Books about bilingual children [Transcript]

January 14, 2022

Sharon Unsworth: Welcome to Kletsheads, the podcast about bilingual children. My name is Sharon Unsworth, linguist at Radboud University in Nijmegen, the Netherlands, and mother of two bilingual children. It’s almost time for the holidays, and for many of us, this means giving presents to friends and family. Whilst kids toys typically drift in and out of fashion with a different type hitting the shops every year, the good old-fashioned book is a present that remains a staple for many. When it comes to books on bilingual children, there are quite a few options available, and so it can sometimes be difficult to know which one is the right choice for you. So if you’re thinking about treating yourself or someone you know to a book about raising bilingual children, or you’re just curious to hear what some of the options are, keep listening, because in this special episode of Kletsheads, we’re going to review three recently published books on exactly this topic. Now, because Kletsheads is about combining scientific insights with practical experience, I’m joined by a panel of experts made up of parents and researchers. We have two parents, Mari Varsányi and Christine Taylor, both living here in the Netherlands, and fellow language scientist Cécile De Cat from the University of Leeds in the UK. She, too, is not only a language scientist but is also a parent raising a child bilingually. Let’s first hear a bit more about our three guests.

Cécile De Cat: Hi, I’m Cecile De Cat. I’m a professor of linguistics at the University of Leeds in the UK. I’m very interested in bilingualism and in particular in individual differences between children. I am a mother of a bilingual child who is 11. I’m Belgian, so yeah, I’m a late bilingual.

Christine Taylor: So my name is Christine Taylor. I am originally American. I live in Nijmegen in the Netherlands now and I have two children. They’re 8 and 12 years old and they are bilingual, English and Dutch. I speak exclusively English with my kids with the exception of a six-month period when we lived in the States. When I spoke Dutch with my youngest, he was two at the time and we wanted to make sure he wouldn’t lose the Dutch but for the rest of their lives, except for the one year for the oldest we’ve lived here. They go to a Dutch school and their English is, from this mother’s opinion, pretty much at level with them where they would be if we were back in the States. They both read at grade level and they make all the grammar mistakes, but they’re doing okay. I’m also the daughter of a Taiwanese mother who didn’t teach me Chinese. So that is my drive to make sure my kids speak English as well as possible.

Mari Varsányi: My name is Mari Varsányi, I live in the Netherlands. I’ve been living here for ten years, but I was born in Hungary, so my first language is Hungarian. I’m an educational consultant working in the field of intercultural and inclusive education, but I’m primarily here as a mother now as a mother of a trilingual child. So at home, we speak Hungarian and Hebrew to my child. I speak Hungarian, and my husband speaks Hebrew and we speak a mix of Hebrew and English among ourselves. But my child goes to daycare, so he’s exposed to Dutch, which is his third language.

Sharon Unsworth: So there are three guests who’ll be reviewing the books alongside me. We’ll talk about strengths and weaknesses, whether the books achieved what they set out to and whether they’re suitable for their intended audience. And we’ll each end up giving the book a final rating from one to five stars. The interviews took place online, which means the sound quality differs here and there, and I’m afraid the Internet gremlins interfered in Cecile’s recording. But don’t worry, you can still hear what our panellists each have to say loud and clear. The three books we’re going to review are “Bilingual Children: A Guide for Parents” by Jürgen Meisel, “Maximize Your Child’s Bilingual Ability” by Adam Beck. And a book especially about raising trilingual children so children learning three or more languages, “Raising Multilingual Children” by Julia Festman, Greg Poarch and Jean-Marc Dewaele. We start with the book by Jürgen Meisel, “Bilingual Children: A Guide for Parents”. It’s published by Cambridge University Press. It came out last year, so 2019. And it’s 259 pages long. In paperback, it’s currently retailing at 21 dollars – that’s US dollars, 25 euros and 17 pounds sterling. The book is organised into eight chapters. The first two are introductory, so they provide some background, some basic information about children acquiring language. The remaining six each deal with a different issue or problem, such as keeping languages apart, language dominance, and the age question. Each chapter has the same format. First, there’s an introduction to the problem, along with a brief summary of the answer to that problem. Second, Meisel delves into more details about the relevant research results. Then comes some guidelines for parents based on those research results, and the chapter finishes up with some recommendations for further reading. In his introduction, the author writes that his goal is to offer information that can resolve controversies and inform parents about the possibilities and limits of child bilingualism. His intended audience are parents in search of more detailed information that you can perhaps find on an Internet page. Jürgen Meisel is one of the founding figures of research on child bilingualism and was for years chair of the Research Centre into Bilingualism at Hamburg University in Germany. Since his retirement there, he continues to work from the University of Calgary in Canada. So that’s what the book’s about. I started by asking Cecille, our scientist on the panel, what she thought of this book.

