Her children are growing up in a country that is neither hers or her husband's, and their community is very international. She tells us the challenges they faced and how they needed to adjust course on their multilingual family approach.
Ute is a language consultant for multilingual families and has a lot to share from her own life and professional experience.
Grab a cup of coffee and enjoy - this is a long one ;)
I have lived in Italy, Switzerland, France and the Netherlands and have managed to thrive in all the places I've lived so far.
My German parents had lived in Belgium, Italy and France for over 30 years before repatriating in the late eighties.
I grew up in Italy as a simultaneous bilingual Italian/German and acquired Swiss German thanks to a television channel that was available in our area in Northern Italy for a short time when I was 4-5 years old. I started learning French when I was 6, English when I was 11, Spanish in my twenties and Dutch in my late thirties – I'm fascinated by languages and studied Romance Languages and Literature, more specifically Italian and French literature and linguistics. I also studied Latin, Old French and Old Provençal: all languages that are not spoken anymore. I did my masters and PhD in French medieval literature/linguistics (i.e. philology), taught Italian historical linguistics, and French medieval literature at the Department of Romance Languages and Literature at the University in Zurich, where I worked as an Assistant, Lecturer and Researcher, specialized in Dialectology, Bi-/Multilingualism, Communication Theory, Psycho- and Sociolinguistics.
I obtained a PostDoc grant for my research on a Florentine poet from the 14th Century and spent 3,5 years in Florence, studying medieval manuscripts. My son was born in Florence in 2003. My husband was stay-at-home-father whilst I was the sole bread winner for the next 2,5 years. After my PostDoc grant, my husband and I looked for jobs all over Europe and when he got a great offer in The Hague we moved to the Netherlands.
Unfortunately I wasn't as successful with my job hunting: my historical approach in linguistics and my knowledge of philology didn't seem to be required here. When a year after our arrival to the Netherlands our twin-daughters were born, I decided to take time off and concentrate on my three children. I learned Dutch alongside my son and polished up my English: the community in The Hague is very international.
I had the opportunity to collaborate at a research project at the Huygens Instituut in The Hague, but quickly found out that I wanted to be more in touch with the international community. I started volunteering at my children's school. I organized up to 14 talks and welcomed on average 400 new families per year. This was when I noticed that many internationals would benefit from more support and guidance when arriving to a new place and I started my own company, Ute's International Lounge, designed a welcome program for newly arrived families (ENJOY your Life in The Hague) and started holding workshops and talks about international childhood, resilience, how to settle in easier in the Netherlands and, of course, raising children with multiple languages.
I observed that many families who live abroad and raise their children with multiple languages struggle with finding the right balance regarding the languages they want and can support, and those they need to learn or acquire. Especially when leading a very mobile life, this turns out to be a major issue for multilingual families: their children are often schooled in their 3rd, 4th or 5th language. As a Language Consultant for multilingual families and educators, I help families and educators support those children's multilingualism, maintain their home language and culture, whilst fostering the school and local languages and cultures. As an Intercultural Communication Trainer I help internationals become "internationally fluent", i.e. to understand the other culture and language and avoid misunderstandings in order to communicate effectively.
My son is now almost 16 and my twin-daughters 12,5 years old. They all grow up with multiple languages and in a very international community which I am very happy about because they are all very open minded, and very flexible.
What was your approach for raising your children multilingual?
I knew that I had to make some kind of plan when my son was born, as we were most probably going to move from Italy. I'm bilingual myself so I chose to talk the language that was most natural for me: Italian. My husband spoke Swiss German to our son, and my husband and I talked German to each other.
Therefore my son was exposed to three languages since day one.
When we moved to the Netherlands, Dutch and English were added naturally. My son went to a Dutch daycare. Although he started to respond in Dutch or Swiss German to me a few weeks after we arrived, I kept on talking Italian to him.
We maintained Italian and Swiss German also with our twin-daughters.
When my daughters were 1,5 years old, they developed a secret language. I was prepared that this could happen and knew that they would stop eventually. For our son, not understanding his sisters was very stressful, so after 3 months we decided to change our narrow down our family languages to German only.
