How to plan for a bilingual child? [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. In this first episode of Kletsheads in English, we talk about family language planning. So, all the things you need to think about when you’re raising your child bilingually, from before the birth to going to school and beyond. We hear from two brothers about what they think about being bilingual, and from a father of four about family life with four languages. On with the podcast. When I was pregnant with our first child, my husband and I were confronted with the question of what language we were going to use once the baby arrived. I’m a native speaker of English and a fluent speaker of Dutch. He’s a native speaker of Dutch and a fluent speaker of English. Even though we’re both linguists by profession, it took us some time to decide what we’d do. And the answer to this question was, perhaps surprisingly, not immediately clear. Many parents-to-be face difficult choices when it comes to which language they want to speak with their child. You can’t choose who you fall in love with, while arguably you do need to have at least one language in common to fall in love at all. The fact that you both have different native languages may not even be something you really think about until the question of having a family comes along. Expecting a baby is both an exciting and daunting time as well as the physical upheaval for the mum-to-be. There’s so much to decide: who will care for baby and when, which name will you choose? And then there’s the real challenge of deciding which of the hundreds of baby products on offer you actually really need. The question of which language you’re going to use is often not one that even gets asked. In this episode of Kletsheads, the first we’re releasing that’s completely in English, I talk to Eowyn Crisfield about how to tackle the sometimes difficult task of planning for a bilingual child. This is an episode which we’ve already released in Dutch, episode number nine, so if you’re one of our regular listeners, you’ll recognize the content. Eoywn is an expert in bilingual education and parenting. She’s originally from Canada, has lived in the Netherlands and recently moved to the UK with her husband and three trilingual children, where she now works as a lecturer at Oxford Brookes University, as well as running her own consultancy. Our conversation took place online. I started by asking her whether it really is necessary to start planning for your child’s bilingual future before they’ve even been born.

Eowyn Crisfield: If you have a complicated family language situation, the earlier you start planning, the better, essentially, because what you provide for your baby in those first six to twelve months are really, really seminal for their language development. And so, if there’s a language that’s important to you and you decide not to use it right away, you may be losing one of the best windows you have. Also, I think it’s good to think about it early just because it helps avoid some of the common problems that people run into along the way. If you know where you’re going, you’re less likely to end up needing help because something went wrong.

Sharon Unsworth: Yeah, and what do you mean by common problems?

Eowyn Crisfield: I think that, you know, parents underestimate how challenging it can be to raise a child bilingually. And so, they very often think, “Well, it’s just as easy if I just speak my language to my child, everything will be fine.” And very often it’s not fine. You know, there are issues with language balance, and how much input children get, and the associated status of the languages that help children decide if they want to use it or not.

Sharon Unsworth: Yeah.

Eowyn Crisfield: And even family issues, we always presume that the other parent will be on the same page as us and sometimes that’s just not the case. I met a family in the Netherlands, the mother was from Colombia and the father was from the Netherlands. And her Dutch in-laws were perfectly happy to have a Spanish-speaking daughter-in-law but were quite horrified at the idea of having Spanish-speaking grandchildren. And they never talked about it until after the children were born, and it became a really big issue.

Sharon Unsworth: So, talk about it as soon as you can basically.

Eowyn Crisfield: Talk about it. Talk about it, even better, before you’re married.

Sharon Unsworth: Okay, we’ll assume baby’s on the way or is even already here, I think, for this episode. So, I know that, in your work, you help families come up with a family language plan. What is that exactly, a family language plan?

Eowyn Crisfield: So, a family language plan starts with the idea that you need to set goals for languages to think about what you want your kids to be able to do with them and then to plan for that. So, you know, if you want your child to be able to go to university in a particular language that isn’t the language of schooling where you live, that takes quite a lot of time and effort to fit into fluency to that level. And so the goal-setting with, you know, with both parents, what are the languages in our family, what are our goals, is it a communicative goal or a literacy goal, helps you decide then how much input the children need in those languages, what kind of input they need. Do they need to learn to read and write? And if they do, and that doesn’t happen at school, how and when is that going to happen? And so, a family language plan is a flexible document, but essentially you start with what where we’d like to end up with our kids, and then you make sure that what you’re doing along the way has a good chance of getting you there. I mean, with lots of families who, you know, their children are 12 or 13 or 14 and have no literacy in one of their languages and they have to go back to their home country where that language is used, and that’s a really bad position to be in. And so, it’s kind of a forward thinking and then adjusting as you go, as your life changes.