Bilingual Children: A Guide for Parents by Jürgen Meisel

Cécile De Cat: Well, I think it does exactly what it says on the tin. So it is exactly a book that’s going to address controversies, bringing the scientific evidence. I mean, for the keen reader, I must say, I think it’s quite an effort to understand everything and yeah, it provides robust evidence to inform the why that is behind the advice that can be given to parents. It’s very comprehensive, it goes into a lot of depth. So for the parent who really wants to have detailed answers to their questions, it’s a really good place to go. It summarises a lot of research. It’s nicely written. So it’s a friendly style, I would say. But it takes some effort, as I was saying earlier, I think, to try to come to grips with quite a lot of terminology. So in terms of the strong points, so the depth of the coverage, I think it’s all the relevant questions, all the things that people might want to ask about; but how does it work, and why does it work like that, and where are the potential risks, and what can I do? But all that based on the research evidence.

Sharon Unsworth: So you said there’s quite a lot of jargon in there. I think I would agree with that. Obviously, you come at it from a professional basis, but if you put your parenting hat on, imagine you weren’t a professor of linguistics, how do you think you would find it then? Do you think it’s accessible enough for a keen parent?

Cécile De Cat: Well, that’s what I was asking myself throughout the book, thinking, “would I understand this?” But I was really wondering, would somebody find this too much of a hurdle? I was thinking this would be a really good book to use at a university course. So because it would be a really friendly read compared to more arduous ones on the university reading list, and of great interest to the students, because a lot of them will be bilingual or aspiring to have bilingual children. But, you know, it’s got that level of academic ‘oomph’ about it.

Sharon Unsworth: So I like that, academic ‘oomph’. Have you got any other strengths or weaknesses that you wanted to tell us about?

Cécile De Cat: So something that, maybe depending on how you look at it, could be a strength or a weakness, I really liked the reference to particular articles or book chapters or books for further reading, but I didn’t – I thought I was going to check that before talking to you, and in the end, I didn’t – but I wanted to check how much of that is behind a paywall. So how much of it is really accessible? What would be fab would be to have some kind of online resource as the sister to the book where some open access versions of these papers were made available because they probably exist out there. That’s a problem for our field more than for the book

Sharon Unsworth: Anything else?

Cécile De Cat: Well, from a researcher point of view, I can see that, you know, once you present scientific evidence, you can either decide to present the point of view that you are convinced of, and that’s, I think, the case of Jürgen Meisel here. Or you try to be impartial, and you say, well, there’s a theory that says this and a theory that says that. So that’s not his style. He goes for what he believes in and he presents that with all the strength of argumentation that we know he’s capable of. It’s debatable whether it is indeed the best position in some cases, but perhaps it doesn’t matter so much. So, you know, when he talks about the language acquisition device, I mean, he gives it another name, but basically, it’s that, the human language making capacity. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that particular position, but it is a position.

Sharon Unsworth: Yeah. And that’s maybe not made as clear as it could have been.

Cécile De Cat: And same perhaps for his stance on the critical period. So he believes that there is a certain critical threshold and that language is acquired kind of differently before or after that. And so that’s got some implications for, you know, how you support your child’s bilingualism before or after that period. So maybe it’s, you know, in this particular case, it might be a bit too much alarmist to think, I mean, he doesn’t put it in an alarmist way at all here, but you might think, “Oh, you know, there is critical period, maybe I’ve missed it,” but it’s not so black and white that there is one, there’s so many interacting, complicating factors

Sharon Unsworth: It’s messy. So you started by saying he does what it says on the tin. So the book achieved its goal then?

Cécile De Cat: Yes, I very much think so. But I would like to ask a parent what they thought of the terminology. So if it was considered to be fine, then I would say absolutely it did achieve its goal.