It was an experiment that we discussed also with our son who, as I said before, was anyways talking Dutch, Swiss German and English (he started attending school in English when he was 4 years old). A few weeks later, our daughters stopped speaking that secret language. It seemed like all three children were more relaxed and happy with the language situation in our family, so we kept this strategy of mL@H – minority language at home – while keeping listening to Italian and Swiss German stories and songs.
Since our children were very young, we made sure to talk a lot with them – not only "to" them! – i.e. involving them in discussions, asking them open questions in order to make sure they are actively using the languages. As they needed Dutch at daycare and in the community, and English at school, I made sure they had smooth transitions between all of them by providing multilingual moments at home too. For example, when they came back from daycare or school, I let them talk about their day in the language they prefer. After an hour or two, once they are "fully arrived home", I model the home language which helps them make the switch and speak German only by dinner time. I needed this transition time when I was a child too. It helps to process what they've learned and experienced in the specific language, and later we can pick up some of it in our home language too, which allows to foster their home language vocabulary.
What does multilingualism look like in your home today?
Like I said before, we talk all the languages we like. There is no strict rule usually. We try to focus on our home language at breakfast and dinner, or when we play cards or board games together – which we still do regularly! – but for the rest, I consider it more important to keep the communication flowing and it can be in any of the languages my children speak. This is the advantage of sharing all the languages with my children. My husband, who doesn't understand or speak Spanish, can't participate in discussions in Spanish, so we switch to another language when he is there.
Much has happened since the switch from Italian, Swiss German and German to German only as home language when our children were younger. All our children are schooled in English now and Spanish and French are added to the list, and my son is learning Chinese at the moment.
All my children speak Dutch fluently, and read and write it pretty well. My son is pluriliterate in English, German, Dutch, Spanish. He also speaks Italian and reads it, although it requires more effort.
At home we speak a mix of all our languages, depending on our mood, the topic and the social context. If someone quotes an article or shares an experience, he or she can do it in the language it is written or it was experienced. I always try to keep up with German at home, and Italian and Swiss German during holidays. There are always one or two languages that are more dominant and for our children the most dominant languages are English, German and Dutch.
What benefits does knowing different cultures and languages bring to your children?
Knowing different cultures and languages broadens our horizon and makes us all less judgmental. We also tend to play with languages, put German endings to English words or vice versa, play with multiple accents. We don't have boundaries when it comes to languages and we don't judge accents: we understand people with very diverse accents and I think we look beyond them. What really matters is to understand the meaning of what one says. Our children are very good at spotting differences in intonation and pace in different languages and can distinguish subtle discrepancies.
We never focus on nationality, race or religion. I notice this difference when we visit friends who have other approaches to languages and cultures. In our family we concentrate on the character of the person, her or his interests and preferences.
I like the curiosity and flexibility my children have to switch not only from one language to the other in no time – which is how I grew up too – but also from one culture to the other. They sing songs in languages they don't understand, try food from many different cultures and are curious to know about other traditions, values and beliefs.
Children who grow up in multiple cultures constantly move from one "world" to the other, which is not easy, but they do it naturally, and in the same way they move between one language and the other.
Now that they are teenagers (and tweens), they try to define their identity which is not always easy. For some aspects they would rather be Swiss, for others German, Dutch, Italian or English. I know what it feels like to be "neither X nor Y", but I keep on telling them that whenever they feel like not belonging to one group, to always remember that they are "not only... but also..." – it is a process of self-discovery and self-definition which takes a while. I remember this from when I was their age.
My children grow up in a country that is neither the one my husband nor I grew up in. I would have loved my children to grow up in Italy, in order to have this in common with them and my husband would have liked them to have some experience living in Switzerland. We know that our children will always grow up differently than we, their parents: they are another generation, grow up in other circumstances and with other preferences.