Sharon Unsworth: You know, many of our listeners already have bilingual children. Is it too late to come up with their family language plan?

Eowyn Crisfield: I think it’s never too late to make a family language plan, but what you could end up planning for will be different the later you start. And so, trying to go back and fix things that have already been done is much more difficult than setting off on the path that you intend to to get to at the beginning.

Sharon Unsworth: Right. And presumably, this is really something, you know, that everybody should be talking about in the family, it’s not just the person who speaks the other language, as it were.

Eowyn Crisfield: No, certainly not. A family language plan is a collaborative document between both parents and both parents have to be aware of and having conversations with other people who are involved in their family language plan, and also with the children, who are also involved in the family language plan.

Sharon Unsworth: Right, so, as the kids get older than you should be talking to them about, like really talking about their bilingualism.

Eowyn Crisfield: Absolutely. And I said “get older,” I mean, by the time they’re two, you should be talking about it at an age-appropriate level. You know, the conversation will change as the children get older, but having that family language discussion going from the beginning means that the children aren’t taken by surprise.

Sharon Unsworth: How do you talk to a two-year-old about being bilingual?

Eowyn Crisfield: I think parents, I think, actually, parents tend to do that naturally already really well, when, you know, when the baby or the small child uses the word in the other parent’s language say, “Oh, that’s daddy’s word for cheese, what’s mommy’s word for cheese?” And that’s the beginning of you’re family language discussion. We tend to stop talking about it as they get older because we presume that they just know that they have two languages, or three, or four, and that that’s the reality. But the older they get, the more important it gets to engage them in conversations about why they have multiple languages and what’s the importance of them, and particularly why one parent speaks the other parent’s language, but not the reverse. You know, those kinds of situations, the more you talk about them, the less the children infer for themselves what they think is going on in their family.

Sharon Unsworth: If you speak another language than your partner and you want your child to grow up bilingually, then it’s important to talk about this as early as possible. Together with your partner, make a family language plan to think about what goals you have with your child’s languages, and what you and your child need to be able to achieve those goals. This family language plan is something that everyone in the family should work on, including the children as they get older. It’s also something dynamic, so things can and will change. More on this later.

Sharon Unsworth: Having a family language plan is, then, really one of the things that will help you raise bilingual children successfully. On your blog, which I love, by the way, “on raising bilingual children dot com”, we’ll put the link in the show notes. So you write there, one of the most popular workshops for parents is called “Raising Bilingual Children: Six Building Blocks for Success.” So maybe you can tell us a bit more about these building blocks.

Eowyn Crisfield: So, we’ve already talked about a couple of them in passing. The first is to know some theory and I think that that is something parents underestimate how much they might need to know about bilingualism to get there successfully. And you referenced it yourself as a linguist, married to another linguist, you aren’t even sure what you should do. And I think parents often go in thinking that intuition is enough, or that they’ll figure it out when they get there, or if they have a problem, they’ll decide, but the more you know about what you’re doing, the better you can make a plan. The second step is to set your goals for your children, and the third is to make your plan. And again, the plan is a dynamic document. You may not and probably will not stick with your first plan, but as your life changes, as your goals change, your plan has to change too. The fourth is to talk to your children, to have those family language conversations on an age-appropriate level, but ongoing. The fifth is to talk to other key people in your lives. I like to say that the parents are the architect of the family language plan, but there are lots of other people involved and help build our children’s bilingual ability. And they need to know what their job is. They need to know that, you know, for the grandparents, “please don’t use any English with them. You are the only Portuguese if they get,” or, you know, if you hire a babysitter and you want them to pass on the language, be clear with them, “This is part of your job.” And so those kinds of discussions are really important. And the sixth step is to know when to get help. And that’s really about if you understand the principles of bilingual development, you know that being bilingual doesn’t cause a speech and language delay and doesn’t cause special educational needs. So if you’re concerned about your child or if someone else is saying, “Oh, they’re delayed because they’re bilingual,” you need to know how to find the right professional help. You know, who will consider your child from a bilingual perspective rather than from a monolingual.

