What It’s Like Raising Bilingual Kids | From A Mother’s Experience

It wasn’t something we planned to do. I wasn’t even thinking about the word bilingual and the whole concept of ‘bilingualism’. It just happened. My husband is an Austrian, so he speaks German. And I’m a Malaysian, brought up speaking English at home. And if you do not know about Malaysia, we are a melting pot of various races and therefore, we speak different languages. With that being said, we understand each other very well and even able to speak each other’s language. As for me, I speak English, Malay, Chinese (very basic), and of course German as I’m currently living in Austria.

Before I move on, I just want to say that I’m not a speech and language pathologist, neither am I a therapist or a teacher. I’ve studied International Business and Music which has nothing to do with speech or language whatsoever. Was running a family business in the paper/printing industry and had to let go because I moved to Austria. Thus, all my writings and inputs are through my 10 years of experience raising my own kids with no external help (well of course, with my husband): BILINGUAL.

Being first time parents with a newborn was challenging. My parents flew over to help for a month, which was of great help. I was a happy new mother but at the same time, I was tired and stressed. Imagine trying to explain to your husband why we did the things we do as a postpartum Asian mother. While trying to balance the mixed cultures, I didn’t think of taking care of myself.

Fortunately, there are mum packages out there to help new mothers going through postpartum period easier. It’ll make a great gift for new mums and trust me, she’ll appreciate you for it!

Without sidetracking any further, as a new mother with a newborn, I was too exhausted to even think about dealing with the whole concept of bilingual. Actually, I didn’t think about it at all. We spoke to our girl in the language we’re most comfortable with, i.e. my husband in German, me in English. When the time came for her to start talking and buildling sentences, it was like playing the guessing game. Was she speaking in German or English or both in a sentence as some words sounds the same in both languages but mean different things.

Then I started mixing with other mothers (with a few know-it-all women), who’d told me that if we spoke two languages at the same time, she might talk slower compared to other toddlers. Also, adding that she might get all confused, because she can’t differentiate between the two languages. Being a first-time mother back then, and living in a foreign country with no one to talk or turn to, you had no idea how concerned I was. But if you want my answer now? TOTALLY NOT TRUE!

Was there a speech delay in my children?

NO. My 9 year old didn’t have any delays at all. And looking at my current 2 year old now, she’s a chatter-box. It’s important to note that some children speak earlier than expected while others could be later regardless of whether they’re bilingual or monolingual. And the vocabulary of bilingual children may be lesser than average, which I’ve seen with my own children. But according to research, the combined size of vocabulary from both languages is the same as monolingual children. So, I wouldn’t worry so much about it.

The phrase ‘Children are like Sponges’ is true. They absorb information very fast. It astounds me to watch my 2 year old talks in both languages simultaneously and picking up new vocabulary everyday. She even picks up Mandarin words from my 9 year old just by hearing it from outside the classroom.

Was there a confusion between the two languages?

At the age of 1, my kids understood what we were saying (in English and German) and could follow instructions. Then around 1.8 – 2 years, they started to build up their vocabulary and talking in sentences, but in mixed languages. The funny thing was (or is), they could give me a direct translation of those words when we weren’t sure if they were speaking in German or English.

For example, when my 2 year old tells me something and I couldn’t really catch what she says due to pronunciation, she’ll switch on to ‘dictionary mode’ and would go like – “Dog! Hund!“, “Geld! Money!” or “Gelb! Yellow!“. It still amazes me how my kids process languages and how they can differentiate the two languages. Whether the separation process was a gradual one or was it in the beginning (as a baby), is still a mystery to me.

So, my answer is NO. Bilingualism DO NOT cause confusion. Neither do learning three languages at once. They just develop their learning abilities differently.

Another note to add, I came across the OPOL (One Person, One Language) method in one of my readings. And little did I know, it was what we’ve been doing since the beginning with our first born. Anyway, the OPOL method is used to differentiate between the two languages. It basically means each parent speaks a different language to the child, preferably their dominant language to avoid confusion.

My child mixes languages in a sentence, is this normal?

I don’t see any harm in this. Where I come from (Malaysia), we speak 2-4 languages in a sentence, usually with family and friends. And I believe there’s no place in the world you can find people putting 4 languages in a sentence and it’s still adequately correct . A very famous example would be, “Eh macha (Tamil), you want to (English) makan (Malay) here or (English) dapao (Chinese)?” With all that said, we do know how to speak correctly and properly (grammatically) when we have to.

My eldest daughter was mixing languages around around the ages 2-4. And my first worry was, “How is she going to communicate with the other kids in kindergarten?” I was trying my best to correct her all the time whenever she starts code-switching. Making sure she either speaks only English or German in a sentence. Somehow, one way or another, she managed to tackle the task of just speaking one language with her friends. Now, in her 3rd year of school, she’s very versatile in both languages. She does put in German words in an English sentence at home and vice versa, because we, as a family does it. However, she’ll know how to stick to just one language whenever she’s out the house, speaking to other people.

So in my opinion, mixing two languages together is nothing to worry about and is not a sign of confusion at all. It’s a very common stage in a child’s language development and it will pass. I’d also like to add that social environment do influence a child to speak only in one language, take my eldest daughter as an example as she went through kindergarten. That’s just how they learn. And sometimes, we just mix languages for fun because it sounds nicer and funkier. 🙂

Here are a few sentences my 2 year old has said and thought of sharing with you all the funny side of raising bilingual kids.

  • Nicht funny, mummy! (Not funny, mummy!)
  • Nicht touch me! (Don’t touch me!)
  • Hello! Ich bin Enya. Goodbye! (Hello! I am Enya. Goodbye!)
  • Brot touch Enya’s nose. (Bread touch Enya’s nose.)

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