The 21st of February was the International Mother Language Day. This date was proclaimed by UNESCO in 2099 and its purpose is to promote linguistic and cultural diversity as well as multilingualism. I realize this article is coming than I promised, but as I try to keep my promises, although a ‘bit late’, I still wanted to write about this topic which is close to my heart. There are thousand mother tongues in the world counting official languages and local dialects. Languages make up an important part of our lives. They are the way in which communicate with others, express our feelings, thoughts opinions, and most importantly we get to know the culture. Through language we give heritage. By speaking a country’s language you get into the skin of the culture, you get to understand why people feel and behave in a certain way and get a feeling of self belonging and closeness to the country.

This is one of the reasons why I consider it is so important to learn the language of the country where you live or the language of your parents if you come from a mixed marriage couple and do not live in your family country. As I mentioned in a previous article, some years ago when I came to Poland I made the personal commitment to learn Polish and thankfully I succeeded. Similarly, 5 years ago when my daughter was born, I also made the personal commitment that I would teach her my mother tongue – Spanish.

When children are small, they do not realize the advantages and importance of learning a foreign language. They do not see it as necessary as they are not living in the country where the language is spoken. However, learning your parent’s language has the advantage that it allows you to communicate with your family. As you grow older it will allow you to spend long summer’s at your parents home country, make friends there, and do the things you want without requiring anybody’s translation.

An obvious added advantage of learning your parent’s language is that in today’s world it is close to impossible to get a job unless you speak minimum one foreign language. In the case of bilingual children they really do not need to study it as they have simply learned naturally at home! However, that is an advantage that our children will only realize once they turn into teenagers or adults. Once job opportunities start knocking at their doors or they realize how nice it is to travel and understand everything without the need of a translator – they will thank you for being so stubborn and forcing them to use your mother language at home!

It is up to us as parent’s to ‘fight’ the challenges of leaving in a foreign country and teach our children our home language. I assure you that the local language they will learn any way because it is what they hear at school, t.v., etc. I know a lot of couples from different backgrounds, mixed marriages living in the country of one of them or a third one, or marriages of the same country living in a foreign one. You have no idea how sad it is for their children to go back to their family countries and not be able to speak with their relatives. On the other hand, it is a pleasure and a reason for proud to travel with your children to your home country and listen to them speak your native language.

In my particular case, my daughter was born in Warsaw and at home I speak Spanish with her. Sometimes the conversation goes smoothly and it is 100% in Spanish, but at times it takes an ‘unexpected turn’ and my daughter, although she perfectly understands what I am saying, starts replying in Polish. If that happens to you, do not panic! ;) It is often normal that bilingual children do this when they know that the parent speaks the local language. Children are very smart and at a very young age they do not appreciate having to make efforts of any kind.

One important thing to consider is that all children are different and although there are no golden rules, it could happen that bilingual children start speaking a bit later than their peers. Bilingual children could start mixing up languages and say sentences half in one language and half in the other. Again, no need to worry, this is normal. As they get older they will start distinguishing between one language and the other and speak both normally.

From my experience, some recommendations I can give are:

a) Be consequent, if you have made the commitment that you want your children to speak your native language, use it with them in and outside home. Avoid switching to the local language unless it is really necessary.
b) Explain your children in simple words the future advantages of learning your native language.
c) Buy them music, films, and books in your language.
d) Try to get them involved in activities or meetings with other children locally who also speak your language. That will make them realize that they are not the only ones in such situation! ;)

For all of you in a similar situation to mine, I hope you find this article useful. Even if you are not in a multicultural relationship and you want your children to start speaking a foreign at a very early age, I am sure some of the above tips will be good for you as well. Feel free to provide your feedback and comments and share some of your experience.

Alma Jenkins