Sharon Unsworth: So to recap then, Eowyn’s six building blocks of success are: one, make sure you know something about the theory of bilingual language development. She explains in a minute what she means by this. It’s much less scary or complicated than it sounds. Number two: set goals for your children. Number three, make a plan. Four: talk to your children about this plan. And five: also talk to other key people in your child’s life, such as grandparents, teachers, or the babysitter. And six: know when you need help. Eowyn was just talking about how important it is to talk to someone if you think your child may have language problems, and that it’s important that this person also has a good understanding of bilingualism. If you want to know more about this topic, and you understand Dutch, then listen to episode four of Kletsheads, where we talk to speech and language therapist and researcher Mirjam Blumenthal about how to know when a bilingual child has a language impairment. Right now, it’s back to Eowyn.

Sharon Unsworth: I think some people might be a bit scared by the idea of knowing something about the “theory”. Can you say a bit more about what exactly you mean by that?

Eowyn Crisfield: I think that it’s just about, you know, knowing the basic principles, knowing that children can become successfully bilingual in all kinds of circumstances, knowing that being bilingual doesn’t cause children to start speaking later, that’s one of the biggest myths out there. And you don’t have to invest in a whole library of books about bilingualism. There’s a lot of good available information online. There’s a lot of bad available information online as well, so, if you’re looking online, you have to look at what the sources. There are some really good basic books. I always refer to Colin Baker’s “A Parents’ and Teachers’ Guide to Bilingualism,” because it’s question answer. You don’t have to commit to reading the whole book. Families never come to me because it’s going well. So I meet all the families who are looking for help because, you know, they’re not getting where they want to. A lot of the time it’s because somebody has given them bad information and bad advice, and they believed them. And so they did things that have led to an unsuccessful bilingual situation. It’s an unfortunate fact that paediatricians, child nurses, day-care workers, primary school teachers, speech and language therapists, none of them have standard training on bilingual development. And so parents need to have some conviction that what they’re doing is okay so that they don’t take somebody else’s bad advice and end up with children who aren’t linguistically where they want them to be.

Sharon Unsworth: Right. Know at least the basics.

Eowyn Crisfield: Know at least the basics. So when the ‘consultatiebureau’ says to you “Three languages is too many,” you can say, with conviction, actually, “No, it’s not, and this is why.”

Sharon Unsworth: Okay, so now we’re going to listen to our Kletshead van de week.


Kletshead of the Week

Sharon Unsworth: In every episode of Kletsheads, we talk to a bilingual child about what it’s like to grow up with two or more languages. In this episode, we have two Kletsheads of the week: brothers Quinn and Aiden.

Quinn: My name is Quinn. I am 11 years old and languages I speak are English and Dutch.

Sharon Unsworth: And what’s it like to have two languages in your head?

Quinn: Yeah, I don’t know how to explain it. It doesn’t feel confusing.

Sharon Unsworth: It does or it doesn’t?

Quinn: Does not.

Sharon Unsworth: Does not. Oh, that’s good. Because it would be horrible to be confused all the time, wouldn’t it?

Quinn: Yeah.

Sharon Unsworth: Yeah. And what do you what do you like about it being bilingual?

Quinn: Well, at school, the most assignments, you don’t need to make. And English, and when I go to America, I can speak the language there.

Sharon Unsworth: And do you go to America often?

Quinn: Once a year.

Sharon Unsworth: Are there things that are less nice about being bilingual? What’s the worst thing about it?

Quinn: No, not any things are bad, actually, everything is good.

Sharon Unsworth: That’s good to hear. And when you’re older, what languages do you think you’ll be able to speak?

Quinn: French, German, English, and Dutch, I think?

Sharon Unsworth: Would you like to learn other languages?

Quinn: No, but you learn a bit at the high school and at university, I think.

Sharon Unsworth: Do you think it’ll be easier to learn other languages because you already know two?

Quinn: I don’t think it would be easy, it helps.

Sharon Unsworth: What do you think will help?

Quinn: That I only need to learn two more languages then. And with English, I can do more homework then.

Sharon Unsworth: Aha. You’ll have more time left.

Quinn: Yeah.

