by Semiha Sözeri
We are a family of three living in the Netherlands.
I am originally from Bulgaria and I belong to the Turkish minority there. I grew up bilingual: speaking Bulgarian and Turkish equally well. When I was born, my parents spoke primarily Turkish to me. I started learning Bulgarian at the kindergarten when I was 2 years old. Both of my parents were teachers in primary schools located in areas with high percentage of Turkish minority population. They were experienced in supporting majority language acquisition without attrition of the minority language. In this respect, they spoke both in Turkish and in Bulgarian with me and my brother in order to maintain both languages simultaneously. Their only rule was never to mix the languages within the same sentence. I think I have adopted a great deal of their approach to me in the linguistic education of my own son, whom I raise trilingually in Turkish, Dutch and English and expose to the fourth language - Bulgarian.
However, in our case we had more than two languages which we needed to teach our son. My husband is Turkish from Turkey. Significant part of our education was in English: we started learning English in secondary school, then our bachelor and master’s degrees were completely taught in English. Right now, we have many international friends. Thus, even before our son was born we knew that he will be exposed to multiple languages.
We knew it was possible for a child to learn up to four languages simultaneously and the literature on the subject was indicating that as long as the parents are consistent in their approach, the exposure to more languages would only be beneficial.
When my son was born, my husband was working full-time and I was lucky enough to be working part-time from home. The first language I started speaking with him was Turkish, but from the very beginning I exposed him to English and Dutch nursery rhymes, books and videos as well. Our child started going to Dutch daycare two days a week when he was 18 months old. In the meantime, we were attending English speaking playgroups in The Hague. This way we made sure he gets sufficient exposure to Turkish, Dutch and English.
When we read a book, I always ask him in which language he would like to hear it and I translate accordingly. When we learn the name of a new object, we try to name it in all of the languages we use making clear that things have different names in the different languages. Same goes for counting as well.
Now that my son is 2 years and 11 months, he has the same level of proficiency in Turkish and English with Dutch lagging somewhat behind these two. Nevertheless, he speaks in whole sentences in all three of them and I hope that going to a Dutch school will help him a lot. Neither I, nor my husband is a native speaker of Dutch and we started learning the language only after we settled in the Netherlands 5 years ago.
Also, I must admit that although Bulgarian is one of my native languages, I was a bit reluctant to introduce it. There are a number of reasons behind this decision. First of all, during my early childhood the Bulgarian state has banned speaking Turkish in public as a part of the assimilationist policy of the communist state. Because of this I had developed an idea of the Bulgarian state as an oppressor of its minorities and my ethnic identity as Turkish had a major place in my development. Therefore, it did not come natural to me to start speaking Bulgarian to my child after he was born.
Nevertheless, I do want to teach him Bulgarian as well, but I would prefer to wait until the other languages are established. Besides, we have no one else who speaks Bulgarian around us: I would be the only person who speaks Bulgarian to him. So, I opted for my mother tongue Turkish together with Dutch (the majority language) and English (the language of the playgroup) and decided to postpone Bulgarian for a later stage.
Luckily, I see that he shows interest in learning different languages (when we speak Turkish, for example, he is asking me “What do we call this in Dutch (or English)?”). This encouraged me to expose him to Bulgarian nursery rhymes as well. For now, Bulgarian is lagging very much behind the others but I am happy that he recognizes it and I believe that spending time in Bulgaria during the summer holidays, for example, will be beneficial for his learning.
I notice that many parents are worried when they encounter situations which do not allow them to strictly follow One Language – One Parent or Minority Language at Home – Majority in Public methods. So far, in our experience few languages can be successfully absorbed by a child even when the same care-taker is exposing the child to more than one language. I just would like to underline that this should not be interpreted as mixing the languages. We are very careful not to mix words from different languages within the same sentence and we always try to make it clear for the child when we switch from one language to another.
I am glad that the multilingual approach we have adopted has worked well for us so far. I do realize that it will become more challenging to sustain the minority languages once our son starts Dutch school. However, since I went to a majority school myself and managed to sustain my minority mother tongue skills at a native level, I am not very worried about it. I know that language maintenance through time requires the conscious effort of the family and the child himself.
According to me every family can have different linguistic needs based on their cultural heritage and current circumstances. I know of single mothers successfully raising bilingual kids and homeschooling families who are the sole teachers of their children for all languages and subjects taught in a regular school. In this respect, I don’t think that there is one-fit-all formula when it comes to language teaching. Instead, I believe in adapting the existing methods to the unique needs of each family.
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