acknowledged that my child had a problem. I decided to ask more questions.
After a few minutes, I went to talk to the speech and language therapist and asked her why she thought my son should be put on the waiting list. She claimed that at 18 months all children can say at least 50 words and that if they speak two languages they should have at least 50 in each language, so she said that he was a typical case of language delay.
I had at least 10 friends whose 20-month-old children definitely used lots of words… but I also had at least 10 friends whose 20-month-old children said just “mama” and “dada”.
I also knew that it is important to observe a child’s development over time, and rather than placing a 20-month-old child on a waiting list for speech and language therapy, she should have advised me on how to take notes on his new words and how to expand his vocabulary.
When later I asked colleagues who work in the field they said that she should not have given a diagnosis without fully assessing my son, and she should not have assumed that he had language delay based on my report on number of words he could say.
After this short conversation with the speech and language therapist, I was a bit flustered. My son had just been given a “diagnosis” of language delay, and I didn’t take that lightly.
I went to talk to the manager of the toddler group and asked more questions. She told me that this specific speech and language therapist was newly qualified and she had already told many families with young bilingual children (and that was the majority of children at the centre) to stop speaking their mother tongue in order to “fix” their language delay.
She also told me that many parents had gone to her in tears, and felt that they had done something wrong to their child by speaking their mother tongue. The manager told me that she looked into the issue. I did attend the group again, and never saw that speech and language therapist again. I do wonder if the mothers who worried about their child’s development did follow the advice of giving up their mother tongue.
Even though I know how important it is to keep speaking my mother tongue to my child and I know what speech and language therapy involves, I did get very worried and I did question my parenting choices and my own ability to understand my child’s development.

So was she right? Was the language delay real? In our case luckily there was no issue in his language development, but we definitely kept a close eye on him until he was about 4. It was a process that seemed slow and not consistent at times, but I continued to speak Italian to him and now that he is 9 I can say that I don’t regret this decision at all.

What I would say to other families in the same situation is to ask questions, consult experts (public health nurses, speech and language therapists) but never accept the advice of someone who claims that to fix any problem or overcome any difficulty it is necessary for parents to stop speaking their mother tongue to their child.

Author: Francesca La Morgia


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