Sharon Unsworth: We’ll hear from a parent. And so what’s your final assessment?

Cécile De Cat: So for informativity, I would give it five stars and for comprehensiveness, I would give it five stars. I think I would give it three and a half for accessibility because of the combined issue of the paywall and the terminology. But again, you know, it will depend from reader to reader. But I really enjoyed the book. So, yeah, positive.

Sharon Unsworth: So on the whole, Cécile was pretty positive about this book, though she did raise concerns about the fact that it does contain quite some jargon and this might make it hard to read for someone without any background in linguistics. This is the case for Christine, one of the two parents in our panel. Let’s hear what she thought.

Christine Taylor: I have to say that I got into reading it and I found it fairly unreadable, which I felt bad about. I wanted to read it and enjoy it and learn things. But it was so complex that I could not stay awake for it. And I can see that there’s great research in it. And there are, you know, the standards are in there and they can be found in there. But for someone who is just kind of reading through to see what could I do at home, it was fairly overwhelming on the scientific end. And, you know, I dutifully kind of read very carefully through the first about a third of it. And I found things in it that were really interesting. I was particularly interested in the way that he talks about the science behind why children mix languages, because as a mother I watch it happen and I have a bit of an idea of why, so it was interesting to read the science behind it, but I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone who wants to ask me, “Christine, how can I make my kids bilingual?” But in terms of strength, I think a lot of the questions that if you have children who are growing up bilingual, the things that are happening that are weird or might seem a little bit scary, he explains in detail what’s actually going on in terms of language development. And if, you know, I have really pressed forward with the mentality of I will just keep hammering on and we will be fine. I’m not going to worry about the details too much, but I, you know, I know parents who worry about the details, and this could be very satisfying for them to figure out, “Okay, the grammar is there. They’re making grammatical choices when they substitute with different languages, it’s code-switching.” To have that kind of understanding of it can be extremely reassuring because you know things aren’t going off the rails. It’s okay, it’s part of the process. And it’s also reassuring in a different way than, you know, a mommy blog telling you, like, don’t worry about it, it’ll be okay. So if that was a level of reassurance you needed, this would be a perfect resource for you.

Sharon Unsworth: Yeah, the organisation, as I said at the start, each chapter, is designed to include after the summary of relevant research some guidelines for parents. Did you pick any of those out?

Christine Taylor: It didn’t feel like there were so many of them in there, just looking at the section “two languages in one mind, differentiating the systems,” and he talks about one person, one language, and that kind of goes to what you can do. But again, this is very much about the research that has been done on this particular approach, as opposed to “We’ve done all the research, and what you need to worry about is this.” There’s a bit of direct advice, but it’s maybe three or four pages out of the chapter, which it runs to more like 15 or 20 pages.

Sharon Unsworth: Yeah. Yeah.

Christine Taylor: So that’s the balance in the book as well. I also enjoyed how his reading suggestions were, at least for the first three or four chapters, were basically like his articles. They’re good, he’s an expert.

Sharon Unsworth: Yeah. So do you think it achieved its intended goal then, the book?

Christine Taylor: If the goal is to be a guide for parents? Only if we narrow that down to say this is a guide for parents who are very interested in linguistics or a guide for parents or interested in the science behind their children’s learning,

Sharon Unsworth: So in terms of suitability, you really have to have a very keen interest in the science, the research, and probably some understanding of the basics of linguistics?

Christine Taylor: Yes, if you don’t have some kind of mastery of even the terminology of linguistics, it becomes a challenge to go back and check what words mean so that you can follow what he’s talking about. I just think of like nursing mothers trying to read this and just go “Ooh,” because that’s when you read that’s when you’re crazy about trying to get your kids sorted, when they’re toddlers, and you’re trying to mash all their food and feed them and feed yourself. And if someone gave you this book, you would just be completely lost. You wouldn’t know what to do with yourself.

Sharon Unsworth: Okay, so readable with quite some effort, shall we say that. So what would your final assessment be? You’ve got five stars, max.

Christine Taylor: Given the way it’s described, I would have to give it a one star because it doesn’t even come close in my mind to being a practical book for parents of bilingual children.