Sharon Unsworth: Do you like it, speaking English, or do you sometimes find it a bit hard?

Quinn: Yes, sometimes it’s a bit hard, but, yeah, for the rest, doesn’t matter,

Sharon Unsworth: Doesn’t matter. What’s hard about it?

Quinn: Well, like, really sometimes I have that I mess a word up with Dutch and I said and then they don’t get me.

Sharon Unsworth: Aha, so can’t quite remember the right word.

Quinn: Yeah.

Sharon Unsworth: Yeah, I have that sometimes too. In Dutch, what would would you teach somebody? What’s a hard word to say in Dutch? Something with a g?

Quinn: Yeah.

Aiden: My name’s Aiden, I speak Dutch and English, and I’m eight years old.

Sharon Unsworth: And who do you speak English with?

Aiden: With my grandparents in America.

Sharon Unsworth: And how come you speak English?

Aiden: Because my mother told me because she’s American.

Sharon Unsworth: She’s American. So she speaks English to you?

Aiden: Yeah.

Sharon Unsworth: Yeah. And do you like being able to speak and understand English?

Aiden: Yeah.

Sharon Unsworth: What do you like about it?

Aiden: Because I like to speak other language than not only speak in Dutch.

Sharon Unsworth: What’s the best thing about being bilingual?

Aiden: It’s just fun.

Sharon Unsworth: Is there anything that you don’t like about it?

Aiden: No.

Sharon Unsworth: Nothing at all?

Aiden: No.

Sharon Unsworth: No. Do you think when you’re older, do you think you’ll have children?

Aiden: I think so.

Sharon Unsworth: Yeah. What language will you speak with them?

Aiden: I think English or Dutch.

Sharon Unsworth: Which one do you think?

Aiden: Dutch.

Sharon Unsworth: Dutch. Why?

Aiden: Because I don’t know or I’m going marry with an English woman.

Sharon Unsworth: You don’t know if you’re gonna marry an English woman? Yeah. It’s hard to know that already, right?

Aiden: Yeah.

Sharon Unsworth: Yeah. You’ve got two cats, right?

Aiden: Yeah.

Sharon Unsworth: What language do you speak to the cats?

Aiden: English and Dutch.

Sharon Unsworth: So they’re bilingual then.

Aiden: Yeah.

Sharon Unsworth: Do they speak any other languages?

Aiden: They are North Polian. And so they could speak Northpole?

Sharon Unsworth: Ah Nepalese. Ah ha. Very good.

Sharon Unsworth: It turns out that this is not what Aiden meant. I thought that his cats were some fancy breed and he was trying to say that they were from Nepal. His mom told me afterwards that the cats were in fact a gift from Santa. And so what he actually said was that they were from the North Pole and as such spoke North Polian. Now, I’m sure we can forgive Aiden for not knowing that the language is most likely referring to is called Sami. Hopefully, he can forgive me for getting my North Polian mixed up with my Nepalese.

Sharon Unsworth: Have you got a favourite word in English?

Aiden: Yes.

Sharon Unsworth: What is it?

Aiden: Appropriate.

Sharon Unsworth: Appropriate. That’s a complicated word. Why is that your favourite word?

Aiden: Because I like it. Because it’s a hard word.

Sharon Unsworth: It is a hard word, definitely is. Do you know what it means?

Aiden: Yeah, that you’re sort of nice.

Sharon Unsworth: Yeah. Like if you behave appropriately.

Aiden: Yeah.

Sharon Unsworth: And do you always behave appropriately.

Aiden: Not always.

Sharon Unsworth: Not always? Really? Oh.

Sharon Unsworth: We’ve spoken already, Eoywn, about your six building blocks for success, so how to raise a bilingual child more generally. Perhaps we can talk a bit more about advice you might give in particular situations that parents are faced with as they think about how they’re going to tackle this issue. For example, if you have one parent who speaks a language, let’s say, other than Dutch, say Spanish, the Dutch-speaking parent also speaks Spanish, but not as a native speaker. What would you recommend or do you always recommend sticking to your native language?

Eowyn Crisfield: No, not necessarily. I think that, actually, one of the kind of the biggest misleading bits of information on the Internet is that one parent one language or the OPOL approach is the best way for success.