My children grow up in a very international community and have lost many of their friends who moved away, and have very often been "left behind", which makes them feel quite lonely at times. I consider this one of the main problems of children who grow up internationally. It doesn't matter if you move often: even if your friends do, you'll experience loss so many times during your childhood! Our children have to say goodbye more times during their childhood years than an average adult in his/her lifetime (David Pollock, Ruth Van Reken, Michael Pollock, Third Culture Kids: Growing Up Among Worlds)
I am very much aware of the downsides of growing up this way and I try to help my children the best I can. I can't teach them how to feel, I can only help them find ways to cope with this in a healthy way. We all had moments of profound sadness and anxiety, and I know that my children had to learn how to grieve very early... It is heartbreaking to see them suffer, but I am very proud to see that they are finding their very personal way to deal with it and that they all have long lasting friendships.
Can you tell us about some of your proudest moments?
There are so many! With regards of my children's multilingualism, it's maybe when my son used Italian and Swiss German for the first time in a sentence because he was speaking to me and my husband, while looking at both of us; he was only 1,4 years old. – I'm very proud of my children taking all their steps, no matter how small.
They are amazing and such a pleasure to observe and nurture!
Concerning my children being multicultural and their open-mindedness, I notice that whenever someone makes comments about someone's provenience, they try to mediate and avoid judgments. They also defend the Dutch, Swiss, British, Italians etc, whenever someone makes negative comments about the culture! I feel the same way. When a culture or society is criticized in the media or literature, my first reaction is always to defend and mediate...I guess it's déformation professionnelle.
And what were your biggest challenges? How did you deal with them?
I think we all learn to deal with many challenges. Most of them seem big when we're not prepared, but if they reoccur, they become less challenging.
Concerning my children's languages, the first big challenge was when my daughters spoke a secret language and we had to change our language strategy. Also, when one of my daughters had issues with her speech and helping her required a lot of patience from us all.
But these challenges were also important learning opportunities for us all.
As a linguist I know the theory, the best practices, but I experienced first hand how hard reality can be. When all you would advise doesn't work in your own family you reconsider everything you've learned and researched and try to find alternative solutions. I am much more cautious on giving advice now than before having children because there is never one solution that fits all!
Every child and every family is different and deserves a very personalized solution that is supportive but also flexible enough to adapt to the constantly changing needs. Today I know that it is for a great part thanks to these issues that we experienced in our family that I am the Language Consultant I am today.
How was your experience in supporting your children’s minority literacy?
My son attended an Italian daycare before we moved to the Netherlands. All three children attended a Dutch daycare and are now schooled in English. English and Dutch are the languages they prefer speaking, reading and writing, and are their most dominant languages.
Although German is our home language, it is the minority language in the community my children grow up in. Only few of our friends speak it, and when we meet, our children tend to either talk in English or Dutch together.
I try to nurture it as much as I can at home, but my children's German literacy skills are not at the same level as English and will probably never be – unless they move to a German speaking country, and study or work there.
My three children are all very different when it comes to reading, writing and speaking German (and the other languages they're learning: Spanish and French at school; and my son is learning Chinese).
Not all of them are avid readers. Reading surely contributes to improve the vocabulary, but speaking, using the new words on a regular basis and in diverse contexts is what helps them consolidate their vocabulary in a more sustainable way.
Compared to many other parents, I am quite laid-back because I know that we can't force our children to acquire or learn a language. The older our children become, the more school, community and peers are more important: it was so for me growing up in Italy, then living in Switzerland and working in a mainly French and Italian environment, and it is the same for my children here in the Netherlands.
Each child has his or her own language preferences and all I can do as a parent is to provide resources, input and opportunities for German (and the other minoritized languages), but ultimately, they have to decide themselves how much they want to learn and how.
My children are very self-disciplined and I observe that their language proficiency is improving. If this wouldn't be the case, I would find ways to help them improve their language skills.
Furthermore, my children know what my expectations are: they should be able to have a conversation with native speakers (i.e. they can understand and make themselves understood), to read age appropriate texts and write with not too many spelling mistakes.
I know that many parents struggle when they realize that their children are better in the school language (or local language) and prefer it to the home languages, but this is a side effect of our children growing up in another country and are schooled in another language. Supporting our children's multilingualism is a long-term commitment and doesn't stop when they start reading.
For me, literacy is not only the ability to read and write, it is also the ability to understand different registers, to understand non-verbal clues, being able to understand jokes and sayings, metaphors in the other language and more.
It is not only about language, it is also about the culture.