Sharon Unsworth: So not exactly a ringing endorsement there from Christine, but it wasn’t all bad. What did I think of the book? Well, I think it will be a suitable read for much of Meisel’s target audience, so parents in search of more detailed information and less superficial treatments of the issues at hand, than you can find on many an Internet page. But for many, if not most, it won’t always be easy going. There is just simply a lot of terminology in there. Now, to a certain extent, this is perhaps unavoidable when you want to talk about a particular topic in great detail. But I’m not sure that all of it’s necessary, and I think, as I said, it does make it a harder read than it perhaps could have been. There are, however, concrete examples throughout the book, and these can help the reader relate theory to real life. As Cécile said, Meisel also presents a very specific view on bilingual language development, and some might say that in places it’s a rather one-sided view. On the whole, I think I’d give this book three stars out of five. It’s worth taking the time to read as a detailed review of the scientific literature if that’s what you’re interested in and you’re willing to make the effort. But I think for most parents, even highly educated ones, there’s really too much jargon in there. If practical tips are what you’re looking for, then you can better turn to our second book.

Maximize Your Child’s Bilingual Ability by Adam Beck

Sharon Unsworth: Our second book is by Adam Beck, and it’s called “Maximize Your Child’s Bilingual Ability, Ideas and Inspiration for Even Greater Success and Joy Raising bilingual kids.” It’s self-published by Bilingual Adventures, came out in 2016, and it has 283 pages. It’s currently retailing at 15 U.S. dollars, 14 euros and 11 pounds sterling. Now the book starts with a brief introduction about the book and how to use it with some background on the author’s family, who feature quite heavily throughout. And it’s divided into two parts. Part one is about perspectives or ways of thinking about raising bilingual children, and part two is about principles or ways of acting when raising bilingual children. Each part consists of 30 short chapters, usually just a couple of pages long, ending with a quick takeaway summarising the perspective or principal in question. And at the end of the book, there’s a list of questions readers can use to help reflect on the key content. The author’s goal is to help prepare and inspire parents to maximise their children’s bilingual or multilingual ability to the most effective and enjoyable degree they can. The intended audience, then, are parents looking for practical tips that work. Adam Back is a writer and a teacher and he is the founder of the popular blog Bilingual Monkeys and the associated forum, The Bilingual Zoo. He is originally from the US and has lived in Japan for many years, where he’s raising two bilingual children with his Japanese wife. Let’s hear what our scientist on the panel thought. Here’s Cécile again.

Cécile De Cat: There’s a lot of things I enjoyed about it, and there’s a few things that I thought, “Oh, come on, tell me something.” You know, it’s this very entertaining, it’s very, very friendly, super accessible. So the aim here is not to explain why things should be done one way or another, or at least a little bit. He does, but it’s more about, you know, get motivated and work hard at making your children bilingual. So I found the first half of the book – I kind of ran through it because there was a lot of things that were anecdotal and not even necessarily about language. So, you know, the first part, the part on perspective, was really just, you know, motivational and what kind of mindset you need. So, you know, with the idea of every little counts and the earlier and the more you act, the better the results are. That is uncontroversial. But basically, the first half of the book is some general mantras I felt. And I thought it wasn’t telling me that much, but also quite a lot of what was in the first part is repeated in a more useful way in the second part. I think it would have been a stronger book if it had been just the second half. I mean, that’s my personal view. And the second half, there’s more precise advice. I really liked his pragmatic approach to what the scientific evidence seems to be telling us, like, you know, for instance, how much exposure is enough. I quite like that. So he quotes the research from Pearson like that, says that seems to suggest about 30 per cent. But then his take on it is, “Well, that’s a ballpark. You do what you can.” I thought that was nice. It’s well-informed and it’s got this practical take. It is a really positive spirit in the book. It’s really informative and useful, but I think it puts a lot of pressure on the parent. You know, the kind of message that I was getting as a kind of little voice at the back of my head is that if your child isn’t as bilingual as you were hoping, it’s your fault. And it’s not it’s not at all what he wants to convey. You know, you can tell he’s a very positive, he must be fun to be around kind of guy. But, you know, I was thinking, wow, I wouldn’t have the energy to do all the things, all the headspace, you know, besides a busy job to think of all the activities to try to support the child’s bilingualism. So for me, that was a little bit of a danger zone that the book was approaching. But, you know, I mean, he tempers that really nicely in many, many places by saying that what matters most is love, and fun, and well-being. So he does keep saying that and he does keep saying, you know, you should adjust your aims if it’s not quite working out for you, because the main thing is to be happy. So I did like that. But nonetheless, you know. Yeah, I mean, he ends with this quote of how strong is your spirit, really? And I was thinking “Ah.”

