Parent to Parent: “Multilingualism Fosters Greater Understanding and Acceptance of Other Cultures”

by multilingualmania on September 26, 2011

in bilingual parenting, Parent to Parent

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Cordelia Newlin de Rojas is a multilingual mama who is raising her child trilingually in English, Spanish and French. She is the author of the blog Multilingual Mama as well as a frequent contributor to Inculture Parent magazine.

Tell us a little bit about yourself and your family. Are you multilingual?
My husband and I have two little girls aged three and one. We were living in Brooklyn but shortly before the birth of our second daughter, a tanking economy and a questionable quality of life propelled us with packed bags and a nearly fully-cooked baby over to Singapore.

My husband is Mexican and had lived in various parts of Mexico for most of his life. He grew up in a monolingual household but his mother was keenly aware that to help her sons succeed in life, they would need good English and so even though she only speaks Spanish, she forced them to take extracurricular English classes. Javier admits that he tried to quit on numerous occasions but she never gave in and in the end this has benefited them both from Javier’s scholarship to an international masters program in The Netherlands to his brother’s work opportunities in the US. They are grateful for her determination and persistence.

I am Franco-American – born in New York to a French mother who shipped me over to France every summer. My mother was also brought up in a primarily monolingual household but like so many people around the world, she acquired both English and Spanish as a young adult. It never crossed her mind not to bring me up speaking French. I was extremely fortunate to attend an international school for a large part of my schooling so for me, multilingualism is the norm and I thought it was odd that my American friends only spoke English.

How are you raising trilingual children?
Well any which way we can! I’d love to say we have this all mapped out and sticking to a particular approach but the truth is that it is rather chaotic, filled with good intentions and bad habits, a fly by the seat of our pants journey. We did start out thinking we would follow the OPOL (one parent, one language) method and initially did pretty well with that but then ALL sorts of ugly monsters (read social situations and parental anxieties) got in the way. In the end I think we are following a mutation of OPOL where we try as much as possible to each speak one language with them but there is a lot of permutations depending on the situation.

Why is it important to you that you raise your children to be multilingual? Why is multilingualism important to you?
I think the key reason we want to raise our kids trilingual is so they can communicate with their extended families and understand their cultural heritage. I can’t imagine taking them to see their grandparents in Mexico and not be able to communicate to them. To me that is a tragedy. This was really reinforced when my brother (who speaks English, French, Spanish, Italian and Guarani!) had children and was pressured out of speaking French to his son by their pediatrician. I found it so sad at family gatherings that they couldn’t understand what was going on when we spoke with their grandmother or when I spoke to my daughter. On a personal level, my multilingualism is such an important part of who I am, I can’t imagine not sharing that with my girls. On a deeper level, I think multilingualism fosters greater understanding and acceptance of other cultures and people and in an ever-shrinking crowded world, that can only be a good thing.

What challenges have you faced as a parent who is raising trilingual children?

The challenges seem never-ending and I could harp on endlessly about them but in a bid to focus, I think for us the hardest part is trying to get the girls enough exposure to all the languages. This has been a HUGE challenge – especially since we moved to Singapore. Fortunately, since we’ve been here, I’ve been home having a baby and was able to find some freelance work I can do from home as well so I am just about able to keep enough French spoken and heard in the house.

Sadly Spanish has taken a tremendous hit and we have yet to resolve this. My husband works very long hours and now gets very little time with the girls. When he does see them, it is really hard for him to stick to speaking Spanish, especially to P our eldest who is so entrenched in English. I’ve observed this downward spiral where, since she doesn’t hear much Spanish, she seems not to understand her father who then compensates by speaking English to her which means she understands less Spanish, and so on.

Getting our hands on affordable resources like books, DVDs when you are on the other side of the world isn’t easy nor is tracking down the right aged playmates, etc. Here we are desperate to get her to speak Spanish when instead, she comes home singing in Mandarin because she is actually exposed to more Mandarin than her Papa’s language.

What have been your greatest successes or celebrations in raising multilingual children?
For me, my greatest success was taking our girls to France for the first time this summer. Even though we didn’t hit the tipping point I’d hoped where our eldest would suddenly start speaking French, it was clear that she understood everything that was going on and I was able to watch her communicate with all my uncles and aunts, my cousins and their children. She never seemed frustrated by an inability to understand what others were saying even if she didn’t generally answer back in French. In a funny twist, my French family’s bilingualism meant that she didn’t actually have to try and speak French for the most part so you have a case of one group’s bilingualism impeding her’s. Ironic. Still I felt that she was really comfortable among her extended family – she was one of them engaging with everyone instead of being the outsider who can only guess at what is going on.

What tips or suggestions do you have for other parents who are raising multilingual children or would like to raise multilingual children in the future?
My tips to other parents is don’t give up. It is often hard work and incredibly frustrating. More than once I’ve wondered why – when raising kids is already exhausting and challenging would I add this on myself but it is definitely worth it in the end. Don’t obsess too much and yes that is so much easier said than done, I should know! Just do your best and in the end your kids will thank you irrespective of how much or little they end up mastering the other languages. This early exposure is an investment and later on they will then have the choice of what they want to do with it – an AWESOME (in the true sense of the word) gift.

Bio: Born in New York back when subway graffiti was rife, Cordelia Newlin de Rojas mostly spends her time pondering, parenting, writing and managing. Franco-American, she spent her summers in the Loire indulging in heart-arresting foods. An eclectic background ranging from Japanese art and postal history to environmental social innovations and rigging dinghies has taken her to England, Turkey and now Singapore where she resides with her Mexican husband and their two daughters. They are attempting to raise trilingual kids in Spanish, French and English with some Mandarin thrown in. She documents her journey raising her kids on her blog Multilingual Mama and is also a regular contributor at Inculture Parent, a new online magazine for parents raising little global citizens.

Parent to Parent is a weekly interview series that features parents who are raising bilingual children. If you would like to participate in the interview series and share your experiences with other parents, please contact us at multilingualmania(at)yahoo(dot)com.

More Parent to Parent Interviews:
It’s About Much More Than Bilingualism
The Brain Changes When Exposed to Another Language

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{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Jen September 27, 2011 at 12:01 am

What a wonderful interview!! I can really relate, it is si much about fly by the seat of our pants in out house, as much as I want to carefully orchestrate everything.

I wonder how it is when they are in pulic in Singapore speaking French or Spanish. In my experience in Asia, western faces = English and I know westerner speakers of other languages can sometimes confound the locals.

Natia September 27, 2011 at 9:43 am

Great interview! I am bi lingual myself, but since my husband is a native speaker of a third langauge, a tri lingual situation might very well be a reality for me when I have kids, so this was both useful and inspirational for me!

Sarah @ Baby Bilingual October 6, 2011 at 12:01 pm

Sounds so challenging–yet so rewarding! I hope that things can evolve such that your husband is able to share more Spanish with the girls. How lucky they are!

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