Sharon Unsworth: Right.

Eowyn Crisfield: And so a family like that would automatically think, “Oh, well, one parent, one language, and our child will be bilingual, English, Dutch and Spanish.” But in fact, it’s really about the amount of input that children get in each of their languages. And so a child with a Dutch parent, going to Dutch “crèche,” a Dutch school, and having Dutch family, and living in the Netherlands, with one parent speaking Spanish, doesn’t have a very good chance of fully developing in Spanish. Whereas if the other parent commits to using Spanish as well, they’ll get a lot more input in Spanish. And so I think if the non-native speaking parent is comfortable with it, at least carving out certain times of day or certain days of the week when everybody uses the minority language together gives the children a much better chance for success.

Sharon Unsworth: Right. So that that’s actually what we decided to do in our family. So my husband decided, of his own accord, not everybody believes that, but of his own accord, he decided he would speak English to our children. He felt that he could do that quite comfortably. And I can really see that that has helped because they still speak English to each other. They enjoy speaking English. Sometimes when I tell people about this, I get a bit of a, you know, raised eyebrow, like, really, you’re having a non-native speaker speak in their language to the child where, you know, when you talk to non-native speakers of Dutch, we often say as experts, “Don’t speak Dutch to your children if you’re not a non-native speaker.”

Eowyn Crisfield: It’s not about the native non-native paradigm. It’s about comfort and fluency, and it’s also about the situation. So if you are comfortable, like, I spoke to my kids of French. I’m not a native French speaker, but I happen to be a fluent French speaker, and I really wanted them to have that. But I needed to be sure that, you know, my French was comfortable enough to do that and that it does take quite a high level to be able to to have a conversation with a two-year-old in a language that you’re not native in is fine to have a conversation with a nine-year-old is different and with a sixteen-year-old. And so you have to think about, you know, as your kids grow up, is your level of language going to be able to meet them? The other issue with not telling parents to speak Dutch to their kids, for example, in the Netherlands, is because very often that advice is given as a way to prioritize Dutch and to sideline a minority language. And so it’s also about, again, always, always goes back to input. If you speaking Dutch with your children means they don’t get enough input in English, then that’s not the right thing to do. Your husband speaking English to your kids does not mean they’re not going to get enough input in Dutch, so it’s a fine thing to do. And so it’s more complex than just the native speaker non-native speaker question. It’s also always back to “Are they going to get enough input to meet the goals that you set for them? And how are you going to get there?”


Let’s Klets!

Sharon Unsworth: In this part of the podcast, we hear from a parent or professional about their experiences with bilingual children. We start with the inspiring story of Desu, father of four multilingual children with four different languages in the mix. Sound complicated? After listening to Desu, you’ll think it’s the most natural thing in the world. Our conversation was recorded at the Kletskoppen Taalfestival here in Nijmegen, hence the background noise.

Desu: I am Desu. I was born in Ethiopia.

Sharon Unsworth: Yeah

Desu: And I came to the Netherlands 13 years ago to study.

Sharon Unsworth: And I see you’ve got a little boy or a girl in your lap.

Desu: A boy.

Sharon Unsworth: A boy. And which language do you speak to your little boy?

Desu: I speak to him in Amharic. This is my mother tongue.

Sharon Unsworth: Yeah.

Desu: From Ethiopia.

Sharon Unsworth: Yeah.

Desu: And his mum speaks to him in Italian.

Sharon Unsworth: In Italian.

Desu: Yeah. She is half Italian and half Croatian.

Sharon Unsworth: Oh wow.

Desu: Yeah.

Sharon Unsworth: So he hears Italian from her, Amharic from you.

Desu: Yes.

Sharon Unsworth: And which language do you speak to each other?

Desu: We speak English to each other.

Sharon Unsworth: Right.

Desu: And he has two brothers, half brothers.

Sharon Unsworth: Yeah.

Desu: They speak also Dutch.

Sharon Unsworth: Okay.

Desu: So they speak to him in Dutch. One of them speaks to him in Dutch, the other one speaks to him in Italian, and he hears us also talking in English. So he’s exposed to four languages.

Sharon Unsworth: To four languages.

Desu: Yes.

Sharon Unsworth: And how old is he? Because he’s quite young, right?