Sharon Unsworth: Yeah. If you were already feeling inadequate. It could make you feel, yes, a lot more inadequate.

Cécile De Cat: Yeah, yeah, and it’s not his intention. You can really tell, but, you know, it’s a bit like the kind of social media effect where, you know, people present these super happy magazine-type pictures of themselves. And, you know, the reality, I mean, it seems to be a bit unattainable. An issue that kept coming back to me when I was reading is that this is a very literacy-focused approach to enriching the environment, the language environment of the child, and, of course, anything with books, I like that. But I thought, you know, there’s quite a lot of languages that don’t have a written version. And I mean, you might say that then perhaps those parents might not read this book, but I don’t want to believe so. I’ll tell you a side of things to address that point. So I was very lucky to hear a plenary address by a poet called Kate Clanchy. She was talking to an association of teachers of English as an additional language in the UK. And what she was saying is that a lot of the pupils who have come her way, who came from immigrant backgrounds and so had parents who were not literate but were nonetheless really highly literate in the sense of oral literacy. And she talked about a particular child whose mother knew an infinite number of poems and would, you know, enrich the day with those constantly. And this child, you know, was kind of a natural poet. He was really attuned to language in a beautiful way. So, yes, to a language written by environment and the literacy-rich environment, but not just with books. You don’t need to have five hundred books, as he suggests in your house, to have a, you know, a literary rich environment for your child. You can do that with word games and oral stories and, you know, all sorts of imaginative ways of using language. That’s one thing that I thought was important to say. And then another one was that, you know, so I’m very interested in individual differences. And I think that children come with strengths and challenges and that for some children, it might be more challenging to speak back to you in the minority language. So in the case of my child, that’s very much what I experienced at the beginning. When he was little, I was 100 per cent confident he would be a balanced bilingual because I was going to do X, Y and Z. I mean, I didn’t do all the X, Y and Z, that are in this book, maybe that’s why. But it just wasn’t his thing. It was excessive pressure for me to insist that he would answer back, you know, so he’s one of these bilingual that you might consider a bit passive, that he will answer more in the majority language, but he can read in the minority language. So it’s, I mean, as he says in the book, you know, if you need to see what you consider to be success and I would say you really need to take, you know, the child’s desires and challenges into account when setting your targets. And I thought that could have been emphasised a bit more in the book.

Sharon Unsworth: Right. Right. Yeah. More of the child’s perspective.

Cécile De Cat: But otherwise, you know, it’s really full of tips. And I agree with what he says. You know, that the core condition is lots of really good exposure. And then to foster a need for using that language in the child, I thought it was really good that it was emphasised. He did a really nice job of it. And it’s full of ideas. Very pleasant to read, and so I would really recommend this book if somebody said, what can I read? I want to bring up my child bilingually, I would recommend the book.

Sharon Unsworth: So if you’re going to give it a final assessment then.

Cécile De Cat: Well I would give it a five for the, you know, the fun and how inviting it is. And, you know, it’s really a place to look for solutions that are useful and well-motivated. So five for that. I think, you know, three, for maybe being a bit too waffly, so it should have been a shorter book, really, more concentrated, it would have been a little gem. Yeah. And then also the pressure that you might put on yourself. I thought that was a bit of a difficult aspect but, yeah, altogether a really high score as well. So all together maybe four stars, or four and a bit.

Sharon Unsworth: So another positive review from Cécile and, as we’ll hear, one which this time is shared by our parent reviewer, Christine.

Christine Taylor: It was a fun read, it was very, very quick to get through, and this is the book I would definitely give to the nursing mom, be like just, you know, you read three chapters, you can read three chapters the next day, and the information will pile up for you and that’ll be fine.

Sharon Unsworth: Yeah, yeah. It’s kind of a dipping-in-dipping-out kind of book.

Christine Taylor: Absolutely. Yeah. Yeah.