My children watch German and Dutch news on a regular basis, watch movies in the other languages and listen to debates and we discuss about very diverse topics. We discuss about Geography, History, Chemistry, Physics, Maths in German. I do this intentionally in order to help them to become fluent in all domains of life in their other languages.
As my children have very different taste in books, I let them choose. Everything is fine, from novel to comics, to cook books.
What would you tell parents who hesitate about teaching their kids to read in multiple languages?
I would tell them to start with small steps and to lead by example.
If we parents read and write in different languages, our children will want to do the same. Especially when we start early. But one can also start when they're teenagers – it's never too late to change a pattern (it may take a while, but consistency is key!)
Some children can be intimidated by multilingual parents and settings, and think that they are not "good enough". Therefore I always recommend to give children the opportunity to acquire or learn the languages at their very own pace.
Let your child lead you when it comes to reading. Some children want to read in all their languages simultaneously, others prefer concentrating on one language only and start asking about how to read a text in the other language later.
Choose topics your child is interested in and ask open questions about what you're reading. This way you can find out what your child needs help with. Maybe they understand the overall meaning of a story but need some explanation about single words. This doesn't only apply to young children. Teenagers might need some help too. Like for us adults: when we read a text about at topic we're not that familiar with, we have to look up words and learn how to use them in other contexts. Reading is not only being able to read fluently, it's about understanding what you read, understanding the structure and the multiple layers of the language.
Another advice is to not push your children, and don't compare them to peers!
It can be frustrating to see that our child takes ages to read a text that peers (or siblings) could reed in no time. Our children have their very own pace and way of acquiring and learning languages and with consistency and patience we obtain better results that last longer than with constrictions and obligations. We all learn better when we enjoy what we're doing. It's the same for adults and children.
There are so many of sites and social media groups where parents can find answers and support! I always advise to make sure to get professional advice… There are so many who just share their own experience and give advice based on their own experience only. But every case is different and deserves tailored advice and support.
I can recommend the following books – but there are so many more!
★ Colin Baker, Foundations of bilingual education and bilingualism.
★ Adam Beck, Maximise your child’s bilingual ability.
★ Ellen Bialystok, Bilingualism in development. Language, Literacy & Cognition.
★ Andreas Braun and Tony Cline, Language Strategies for Trilingual Families.
★ Annick de Houwer, An Introduction to Bilingual Development.
★ Julia Festman et alii, Raising multilingual children. Parents’ and teachers’ guides.
★ Ofelia Garcia, Bilingual Education in the 21st Century.
★ François Grosjean, Bilingual Life and Reality.
★Kenneth Hyltenstamm (ed), Bilingualism across the lifespan, Aspects of acquisition, maturity and loss.
★ Ajit K. Mohanty, The Multilingual Reality. Living with Languages, Multilingual Matters.
★Johanne Paradis et alii, Dual language development and disorders. A handbook on bilingualism and second language learning.
★Suzanne Romaine, Bilingualism.
★Tracey Tokuhama-Espinosa, Raising multilingual children.
★Xiao-lei Wang, Growing up with three languages.
★Barbara, Zurer Pearson, Raising a bilingual child.
Tell us more about Ute’s International Lounge.
I started Ute's International Lounge in 2014 to help internationals, mainly multilingual families, get informed about what an international life entails with regards to cultures and languages. I offer them support with all their languages and cultures.
Children don't become bi- or multilingual or multicultural by magic, and raising a multilingual and multicultural child requires a lot of work, patience, and in my experience a plan.
We might be ready and excited for this journey, but this doesn't mean that we are prepared.
I help multilingual families to be prepared, informed about the best practices and strategies and to have plan B and C at hand, should plan A not work as expected.
Dr. Ute Limacher-Riebold has lived in several European countries. She holds a PhD in Philology and is a professional Language Consultant and Intercultural Communication Trainer. She is a linguist and multilingual herself, and raises her three children with multiple languages. Her expertise lies in linguistics and intercultural communication. In her consultations and person-tailored training, she helps and empowers her clients to embrace all their languages and cultures. She offers all her services online and offline in English, Dutch, French, German and Italian.
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