Living as a Multilingual Family

by | Jun 20, 2022 | IBBYLink Autumn 2021

A question-and-answer session: Ferelith Hardon and Teresa Scibor

How does living as a multilingual family work?
Teresa Scibor has plenty of experience and I talked to her about this. I wanted to know had she grown up in a multilingual family herself.

I was born here. My parents were both Polish and they settled here after the Second World War and we spoke Polish at home. I was educated in the UK.

However, multilingualism in her family goes further back. She tells me that her father was born in Poland, his parents then went to the Ukraine, he had a French governess and Russian was the language outside the home. Apparently he caused concern by not speaking until suddenly at the age of four he did – in all three languages. Teresa felt this has given her a greater understanding of what goes on in children’s brains in multilingual situations and she is very interested in the latest thinking and research in this area.

Has she has ever regretted being multilingual?
‘Not at all. It was a very natural experience’ – but she did lead two separate lives. She is very clear that a multilingual background has been an enrichment. But she is aware that there does come a moment that if one is very much surrounded by a monolingual society one can lose certain vocabulary. She can easily make everyday conversation in Polish – but a more philosophical or political debate might be a challenge.

You have to be disciplined if you want to have a multilingual family and make a conscious decision about it.

This decision was easy for her and her husband. But it does not have be limited to two languages; she knows from experience you can have as many languages as are represented by those in the family. She and her husband also speak fluent French and would sometimes speak French to each other – and this led to the children being very keen to learn French to know what their parents were saying – and now they and their partners have a whole raft of languages.

Language should be a game and should happen from the cradle. It is an investment and like a plant that needs nurturing.

For her this means the discipline she mentioned earlier – it should be clear who speaks which language. She tells how her grandson at 17 months to whom she speaks Polish suddenly heard her speaking English.

His head turned and he was watching my mouth. They have the face of the person who is speaking that language, and that is it.

Children make a very definite distinction between speakers and their language. Nor will they lose their ability to speak and understand and do not need to be constantly reminded of vocabulary – ‘It is like riding a bicycle’. The main challenge is really not mixing the languages – half a sentence in one, half in another.

What other challenges did she experience in bringing up a multilingual family?
The attitude among teachers and others that the child needs to speak English only was certainly one, also the belief that very young children cannot be exposed to another language in a playful way. The message being that it will confuse the children. This message she feels is, at last, changing.

Joys and successes?
Her children are passing on their languages to their children – so now they have three generations of a multilingual family. Their lives are enriched, there is the ability to communicate widely (she remembers the pleasure of being able to talk to the Polish workmen who came into the house when they had a building project) and the children have a recognition of other languages and cultures.

Should we should introduce different languages in school?
She agrees that it is such a shame that language teaching has been cut. She would like to see a training course for teachers to enable them to become familiar with other languages and a way they could be taught in the earliest years – she used a process of play with her own children. Children at an early age don’t want to know the mechanics, they just want to ‘drive the car’.

Creating a multi-lingual family is not easy – to be successful in bringing up children bilingually one needs huge amounts of patience and discipline and ideally daily practice of the language. There is no room for ‘sloppiness’ or laziness. It is a real commitment but the rewards are great in the end.

Her family is proof of their commitment.

Teresa Scibor. Brought up bilingually and fluent in four languages; pioneer in introducing French to young children; founder of the Scibor Method (cornerstone of Le Club Tricolore); teacher, author, composer of songs, advisor/lecturer to teachers and parents on bilingualism and early years teaching – and parent.