Sharon Unsworth: So that’s one of the strengths. What else was good about it?

Christine Taylor: Actually, one of the main things that’s really nice in the beginning, which is “Principles,” is when he talks about being clear about what you’re trying to achieve for your bilingual child. Not everyone is going to want their child to be university-level skills and in both languages or all four languages, whatever is going on in your home. And I think it’s really good to be clear that he also says any kind of language your child is acquiring is good. It doesn’t have to be perfect. You need to keep in mind what you’re able to achieve. I feel like that’s really generous for parents who are trying to accomplish a lot and can put a lot of pressure on themselves. And it’s nice that he gives people permission to do what works for them. I also really like the practical suggestions he gives in the second part about things they can do. And in fact, we have after reading it, I realised I will follow his system. He’s been giving his children daily homework since they could grasp a crayon. That’s a bit intense for my house, but I did like the idea of setting your children to writing a little more often. And my kids don’t have great writing skills because they don’t have to write in English. So the spelling is very creative still.

Sharon Unsworth: Yeah, mine too.

Sharon Unsworth: My children’s, not mine!

Christine Taylor: Mine occasionally, but we, you know, we don’t talk about it too much. But after reading it and given that we’re in Corona, I thought, you know, why not just have the kids sit down once a week and write a letter to a friend or a relative and they can do a draft. And I can help them with the language and spelling, and they can write a nice letter and they can send a letter and maybe we’ll start getting letters and out of the house and it would be nice for all of us. So, in fact, it was inspiring to read about ways that you can incorporate more language in everyday use. I have to say, Adam Beck’s commitment to keeping language going and production language, particularly in his family, is far beyond anything I would manage. But if you look at what he’s doing as a buffet and pick the things that work for you, it’s great.

Sharon Unsworth: Yeah. So I think yeah. So treat it as a whole host of ideas. You don’t have to do all of them. Yeah, yes, yeah. Pick, pick and choose. So that’s lots of good things about the book. Were there any particular weaknesses?

Christine Taylor: Pretty much all the examples come from his own family. I would have really enjoyed hearing stories of other families as well because there are so many different situations people are in. And I think that as you go through, there could be a moment when you think, okay, but my situation isn’t exactly the same as yours. How could I manage it? How do other people manage it? So it would be nice if he decided to do a second version to include some examples from other families as well to see what’s going on there.

Sharon Unsworth: Right. So a bit less focused on his own particular situation, which is, I think, in many ways, particular. Right. I mean, we both have English as the minority language. Yeah, I know English always has a special status. And, you know, he also works from home mostly. So I mean, most of us are working from home or many of us are working from home at the present time. But and in normal life, that’s not the case. And he’s obviously, as you said, incredibly dedicated.

Christine Taylor: He’s also an English language teacher. And if you’re teaching ESL, you know how to pick up a poem and turn it into six exercises for your kids. And the average parent picks up a poem and goes, look, poetry, and that’s okay, too.

Sharon Unsworth: So any other strengths, weaknesses that you want to mention?

Christine Taylor: I found it a bit repetitive. So a lot of the same things were coming back over and over. I think there could be some editing happening there. And I found it very focused on parent effort, as in “These are all the things you should set up for your children.” And it would have been really interesting to hear a perspective on how you can respond to what you’re seeing, your children are interested in or what they need. He talked about it a bit in terms of finding books for your kids and needing to provide lots of variation, maybe more specific, getting into details there would have been interesting for me. That might have more to do with my situation at home than his writing.

Sharon Unsworth: So did the book achieve its intended goal then?

Christine Taylor: Yeah, I think it really did. I mean, ideas and inspiration. Apparently, I’ve been inspired to have my children write letters at home, so that’s pretty good.

Sharon Unsworth: It is jam-packed full with practical things to do.

Christine Taylor: If you come away and you haven’t read an idea that you haven’t tried yet, then you probably didn’t read all the pages. He’s really got a thousand things he’s trying.

Sharon Unsworth: So final assessment. How many stars are you going to give this one?

Christine Taylor: I would give him four stars and he’s losing one for writing. I would definitely recommend it. And it is the book I would give to the nursing mom because you can dip in and out. For busy parents, it’s great because you could read four pages and run off and do something else and have gotten something out of it.