Desu: He’s two years and four months. Yes, it’s amazing. He can switch quickly when he speaks to me, he uses my mother tongue.

Sharon Unsworth: Yeah.

Desu: And when he speaks to Nelly, Italian, with his brothers Dutch or Italian depending on the situation.

Sharon Unsworth: How does that feel for you to see that?

Desu: I’m amazed.

Sharon Unsworth: Yeah. Surprised?

Desu: Yeah. And I’m happy.

Sharon Unsworth: Yeah. I can imagine.

Desu: He’s exposed to, you know, to a number of languages, not only languages but also cultures.

Sharon Unsworth: Yeah. So you see, so for you, it’s not just being able to speak the language, it’s also the culture as well.

Desu: Yes. Yes, yeah.

Sharon Unsworth: Yeah. What kind of things do you think about when you think about exposing them to their culture?

Desu: Yeah, for me, especially with Nelly, we decided to speak our own mother tongue to the children, because we understood getting emotionally connected is most important, more than teaching them, you know, the grammar or the vocabulary of the language. So that was essential. Then we speak to them our mother tongues.

Sharon Unsworth: Yeah, and do you understand Italian?

Desu: Yes, I do.

Sharon Unsworth: And so does your partner understand Amharic?

Desu: A bit, yes.

Sharon Unsworth: Okay, so do you ever find that problem, because a lot of parents ask me about this situation, right, where they don’t necessarily understand each other’s language that well, and they’re worried that somebody will feel left out. Is that something that you experience?

Desu: I think it’s your expectation. So first we understood we have very diverse backgrounds and we cannot pick up everything at the time. And we were open enough to learn and we and we understood also it takes time.

Sharon Unsworth: Right.

Desu: And I don’t really speak Italian, but now I understand what the conversation is about.

Sharon Unsworth: Right.

Desu: And Nelly is also picking up very fast, she’s much better in languages than me.

Sharon Unsworth: So, it’s kind of part of the deal.

Desu: Yes, yes.

Sharon Unsworth: And what do you worry about for your children in terms of the languages, is there anything that worries you about them being multilingual?

Desu: No, it’s an opportunity. Yeah, they will understand the culture and the perspective of different societies.

Sharon Unsworth: Yeah.

Desu: I think that’s a blessing.

Sharon Unsworth: Yeah, I agree completely. And what do you hope for them? When he’s 20, what languages does he speak?

Desu: I don’t know. Maybe I am, my feeling is I don’t care about that much because it is his choice.

Sharon Unsworth: Yeah.

Desu: But I think he will have a big heart and he will have the understanding of many cultures, many people, perspectives. And I think he will serve as a bridge for society.

Sharon Unsworth: Brilliant. Thank you ever so much, it’s been a lovely conversation to have with you.

Sharon Unsworth: In a situation like the one described here by Desu, both parents speak different languages with the children and a third language amongst themselves, often English. This kind of situation is much more common than you might think. I asked Eowyn what advice she gives parents in such cases.

Eowyn Crisfield: I’ve worked with many, many, many, many families like that, especially in the Netherlands. It tends to be the most common paradigm of bilingual families in the expat community, certainly. And there is not one right answer. Some families feel very strongly that they need to have a common language between the parents and with the children. And so they will prioritize English even when the kids are young, even though it’s not a part of the family background. Other parents are happier to accept these kind of dynamic, multilingual conversations when the kids are young, where the dad speaks in Russian to them and they say something to the mom in Portuguese and the mom says something back in Portuguese, and then the mom says something to them in English, and that can work, and it does work if the family is comfortable with it. And so it’s really, again, about goal setting. What do you want for each of your languages is kind of ballpark. How much input is going to be required to get there? And is there space then for introducing English in other ways? And so a lot of times, you know, the expat families in the Netherlands who are like that would choose for English language “crèche” or play school because that was a way for their child to get English and still have the input in each of the parental languages. And so, again, it’s about the planning aspect. It’s not just the parents. You have other times in the day when the kids are with other people who can be tasked to develop a third language or a fourth that doesn’t that impinge on the parents using their own languages at home.

Sharon Unsworth: So you talk about raising bilingual children is both a gift and a responsibility. What do you mean by that?

