Bilingual families

Article published in local “Surestart” Newsletter in September 2004

Bilingual Families

There are many families in Waltham Forest who speak a language other than English and who wish to make sure that they bring their children up speaking two or more languages. English society is largely a monolingual one, in spite of a large number of minority language communities, and many people here find the idea of bilingualism odd and abnormal. Few are aware that across the world there are more bilingual and trilingual people than there are monolingual ones. Most people in countries like China, India and Kenya speak more than one language.

There are a lot of myths about bilingualism and many people who are not experts have opinions about it – even though their ideas are often ill informed and very out of date. People used to think that speaking two or more languages confused children and delayed their development. This has now been disproved and it is clear that bilingual and trilingual children are at least as intelligent as monolingual ones. In fact their multilingualism seems to give them a more flexible thought pattern which is very helpful in some areas of the curriculum (and in life generally).

As English is such a dominant language in the UK, and because there are no dedicated resources or information points for people raising children bilingually, it is difficult to know where to go for information. Of course, there are specialist speech therapists (including some within the Sure Start office) but their role is really to solve problems that children have in learning to understand and talk at all rather than to help parents encourage children to speak two (or more) languages fully. Many parents have lots of questions: –
• I am a mother tongue speaker of another language, but should I speak English to my children to help them settle into school when the time comes?
• Although I speak to my child in another langugage, he knows I understand English. Will my child think that everyone speaks English and will he or she try to speak it to their grandparents who don’t?
• Does the fact that it is the father in the family who speaks the non-English language (and who spends less time with the children) mean that it is impossible to raise children speaking both languages?
• Will I be able to teach my children to read and write in my language which uses a different alphabet?
Every family is different and there are no easy answers to all of these questions, but just listening to parents who are a few years ahead, whose children may now be in school, who speak two or more languages, can help parents think through these decisions and make the choices that are right for them and for their children. Also sharing these concerns with those who are at the same stage as you, can give you encouragement to continue, on those days when you wonder whether the effort is worthwhile.

In 2001, a group of parents who were all trying to raise their children bilingually got together. We found that between us we had lots of experiences and ideas that we could share. Out of this a small voluntary group was formed – the Waltham Forest Bilingual Group. More than 25 families have now joined. We meet regularly and exchange emails to share experiences and to encourage each other. We also arrange events where speakers come to talk to us about relevant subjects and we give presentations to other groups who ask us to.

‘We would warmly welcome you to join our group, as we are always looking for more members to share experiences and ideas. If you would like to join or to find out more about the group – please call Claire on 020 8531 6448 or Chris on 020 8529 8189.