Sharon Unsworth: So what did I think of this one? On the one hand, I think it’s a very realistic book, making clear that bilingualism doesn’t just happen like that. It can take quite some effort on the part of the parents, and it often does. At the same time, some of the tips in there, like reading to your children every morning at breakfast, are, quite frankly, completely unrealistic for many parents, myself included. And I think some readers might find themselves feeling a bit inadequate. I know that I have that sometimes. But, you know, as both of our reviewers said, there is so much in there that everyone is bound to find something that they want to try out. There’s not much detail on the research side of things, and the selection of scientific sources that are used are rather limited, and to be honest, not always the most obvious choices. So as a language scientist, I did miss some of the detail and at times nuance. On the whole, though, I think it’s a great book for any parent wanting practical tips about how to stimulate their child’s bilingualism. But you do have to like the authors very personal writing style and be selective in which of his suggestions you’ll try out yourself. So it’s four stars from me. Our final book focuses on children growing up with three or more languages, there is some mention of this in Beck’s book and there’s even a whole chapter on the topic in Meisel’s book, but this last book really takes multilingualism as its focus. Now, this one was reviewed by Mari from a parent perspective. Remember, she’s raising a child with three languages and by me from the researcher’s perspective.

Raising Multilingual Children by Julia Festman, Greg Poarch & Jean-Marc Deweale

Sharon Unsworth: Our final book is called “Raising Multilingual Children”, and it’s written by Julia Festman, Greg Poarch and Jean-Marc Dewaele, is published by Multilingual Matters, came out in 2017 and it’s a short one, just 83 pages long. It currently retails at 15 U.S. dollars, 12 euros and 10 pounds sterling. The book is divided into five chapters. The first gives us 10 good reasons for raising a child with more than one language before entering school. The second details the author’s personal stories of their own multilingual children. In the third chapter, we get some background information about how children learn languages and some suggestions to ensure success. The fourth has more detail on family language policy, and the fifth and final chapter gives lots of practical tips and suggestions about how you can deal with worries and problems that you might encounter. The author’s goal is to share information and experiences about acquiring three languages at the same time. Information that’s based on scientific research, but focusing more on the issues rather than being overly scientific such that it’s more accessible. The intended public than our parents from a wide range of educational levels. Julia Festman is professor of multilingualism at the Pedagögische Hochschule Tirol in Austria. Greg Poarch got his PhD here at the Radboud University in 2013 and now works at the University of Groningen. And Jean-Marc Dewaele is Professor of Applied Linguistics and Multilingualism at Birkbeck College in London. They’re all experts in multilingualism. I started by asking Mari what she thought of the book.

Mari Varsányi: Well, I have to say, I was disappointed. I was expecting more. Overall, I found that the book was slightly disorganised and I found it quite anecdotal.

Sharon Unsworth: So disappointing in what way? What are you what would you have liked to have seen?

Mari Varsányi: I think I was looking for something a little bit more robust, so really more theoretical, by offering a theoretical background, giving some scientific back-up for what it’s claiming. And I think I was looking for more organised content to really start with the insights, the broader views on multilingualism, the kinds of multilingual settings that you might encounter, the family patterns, and then moving on to practical ideas and tips. And I think that the large personal anecdotal section of the book really distracted from that.

Sharon Unsworth: Right. Right. So I imagine that the intention was to give you an insight into different families so that you could identify with them. But that’s that didn’t work for you then?

Mari Varsányi: No, not quite. I think they could have done it in a different way. They could have offered the same insights and the same profiles of the families in different ways. And especially the first family was described at length. And at some point, I started wondering how relevant what I was reading was actually for the topic, since it became rather a personal description of this child that they have raised, you know, at some point that that became rather boring. I was reading about somebody’s family instead of reading about their insights on multilingualism. So I found it quite irrelevant.

Sharon Unsworth: So you’re not terribly impressed with the book? Were there any strong points?

Mari Varsányi: Well, I do. I do think they bring about a couple of good points, such as multilingualism having so many different forms. And I do think that they clearly bring across the message of all forms of multilingualism being valuable. And so they do give parents the advice not to be stressed about it and to choose whatever works for their setting. And I think that that’s a very reassuring message and an important message to hear.