Eowyn Crisfield: Well, I think that, you know, for any child, the ability to have two, two or three or four languages from a young age is really beneficial on many levels. We know that it’s beneficial linguistically. We know that there’s a growing body of research has beneficial socially, the research the jury’s out on cognitively. But there are lots of reasons why it’s good or better for children to be raised with more than one language. But it’s a responsibility to get it right because I have met, over my time doing this, families with children who didn’t have a language that they could use properly, simply because the planning hadn’t happened, and the parents have jumped around between languages and countries so much that the child never had a chance to develop fully in any language. And so those are children who are kind of academically compromised. And so I think that the responsibility of the parents is if you’ve made the decision to raise your child bilingually, either, like you did, by accidentally marrying someone who speaks another language or by putting them in another language schooling, that your responsibility is to do your best to get it right.

Sharon Unsworth: Right. And you’ve been doing this for many years now, right? So I think about fifteen years or so working with many different organizations, schools, families all around the world. Would you say that the advice you’ve given has changed over the years?

Eowyn Crisfield: Definitely. Definitely. I mean, certainly very early on, we were still quite convinced about the cognitive benefits of being bilingual, and that was always a big selling point for the parents, “Ah, you know, my child, their executive function will be better or their decision-making ability will be better.” And I think there’s been a recent renewal of interest in other aspects of the cognitive benefits debate that shows us that, actually, we don’t know those things for sure. And so in parent sessions now, I don’t even really mention them except to say, “If you’re hoping to make your child smarter, that’s probably not the case.” And so that’s changed. I think my advice about language mixing has changed. I think we’ve come from a position where we used to say, “You should only ever speak your language with your child or it will confuse them,” to realizing that actually, it’s not confusing for children to hear more than one language from the same person. And I think even way back in the beyond, when I was first doing this, there used to be kind of a common understanding that bilingual children, you know, commonly started to talk later than monolingual children. And we know now that that’s not the case. And so, as, you know, as a researcher, I think that it’s up to me to make sure that I’m keeping up with research in the field to make sure that the advice that I give people is to the best of our knowledge right now and not based on something that I read 10 years ago.

Sharon Unsworth: Right, exactly. And also at the same time, acknowledging that as science progresses, then what we know about bilingualism changes. And so our advice might change.

Eowyn Crisfield: Absolutely right. Definitely.

Sharon Unsworth: I’ve got one last question for you. So as a parent, do you always follow the advice that you give others?

Eowyn Crisfield: No, and I talk about this in my parent sessions as well. And I think one of the reasons that that session is as popular as it is, is because it’s my knowledge as a researcher, but also my understanding as somebody who’s been trying for 17 years to raise three children with three languages. And what I’ve learned along the way. You know, I wasn’t consistent enough with my twins when they were little in French simply because everybody around them was speaking Dutch or English. And, well, when you have twins, you’re not consistent with much.

Sharon Unsworth: I can imagine.

Eowyn Crisfield: And so, you know, they didn’t get enough of that early input, I think, to feel as comfortable with the language as my older daughter did. A lot of the things that I tell parents to do are what is best practice, tempered by what I know about is reality in multilingual families and the complexities that come with that.

Sharon Unsworth: Right. Is there anything that you wish you’d done differently?

Eowyn Crisfield: Oh boy. I do wish I’d been more consistent in my use of French with my twins. They struggle with me using French with them now just because it’s not as natural for them. And so if I could turn the clock back and pay more attention to that, I probably would. But at the time, with so much going on with three young kids and no family and nobody else speaking French around, it was a fairly easy thing to let go of. And we also made different educational decisions for them. My older daughter went to the French school almost to the end of primary. And so she is also, you know, beautifully balanced for what that means, bilingual. But the school that they were at, I knew would not be a good fit for my twins educationally. And so I moved them to an English language school after three years in French. It was the right choice for them in terms of so many other things. And so I think sometimes as parents, we need to recognize that our children’s bilingualism isn’t the only thing that we’re planning for. It’s one of the things. And that if there’s a conflict between their well-being and their languages, we need to look at that critically and make the right decision for the child rather than for our own personal aspirations for them in terms of language.

Sharon Unsworth: If you want to know more about Kletsheads, go to kletsheads podcast 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 app. 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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