Sharon Unsworth: Yeah, yeah. If I understand correctly, you’re not convinced that they reach their intended goal or am I putting words into your mouth?

Mari Varsányi: No, you’re not. No, I am not convinced. I do think that their aim was to really offer a well-structured sort of guide for families. And I don’t think that this is that book. And I started reading it, reading the introduction. I was quite excited. I said, oh, now I’m going to get the book. As an educator, I have been exposed to theory and then to ideas on multilingualism. So, I mean, I already had some foundations. So I think that’s one target group that could benefit from this book, is these families that really have not yet heard about multilingualism and that are not familiar with any sort of multilingual approaches. And I do think that they could benefit from this book. But I feel that if you do have any kind of foundation and if you are familiar to some extent, with multilingualism, then this book is not going to give you too many new insights or tips. One more thing that’s been bugging me, and that is that I felt that sometimes they made claims which I as a parent and also as a professional would disagree with. So, for example, somewhere in the introduction section, they mentioned that multilingualism is an effortless process for the child. And we know that not to be true. They kind of duplicated this idea about children being sponges that just soak up the languages. And we know that children actually need to make a conscious effort also or conscious unconscious to switch between their languages and to practice all of their languages, so sometimes I felt like they made it seem like multilingualism was too easy.

Sharon Unsworth: My understanding was they were trying to reassure parents that it’s perfectly within the capabilities of a child to acquire more than one language. It’s not the case with every additional language. It costs that amount more effort, right? I think right. I suspect that was what they were trying to say.

Mari Varsányi: That could be anything and that I can absolutely agree with. But the message did not come across very clearly.

Sharon Unsworth: What would you give them as your final evaluation?

Mari Varsányi: I would give them two out of five. And that is partly due to the anecdotal nature and partly to the slightly disorganised last section.

Sharon Unsworth: Though Mari was pretty disappointed with this book, it didn’t meet her own needs. But as she said, it might be more useful for parents without any background, without any background knowledge of the topic. What did I think? I thought it was written in a very accessible style and it was very positive. And there were lots of concrete tips and suggestions, especially in the last chapter. And I’m sure that these will be of use to many parents. The book is also very short. So in that sense, it’s also an easy option if you don’t have much time. But I think the book is really let down by its structure. The level of detail varies drastically across chapters. There’s quite a lot of repetition throughout and basically, I think it could have done with some rigorous editing. It’s clear that the book is informed by research. After all, the authors are researchers themselves. But given that they didn’t want to be over-scientific, there’s not much explicit reference to the research side of things. And I think that’s probably good given the intended audience. The focus, though, when they do talk about research is very much on what happens at the level of words. And there’s very little about how multilingual children acquire and use the grammar of the language or its sounds. I also sometimes wondered which theory of language acquisition the authors were adopting. Parents were often described as though they were adopting the role of teachers, and the authors often referred to research on teaching second languages. I’m not saying that this is irrelevant, but I’m not convinced that having parents play the role of a teacher is always necessary or desirable or even achievable. So I’m going to give this book three stars. On the plus side, it’s an easy book to read, and many of the examples taken from the author’s own family lives will no doubt reassure many readers and give them some concrete tips to use in their own situations. On the downside, though, there are too many personal anecdotes for my taste, and the inconsistent structure means that it’s not as user-friendly as it could have been.

Sharon Unsworth: So there we have it. Three books on raising bilingual children reviewed by a panel of parents and language scientists. My thanks to Cécile, Christine and Mari for taking part in this episode. Of course, as reviewers, we each come to these books from our own personal and professional experiences, and that may be different from yours. I do hope, though, that you now have a better idea about which of these three books might be a good choice for you or for someone you know. You can find the details of all three books, as well as suggestions for a few others in the show notes. We’ll be back in the new year with more episodes answering questions such as: how do you know if a bilingual child has a language delay, and is language mixing a cause for concern? If you want to know more about Kletsheads, go to kletsheadspodcast dot org. That’s where you’ll also find more information about this episode. And if you want to make sure you don’t miss an episode, subscribe to Kletsheads using your favourite podcast. Make sure you select the English edition. And if you’ve enjoyed the show, why not share it with a friend? Thanks for listening. And as we say in Dutch: tot het volgende keer!

This transcript was generated using and was checked by Marieke van den Akker.

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